Thursday, January 10, 2008

Carousels and memories

Growing up, my small-town family would pile in the sedan for Sunday road trips to nearby cities. Many a Sunday afternoon were spent at Southwyck Mall in Toledo, Ohio. Memories of meeting my aunt and uncle there and my first $5 purchase - a stuffed terrier-type dog that I named Butterscotch - was my pride and joy for years. I remember my Aunt Mildred handing me the fiver and suggesting that I choose something with it to be my own. The thrill of handing that money over to a real-live cashier and making my very first purchase, the power of the free enterprise system coursing through my tiny veins, can never be replaced. After that trip, I bored my Defiance friends to TEARS wanting to play store for weeks! I must have been about 7 years old. Built in 1972, the mall had been open for five years and was still the happening place to be. Movie theaters, stores, rides, fountains, and the gorgeous dome. There was no place like it that we knew of. Later there would be an incredible arcade, a second set of theaters, and a rockin' food court.

Now I live in Toledo. When my daughter was big enough to walk, I began taking her to the same mall for Family Fun Day the first Sunday of every month. The mall was seriously failing by then, but we trusted that our community would somehow rescue it - at least the beautiful carousel. Each month it seemed, there were fewer storefronts and more closed gates with gaping emptiness looming behind them. Here we met Foop the clown, now a favorite family friend. We looked forward to seeing him each month and he knew dd by name. There was also JoJo, the lady clown who offered free face painting, and even a caricature artist who once sketched a picture of dd with her precious older cousin. Below is a photo of then three-year-old at the mall with Foop.

As Connie grew, our FFD visits became less frequent. Still, several times we took the whole family - and even visitors from out of town. Family Fun Day was south Toledo's best-kept secret. So often overlooked was the value of this innocent fun time. We would almost always find something to purchase at the mall. When she was 4, Connie got her ears pierced at the Claire's at the mall. Several month later, that too was closed. Disney Store and Montgomery Ward were long gone. Goodbye Hallmark and GameStop. Spencers was a memory from my teen years. The GNC store went out. Is the Deb Shop still there? It's not worth the effort to walk down the wing past all the blackened craters where stores used to be.

In it's day, it wasn't just a mall, it was a recreation center. I believe we had my first Junior Achievement Trade Fair there. The following year of JA, I met the boy who would become my husband. Even over 15 years later, when I began my monthly treks there with our daughter, there were often different activities and booths set up each week. Craft fairs, collectibles shows, and even pet adopt-a-thons brought in extra traffic. Later, the activities faded and I held dd a little closer as some suspicious looking teens lurked around and roughhoused in the wings. We began to stay closer to the hub of the shopping center. Now, even the gangs have lost interest in our mall.

On Family Fun Day, carousel rides (normally a dollar) were free. Before she was big enough to climb up on the individually named fiberglass horses on her own, I would stand beside my only child and hold her while we revolved. Each time we went by the giant flag hanging under the mall's signature dome, my toddler would gleefully greet it "hello fwag!" and bid it adieu "bye-bye fwag!" I found this irrestibly cute. Then we would toddle down to the other end of the mall to share a hot pretzel and an Icee. I remember being relieved and sad at the same time when she first told me she was big enough to do it by herself. No more backward circles for me.

This Sunday, the first Sunday of 20008 - my husband, daughter and I went to see Foop. She was so excited to see her friends the clowns and show them her new toothless smile. The winds blew across the vast and empty desert that is now Southwyck Mall. We paid a dollar to ride the carousel one last time. There was no notice that Family Fun Day would be cancelled . . . only the imaginary howl of a far-off coyote and the last tumbleweed blowing by under the "fwag". We strolled slowly down the far spoke of the mall, past the Bath & Body Works fumes and the "nekkid ladies" pictures on the Victoria Secret windows. At the end, we didn't buy a pretzel or drink because the store was closed. A faded wooded "SHERIFF" sign dangling in the wind, creaking memories of our ghost towned mall.

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