As far back as I can remember my mom has worked in the cosmetics industry. When I was growing up she was a representative for various brands like Mary Kay, Lancome, and Davidoff fragrance, officiating at various department store cosmetic counters across the greater Cleveland area. At one point there were more than a dozen shopping malls i could reach her at. The phone number for each was pre-programmed and labeled on a crisp white Panasonic land-line located on her desk in our family “den”, looking intimidatingly like some sort of conspiratorial switchboard of which decisions of the highest order were communicated. Until you picked up the phone, pressed a button and someone on the other end answered “Higbees, Westgate Mall, how may I help you?”
I tried to befriend the operator on the other end of the line. I imagined her sitting in a beige room in a design-y chair, filing a perfectly oval-shaped red fingernail (it was the 80’s so fingernails were filed into an oval shape as opposed to rounded corners – although from what I understand the oval shape is back). She was surrounded by high-end pantyhose that needed to be stocked and was the gatekeeper for when products were allowed to be presented to us plebians-at-large. This telephone operator was fabulous, she had authority. I wanted to befriend this woman; not only because she was fabulous, but mostly because I knew she could connect me to my mom.
The majority of the time, after I was patched through another woman would curtly inform me that Linda (my mom) was with a customer and “unable to come to the phone, sweetie”. Would I mind holding, or would I call back? Of course I would hold – what I had to tell her couldn’t wait. I’d hold for 20 minutes, half an hour, sometimes longer, totally abandoned by my mom’s floozy co-worker as she floated to the next counter to gossip about last night’s episode of Dallas with some overdone woman hawking Estee Lauder perfume.
At some point, someone would pick up the phone to make a call and realize there was a little girl on the other end waiting to speak with her mother. When my mom eventually picked up I would nonchalantly ask her what we were going to eat for dinner, or if there were any good sales going on in the store.
I was 7.
I remember my dad tucking me into bed, giving me a kiss on the forehead and turning off the light. He would leave the door open just a crack and the light from the hallway would spill into my bedroom. For someone my age, the warm light should have provided comfort. It was actually more alarming because it meant that mom wasn’t home from work yet.
After what seemed like ages, I’d hear the mechanical chug of the garage door opening (This was before the chain on the mechanism broke and my dad would prop the garage door open with a broom when it needed to be open. Maybe this was strange but our family didn’t mind. Our neighbor from across the street grabbed on to the bottom of his as it went up and got stuck hanging there).
There would be a jangle of keys as the garage door into the house opened with a staccato cre-e-a-a-k. What followed would later become a Top 10 audio clip from my less than stellar storage bank of a memory, a sound that I amazingly still hear late at night when i’m in need of a visit with mom – the clickety-clack of high heeled pumps walking surely, soundly, across our linoleum kitchen floor.
The sound of her heels never spoke fatigue. They never spoke exhaustion of dealing with prissy women, bad breath and catty midwestern queens. To me, the noise spoke of comforted assurance and strength. It was a gentle maternal presence that quietly assured me that she was home.
After a few minutes the hallway light would snap shut rendering my room completely dark. I’m pretty sure she came into my bedroom to say goodnight, but by then I was fast asleep.
Around that time, my dad was teaching himself how to program computers. He would go on to become one of the leading computer engineers at a top-notch auditing firm. For now he was a guy who read thick programming manuals on the sofa for most of the day and tinkered with first-generation Macs in the basement at night. He had all of these books neatly stacked in our family “den”: C, C++, Clipper and FoxPro. These books were equally intimidating as they were heavy. Even as an avid reader, the contents were mostly an alien language that my right brain couldn’t bear to comprehend and still don’t (or won’t) to this day.
Usually sporting a white v-neck tee and pajama pants, dad took breaks to play the piano or organ. We had both in our house (among many other musical instruments, which is nothing compared to my grandparents house. I’ll save that story for another time). He’d gladly order us pizza, chicken wings, or basically whatever we thought would be “fun” for dinner.
Once a month he’d drive me to B. Daltons to see if the newest Babysitters Club book was available. If it wasn’t, I’d be mildly disappointed and choose something remarkably obtuse instead. Sometimes if I had been “good” he’d also buy me a candy bar. We’d go home and I’d settle in with my book on this perfect reclining chair, to which I really do believe I owe my literacy. He’d play a blues riff from one of his many dog-eared fake books. To me he was, and still is, the coolest guy in the world.
Oftentimes my dad, younger sister and I would pick mom up from work. This was when we had one family car. It was an automotive hand-me down from my grandparents – a bright yellow, rust-freckled Chevy that made my already lame attempt at 6th grade popularity even more slighted. The inside of the car wasn’t half bad and if I had more confidence then, the kind of confidence that only comes with age, really, I probably would’ve loved it’s character.
I’d sprawl out in the back seat, pop the cigarette lighter in and out of it’s carriage with my Jansport bookbag casually tossed to the side. I’d sit up, lean back in the sofa-like seat of the sedan, and gaze out the window pretending that I was being driven around a glamorous city as I watched the bright neon lights of Super K, BP gas, and McDonald’s amble by.
Some weekends I’d spend the day with mom at work. Perhaps others my age reminisce on weekends spent at grandmas house, or perhaps doing something recreational like playing games or taking tennis lessons. For me, it was a shopping mall that I unofficially baptized as my place of fun.
To this day I have an immense love-hate relationship for these manufactured landscapes of falsified desire and need. I knew how they possessed the ability to suck you in via coupons, spreads in Sunday’s paper and promises of savvy abundance on Memorial Day weekend. I grew to understand how they spit you out, broke and empty as you search for your car in a blizzard, grasping the plastic handles on the adorably designed bags that took someone 4 years of college and 2 years of design trade school to create.
Meandering around the department store alone with nothing to do as I waited for my mom to take her lunch break, I’d spend time examining the Handbags and Accessories. I’d feel grown-up as I pretended to select a Swatch Watch. After someone shooed me away I’d ride up the escalator and walk around the youth section that was excitedly called “Impulse”. As I got older I’d spend most of my time here trying on swimsuits and prom dresses, springtime frocks and back-to-school peacoats, twirling around in front of the 3-dimensional mirrors beneath the bright and unflattering lights.
Leaving not a square foot uncovered, I’d skip to the toddler section and browse the baby clothes. I’d put together ensembles for my future infants. I didn’t really want a boy but what a cute sunhat, and these socks are adorable but awfully expensive. However, they display the Tommy Hilfiger logo so my child will be considered to be important by others. We’d need to get into the country club somehow. Scoping out the infant section actually prompted a campaign in which I informed my parents that I was ready for another little sister. I immediately began to tell the neighbors that my mom had a baby, hoping that the rumor would turn into reality. Years later our in-and-out of town Australian neighbors asked me how my little sister Sarah was doing. I stared blankly at them, totally forgetting my lie.
When I felt bratty I hid from my mom within the spinning, circular racks of DKNY outerwear. When I was feeling obedient I would sit in a chair normally reserved for bored husbands and watch the sales clerks put out new clothing for the upcoming season. To this day, dismembered manequins still make me uncomfortable.
I became obsessed with new arrivals. Because of this I developed a keen sense for seasonal trends. My seasons became Prom, Vacation, Back to School, and Post-Holiday Sale. To my mom’s dismay when it came time for back-to-school shopping I always wanted something ridiculously trendy at the moment like paint-splattered coveralls or a jacket made of lace and pleather. I didn’t get these things and remember thinking that if i owned that pair of Reebok pumps I would be popular and life would be easy for me – it never crossed my mind to actually consider speaking to my classmates.
As I became older and more adventurous, I would venture from the department store into the adjoining shopping mall. Each store was a new world ripe for discovery.
The athletic store smelled of new basketballs and sneakers with grown up high schoolers shopping for soccer jerseys or chatting with their friends who worked there – fit, authoritative adults wearing referee uniforms who when I was around was always on my best behavior. The jewelry store where I got my ears double-pierced and yearned for a plastic tiara and multi-colored slap bracelets. The pet store where I swore then and there that someday that i would own several birds and let them fly around the house. Sam Goody, where I headed straight for the tapes in the basement to examine the cover artwork and imagine what the music sounded like based on the art.
And of course the bookstore. I liked B. Dalton’s better. I scoffed at the lack of selection as the kids my age assembled puzzles in the back of the store while their mothers quietly browsed the embossed paperback Harlequin novels towards the front.
And this went on for years. I loved things. I developed an impulse to be around things. I needed things, because things meant security and things meant access to the outside world and things meant success.
As I grew older this led to a total fascination with consumerist behavior.
Like most matters we’ve been institutionally taught as a kid, I’ve chosen to unlearn and re-teach myself about it. Consumer-aimed messages are created by a precise, controlled machine with many moving parts. These messages are intended to trigger a need within us to fulfill the aforementioned assumptions with physical objects, validating us in the space created specifically for us by the machine (I’ll break this down another time, too).
On the outside, we see it as killing time. It fills a void. It numbs us, temporarily satiating us from that and those we need to keep us whole. Later in life I’d go on to study how to create these messages, and in grad school I’d pull them apart.
Today I appreciate consumerism in a mildly humorous way, like pre-packaged snacks or bad reality TV. I have a tough time visiting shopping malls. Not because I had a bad experience as a kid, but because I loathe artifacts from the past like re-runs, or macrame. I do, however, enjoy the occasional trip to the amazingly excessive Costco warehouse, or the conquest of a fabulous Prada loafer.
My mom is still in cosmetics. She’s a makeup and portrait artist (self-described as “face painter” on Facebook). We speak all the time now that I live across the country. We gossip and talk about the news and when we’ll see each other next. I’ve come to learn that the intangible can be the greatest thing of all to acquire.
© Nicole Cifani, 2010.