When I was on the verge of junior high — about to get my period, about to need a bra, about to have braces hammered onto each one of my teeth so a wire lasso could drag my bucktooth grin into a respectable smile — I fell into and out of the generation gap on a single afternoon.
It happened at the mall with my mom and inside, of all places, The Gap, a store whose very name is a sly marketer’s nod to the chasm that lies between parent and child.
But I didn’t know that then.
I knew hardly anything. It was 1977, before the Internet or cable TV, when neither the Akron Beacon Journal nor the The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer would deliver daily papers to our far-flung home in rural Ohio. The arbiters of style in my town were K-mart and a Sears surplus store that opened in an old grocery that still smelled of burnt sugar cookies and rotten bananas.
Much of my information about the outside world came from Brenda, a pretty blonde girl who was in the same grade as me, but much savvier. Maybe it was because she already knew how to french kiss, or because she had older brothers or a younger mother than me.
Whatever the reason, I always paid attention to what she had to say, especially on the day she told me the one thing she needed before stepping foot into Howard Claggett Junior High, the only item on her school shopping list that would guarantee success and make her dreams come true — a pair of Levi’s.
She broke this news to me during church, either in a whisper or a note. I can’t remember which because bombshells like this often fell quietly with muffled giggles during weekly Sunday sermons.
Our Methodist preacher was an angry old man in a blue leisure suit who liked to shake his shriveled fist — a worthless claw emaciated by some disease we didn’t know — at us from the pulpit. He never learned our names and called each of us “girl,” which might have been OK if the generic term was somehow an endearment or a necessity because he couldn’t remember everyone in a large congregation.
But it wasn’t. He didn’t like us and most Sundays only 40 or 50 people, mostly farmers, filled half the white-painted pews of our white clapboard church. So when his sermon invariably pivoted to corn or wheat or some far-flung Biblical place we never believed was real, Brenda and I passed the time kibitzing about the things that mattered to us.
On this Sunday, that was junior high happiness.
Where, I asked Brenda, could a girl like me get a pair of these magical Levi’s?
Four words: The Gap, Summit Mall.
I had no idea what The Gap was, but Summit Mall was only about 15 miles away in a suburb of Akron, a glittering palace of modernity worlds away from the barns and plowed fields that made up my life.
Getting there, for me, would be nearly impossible.
My dad was always working — in our barn at home or in his office at a bank.
And my mom had expanded her “Little House on the Prairie” philosophy — we should lead simple, self-sufficient lives, growing our own vegetables, our own livestock — to include a “700 Club” overlay, embracing some of the bizarre beliefs of televangelist Pat Robertson and his unsavory ilk.
Shopping malls and consumerism in general, my mom believed, were dangerous. And, I would later learn, she was right, but not in the way she imagined.
That year, 1977, the devil lurked at Summit Mall.
Future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was 6 years older than me, was a student at nearby Revere High School. Dahmer hung out at Summit Mall, often flopping onto the carpeting, pretending to have seizures, just to get a rise out of shoppers.
I don’t remember witnessing that. And it would be another year before Dahmer killed anyone, and a few more before he feasted on anyone’s flesh.
But even if I had known a serial killer was prowling around Spencer Gifts, lingering by the gurgling Orange Julius machine and convulsing in front of Piercing Pagoda, that wouldn’t have dissuaded me from my quest. Nothing would.
My mother, after listening to weeks of whining and sighs, must have realized this, too, and finally caved.
On a summer Saturday afternoon, not long before school was set to resume, we arrived at Summit Mall.
The Gap, we learned from a tired-looking woman smoking a cigarette and pushing a baby stroller, was a sliver of a store near the center of the mall that catered to teens, a thought which made me, at 11, walk on tip toes hoping the Gap clerks wouldn’t toss me out like a child too short to ride a roller coaster.
I heard The Gap before I saw it.
“Play that funky music, white boy,” the store called to us over speakers turned outward into the mall, rock-and-roll bait dangled to lure anyone under 30 toward its hook. “Play that funky music right.”
The Gap glowed in the distance like a bare lightbulb, harsh and bright. Girls with feathered hair like Brenda’s walked in and out joyfully swinging Gap bags filled with unknown treasure.
When mom and I walked in, a bit overwhelmed and confused, a Gap clerk — who was trying her best to look like Farrah Fawcett even though she looked more like Barbara Streisand — immediately approached to help.
We had never seen clothing stacked in store bins before. And instead of sizes — 6, 8, 10 — the jeans were labeled in inches by waist and inseam.
I told Farrah Streisand I wanted a pair of Levi’s and, without measuring me, she grabbed four pairs of jeans, shoved them into my arms and pointed toward three dressing rooms that could be used by either men or women.
Mom followed me and leaned against the outside of louvered dressing room door, telling me her latest spiritual concerns about rock music as Stevie Nicks crooned “Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night and wouldn’t you love to love her.”
The rhythm of the human heart, mom explained, didn’t match the beat of rock-and-roll. And one of the preachers she listened to, the one on the radio, said that rock music’s heavy bass could confuse a child’s heart and yank it out of rhythm, causing a heart attack.
I tried to ignore mom as I slid on my first pair of Levi’s. Too small.
As I peeled them off, mom yammered on about her life when she was my age in the 1940s and how it would be so much better for me if I listened to Glenn Miller, or maybe something more contemporary but harmless, like The Carpenters or John Denver.
The next pair of Levi’s nailed it. Even the length was right.
When I emerged from the dressing room, before I even looked in the mirror, I knew I was no longer 11, or at least the 11 I was when I walked into The Gap.
The childhood spell was broken.
My mother was no longer a needed help, but an obstacle, an adversary trying to lock me in a different world, another time.
I was Brenda now.
I was Rhiannon.
I was Amanda, alive like a bird in flight.
Note: Even caregivers — maybe especially caregivers — need a break. Today, I reached into a different part of my life for momanddadmovein. I’ll be doing this once in awhile to give myself some room to breathe. Thanks for reading. And please remember that my blog is copyrighted. If you’d like to use any portion, please contact me. WordPress users feel free to re-blog. Thanks.