Photo credit: Chris Teale
I was in seventh grade the first time my mom asked me if I wanted to skip school to go to the mall. We were stopped at a light in her beat up Ford Escort and I was already late to first period when she looked over and said, “Would you rather just come to work with me?”
“Yes,” I said. I was afraid that if I sounded too excited she would realize how weird this was and change her mind.
“You don’t have any tests or anything?”
My mom took a drag of her Kool and put on her turn signal, driving away from Hammond Middle School and toward Landmark Mall.
Landmark Mall wasn’t the nice mall. Its main draw was convenience. It had all the staples—Claire’s, Hecht’s, and Panda Express—but if you wanted something fancy from Nordstrom’s or J.Crew you had to drive another 10 minutes to Pentagon City. We lived in Alexandria, Virginia a suburb a few miles outside of D.C. It’s primarily known for its downtown area, Old Town, a quaint collection of antique stores, expensive restaurants, and colonial-era brownstones situated on the Potomac River. In 1946, Old Town was established as the third historic district in the United States. James Carville lives in Old Town, and growing up, most of the adults I knew worked for the government in some capacity.
I lived on the other side of the city, the West side, near the Total Wine and Beverage, the Dairy Queen, and the mall where my mom worked. Far from being embarrassed that my mother worked in retail, I thought it was cool. This was the ’90s. The local mall was the nexus of not only my social life, but of my life in general. It was where I went with my dad when we needed to get back to school clothes or birthday presents for my friends. When I was really little my parents took me trick-or-treating from store to store at Halloween, and my elementary school chorus had our annual Christmas concerts next to the big fountain in the center.
My mom worked at the San Francisco Music Box Company, a chain store that was not exclusively located in San Francisco, but did exclusively sell music boxes. She started as a saleswoman and by the time I was in middle school she had worked her way up to manager. Compared to my friends’ parents who worked in the State Department or in senators’ offices, my mom’s job was not impressive. She struggled to get by on her hourly pay as a saleswoman, and later on the meager salary she received as a manager. For the first few years she worked at the mall she took cabs every day because she couldn’t afford a car. She developed bunions from being on her feet all day that became so bad she eventually needed surgery to file them down, and her hands were always chapped and covered in small cuts from handling money. She was proud of her job though and took it seriously.
My mom didn’t have a college degree. She had gone for a semester or two before dropping out and moving back home with her mother. Her father died of a heart attack when she was 16 and the stress of going to school had been more than she could handle. In the years after, she battled alcoholism and depression, finally getting sober after I was born and her marriage with my father fell apart over her drinking. Her job at the music box store was one of the first ones she got after getting sober and going through her divorce. Joan Didion opens her essay “On the Mall,” with the observation that “they float on the landscape like pyramids to the boom years:” Landmark Mall stood as a testament to the “boom years” not only of the country’s economy, but also of my mother’s life.
As a kid, I didn’t know any of this. I just knew she worked hard and seemed to love her job. She liked to tell me about how shy she used to be and how she quit the first job she ever had, working at a drive through, after just one day because she got so anxious dealing with customers. She gained confidence working at the mall. There was something about her that made strangers warm up to her easily. She was funny, self-deprecating, and pretty, with her long dark hair, red lipstick, and silver jewelry (She thought gold was tacky). Her Ralph Lauren perfume lingered like a ghost long after she had left the room.
My parents split up when I was a baby, and I mostly lived with my dad. In addition to her alcoholism, my mom suffered from a variety of physical ailments that made it impossible for her to take care of me all the time including, epilepsy, lupus, stomach ulcers, and migraines so debilitating she had to give herself steroid shots when she felt them coming on. She tried to make up for the lack of time we spent together by turning herself into a combination of a chain-smoking June Cleaver and my best friend. While my father and I ate frozen dinners sitting on the floor in front of The Simpsons, my mom cooked meals from her Good Housekeeping cookbook and arranged elaborate table settings complete with cloth napkins, antique salt cellars, and candles. She tucked notes in the lunches she packed for me and would draw funny stick figure cartoons of the two of us with her cat Winston. She baked constantly and invented a holiday called “Me Day” that occurred spontaneously several times a year, and involved her making a pink frosted layer cake decorated with gel icing in celebration of how special we both were.
Her apartment was a one-bedroom, which meant we had to share a bed. Even when I was in middle school I didn’t mind. I was terrified of the dark until I was a teenager, and it was comforting to have her next to me. We had a whole bedtime routine. She would play a cassette tape of thunderstorms or rainforest sounds to help us fall asleep. Then we would apply glow-in-the-dark stickers of planets and stars to the popcorn ceiling over her bed. It felt like the two of us were in our own little universe, lying in the dark and looking up at the constellations we had made together.
But existing in this special world with my mom also required me to accept all the things she did that weren’t so wonderful. Letting me play hooky to hang out with her was a new development, but it wasn’t entirely out of character. She could be impulsive and childish. I don’t remember what we fought about, but even when I was in elementary school she called me a bitch and a spoiled brat when she was really angry. If I said I hated her she locked herself in her room until I told her I hadn’t meant it and begged her to come out. She knew I saved all of my birthday money from my dad and grandparents, and sometimes asked me to lend her $20. She never paid me back, and I also never said no. I didn’t want to acknowledge that, even as a child, I was sometimes more responsible than her.
Instead, I tried to focus on how much fun my mom could be. In some ways getting to hang out at the mall during the school day was a dream come true; the suburban ’90s kid version of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
I had always loved my mom’s store, even if it had lost some of its magic over the years. When she first started working there, there was a glass case in the window with expensive music boxes that had inlaid wood on the lids and cylinders inside that were covered in braille like bumps that played music by Mozart or Tchaikovsky. After a few years of declining profits, the corporate office decided to try competing with more conventional gift shops like the Hallmark Store. Most of the new music boxes that came in were electronic, and my mom was always complaining about how crappy they were. When I started going there all the time that case in the window was filled with a fleet of plastic Starships that all played the Star Trek theme, and Mickey Mouse watches that played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in a key that could make your ears bleed.
In other ways though, it remained a wonderland of beautiful, useless things. There were shelves crowded with glittery water globes. Whenever one broke, my mom would separate the figures inside from the base and save them for me. I had a collection of plastic wizards, snowmen, and ballerinas on a table in her apartment. The store also sold porcelain dolls in Victorian dresses and boxes that played music from old movies and Broadway shows. I had never seen Dr. Zhivago or Phantom of the Opera, but I could have whistled the music box renditions of “Laura’s Theme” and “Music of the Night” in my sleep.
Soon I was skipping school almost every week. I developed a routine. Since my mom opened the store, we were the only ones there for a few hours in the morning. I would play with the music boxes and help my mom unpack if a new shipment came in. After a while I’d get bored and wander around the mall. I became friendly with the Russian woman who managed the candy store a few doors down from my mom’s and sometimes she would give me a free bag of jawbreakers. When my mom’s co-workers arrived in the afternoon I would go outside with her for a smoke break. Sometimes we went to the food court and I would eat the lunch she had packed for me while she drank a Slim Fast.
Once school let out at 3:00, I hid in the tiny stockroom in the back of the store reading Stephen King novels and making myself sick on the butter mints my mom bought for her employees at the Dollar Store. I didn’t want to run into one of my classmates and have to explain what I was doing there. My friends had started wondering why I was absent so often. I told them I had a bad immune system and got sick a lot, trying to vaguely hint at a mysterious chronic illness in a way that would discourage further prying.
The stress of lying to everyone soon overcame the thrill of missing class. Still, what seventh grader has the maturity and willpower to tell their mother they would rather go to school than not go to school? Not me. I didn’t hate school, but I didn’t like it either. While I was a good enough student, I had inherited my mom’s shyness. I had a few close friends, but was paralyzed by anxiety in big groups. I wouldn’t date at all until after college. Even more, I was afraid of hurting my mom’s feelings. I didn’t know why she suddenly wanted me near her all day, but she had a way of making me feel responsible for her constantly fluctuating emotions that made it impossible to turn her down. That year I missed nearly a month of school. I wasn’t in the yearbook. I hadn’t been there on picture day.
By eighth grade, she had stopped asking me to go to work with her so much. Her behavior changed in other ways. She forgot to pick me up from school a few times, and maxed out her credit card on things I knew she could never afford, like a giant TV. We went out to lunch one day and to my shock she ordered a Long Island iced tea. When I got upset that she was drinking she told me that a Long Island iced tea didn’t contain alcohol.
I was on vacation with my dad a few months later when I found out my mom lost her job. My dad picked up the phone and she told him what happened. She didn’t ask to speak to me.
That’s when my dad told me her issues with addiction were much more severe than I had realized. She was bipolar, and had attempted suicide more than once in the past. She’d been in and out of rehab a dozen times during their seven year marriage. It was terrifying to discover that the threads holding her life together had been so frayed. Her job at the mall had offered her a sense of stability, and without it she spiraled.
In the months following her relapse, I watched as she tried and failed to regain control. She would promise to stop drinking, only to answer the door holding a glass of wine the next time I came to visit. Her promises to hold down a new job were equally empty. She was hired for a couple of retail positions, but got fired after one or two weeks. I desperately wanted to believe her when she said that things would get better soon and go back to the way they had been. After spending the last year trying to ignore my instincts and go along with my mom, though, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Staying close to her, and seeing her version of things, meant constantly getting my heart broken.
She eventually lost her apartment and moved in with her mother in Pennsylvania because there was a warrant out for her arrest in Virginia for having too many DUIs. My grandmother kicked her out when she continued drinking, and she moved in with an abusive boyfriend who was also an alcoholic.
The physical distance between us helped me do the impossible work of separating from her emotionally. My shyness worsened and I became even more closed off, continuing to hide what was happening from my friends. I developed a habit of getting up at 5 a.m. to go running before school so that I would be too exhausted during the day to focus on how much I missed her. When I did think about her it was only to remember the times she had hurt and disappointed me. I did the opposite of what I had done as a child. Instead of holding tightly to the things I loved about her, I repressed all my happy memories knowing they would only make it more difficult to let go.
As my mother declined, so did the mall where she used to work. I used to go there sometimes when I went home from college to visit my dad, but eventually stopped. One by one all of the stores I knew closed, and were replaced by furniture outlets and sketchy cell phone resellers. The San Francisco Music Box Company became an Irish gift shop. To bring in extra money, the owners started renting out space in the perpetually empty parking lot to flea market vendors.
Landmark Mall’s decay followed the fate of mall’s across the country. In 2016 retail analyst Jan Kniffen predicted that one third of U.S. shopping malls will close in the near future. A fascination around “dead malls,” shopping malls that have either shuttered entirely or have lost so many of their customers that their closure is imminent, has cropped up in recent years. There’s www.deadmalls.com, a website founded by two retail historians. It includes a map of the U.S. that allows readers to search for updates about malls in their state. In 2004, a user submitted a post about Landmark Mall that noted, “There are several not-traditional tenants such as the Alexandria Dept. of Public Safety and some doctors have offices, too, I think. I have a lot of happy memories of the mall and hope it doesn’t go under.”
In 2015, filmmaker Dan Bell started “The Dead Mall Series,” a collection of short films that he posted to YouTube documenting the interior of failed or failing malls across the country. The titles of the videos often include the words “depressing” or “creepy”; “Sad, depressing, Coventry Mall in Pennsylvania,” “Super Dead, Creepy, Owings Mills Mall At Night,” “Rehoboth Mall, Most Depressing Dead Mall on Earth?” Dead malls are compelling for many reasons. Watching the videos of the malls that have been gutted and are about to be demolished feels like exploring a sunken ship, and there’s something both satisfying and chilling about seeing these monuments to capitalism unceremoniously crumbling. They trigger a mix of nostalgia and grief for suburban hometowns and aimless adolescent afternoons spent flirting in food courts or wandering from store to store. Landmark Mall falling apart was upsetting to me in a way that went beyond experiencing a symbol of my youth fade away. More than most kids, I had grown up at the mall. It was like watching my childhood home being set upon by squatters.
I still saw my mom a few times a year after she moved to Pennsylvania, mostly during holidays when I was in town visiting other family. The older I got and the more time we spent apart, the more our relationship deteriorated. We would sit in her living room that smelled like stale cigarette smoke while her half dozen cats and dogs fought for her attention. She would tell me I looked pretty and give me presents she had picked up for me throughout the year, little trinkets I would have liked when I was twelve, which she bought using her disability checks. She managed to get sober again for good by the time I was in college. I was proud of her but by then it was too late. The person I had been so close to as a little girl receded further into the past, and was replaced by someone who felt more like a distant and lonely aunt.
My mom died when I was 27. A bad case of pneumonia destroyed her lungs. She was on life support for six weeks before the doctors determined she would not recover. She had been sober for seven years. I hadn’t seen her in two.
In some ways, I had been grieving my mother’s loss for over a decade. Once she was really gone though, I found that the force field I’d constructed around my memories of her fell down. I no longer had to protect myself by thinking of her as either impossibly perfect or tragically flawed. She wasn’t my best friend and she wasn’t my enemy. She was my mom; funny and thoughtful, selfish and reckless. I missed her.
Landmark Mall closed at the beginning of this year, five years after my mother died. I found out because a friend from high school posted a local news story on Facebook that said it would be gone by the end of January to make space for a mixed-use development with a movie theater, condos, and retail space. This made me sad, but I was also surprised that it had held on for as long as it did. Reading about the mall shutting down, I was reminded of how different it was when I was a kid; how special, with the elaborate holiday decorations, and the big fountain in the middle my mom let me throw pennies in. In the article, they quoted a local resident recalling the days when he did all of his Christmas shopping there: “Like you and I, it’s getting old.” he said. “It used to be beautiful.”
Sarah Bridgins’ poems and essays have appeared in Tin House, Buzzfeed, Fanzine, Luna Luna, Bustle, Sink Review, Public Pool, Thrush, and Big Lucks among other journals. She is a four time Pushcart Prize nominee and the cofounder and cohost of the Ditmas Lit reading series in Brooklyn. You can read more of her work at www.sarahbridgins.com.