LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Last weekend, Gabrielle Baker went to the mall.
It was a warm Sunday, and we had picked up her best friend Emily on our way up to Lexington. We turned into Fayette Mall and found a parking spot near Macy’s. And then, there she went. Or, rather, there she and Emily lagged behind so as not to be seen with the old stepmom.
The night before, her dad and I had decided it was time to let her go. She hadn’t said anything, but I knew our shopping experience would be somewhat painful if I tagged along with them. No longer does this nearly 14-year-old want an ugly parent spoiling her cool factor, and I knew it didn’t matter how many pretzels or Starbucks coffees I got her, I would be the embarrassment my own poor parents had been to me. So, as soon as we walked into Macy’s, we split up.
I’m not going to lie: It’s a strange experience walking around the mall knowing your kid is in there but you’re not with them. I looked half-heartedly at the purse section, graduated to shoes, considered a pair of flats and decided I was too distracted to wait for them to bring them out. Was it too soon to text her to see how everything was going? I looked at my phone and saw just 15 minutes had passed. Yes, probably. Should I text just to remind her that she should eat at Subway so she didn’t need to worry about her nut allergy? I made myself stop the composition. I thought about what being alone at the mall symbolizes as a teen and tried to comfort myself with that.
Because, as a teenage girl, there are few frontiers more exciting to conquer. My first foray shopping sans parents was with my best friend Kristin at Unicity Mall. Already at age 10, I knew this place nearly like the back of my hand as nearly every errand my parents ever ran took place there. We’d gone clothes shopping at The Bay and Young Canada. I got my hair cut at Unisex. We got our keys cut at The Key Master. I looked longingly at kittens at the pet store. We browsed, but never bought anything, at Marks & Spencer. Nearly my entire dining-out career had taken place at the McDonald’s in the food court. The mall was always a fun place to be. Good for people watching. A promising place to get a surprise toy or book.
But the first time Kristin and I got to go alone — and take the city bus, no less, to get there — the mall became a different place. Suddenly, all the stores were at our disposal, not just the ones my mom wanted to go to. I could write a line on my hand with every lipstick sample at Shopper’s Drug Mart if I wanted to. I could spend an hour at Le Château, considering each and every overly-trendy item on the racks. I could go to Laura Secord and buy two, even three French mint chocolate bars if I felt hungry and rich enough.
Because, boy howdy, I had money in my purse, my own money I earned babysitting that could be spent on absolutely anything. No dismayed expressions from mom would accompany those purchases. The only ramification would be that once it was spent, it was spent.
It’s amazing how miserly one becomes when spending one’s own money. For the first time, you realize what things actually cost and you’re forced to consider if you really want the George Michael “Faith” cassette tape so badly you’re willing to part with $10.99 at Sam the Record Man. It’s also amazing how paying for something when you’re just learning can be stressful. You’ve got your wallet in your hand, sure, you’ve waited your turn in line, yes, but, shoot! Tax! It doesn’t really cost $10.99, it costs $12.09. Do I have enough? Are people watching me as I’m forced to use nickels and pennies to make up the difference?
But once those first purchases are made, man, there is nothing like them. Sure, they represent the blood, sweat and tears that come out of countless babysitting jobs. But most importantly, they represent beautiful, thrilling independence. They reek of it almost as powerfully as Calvin Klein’s Eternity.
And it’s not just about what you buy at the mall. It’s the people inside it, the other teenagers who are looking at you and you are looking at in return. Sitting in a mall food court is not just a lesson, it’s practically a degree in what kind of teenager you are and what kind you want to be. Everyone is grouped in mangy circles, like paired with like, everyone laughing, chatting, sharing secrets and watching, watching, watching. Sitting at those tables, I got fashion, hair and make-up tips, I learned about boys, I saw teenagers from other schools and thought they were amazing.
I was thinking about all this as I walked aimlessly through the mall last week. Knowing Gabrielle was experiencing all this made me happy and excited. Would I have preferred to have her beside me holding my hand and begging to go to Build-A-Bear? Absolutely. But there comes a time when you’ve got to let go and last Sunday, around noon, in Fayette Mall, I did.