I was the youngest of three boys, and I had the special pleasure of spending my fourth year with my mother while my brothers were at school. It was a golden age for any child, to have their mother in good health, with money to spend, and living in a fairly modern city (Cleveland) in a relatively stable country. The year was 1968, and although the Cuyahoga River had caught fire once already, things seemed pretty nice. By the fall of 1969, that river would catch fire once again, the East Side would also explode in the flames of race riots, and I would be packed off to Kindergarten. It’s tragic to consider, but, at the time, I had no idea how lucky I was.
For an easy-going four-year old, shopping can be a fun trip. It wasn’t a daily excursion, but something special, and except for a few occasions, it was just me and my mother.
At the age of four, I was pretty normal, although a bit on the chubby side. Pictures from that time show me with a noticeable belly, my shirt wrinkled and untucked, and quite possibly my fly is open. If I were in my thirties I’d be a slacker loser, but in 1968 I was just another cute kid out shopping with his mother.
My mother, on the other hand, had a sense for fashion, and invested quite a bit of time each morning to dolling herself up before going out. She always put on makeup, frequently wore hats, and coordinated her outfits. My father often referred to her as a high-class hooker, but she fancied herself as a poor-man’s Jackie Onassis.
She would not consciously take me to the downtown department stores looking like a slob, but, based on those pictures, I think I gravitated towards chaos. And cookies.
I have four or five distinct memories of those shopping excursions downtown. One thing I always loved was the snack shop in the basement of Higbees offered these tiny little milk shakes. I suspect they were designed to occupy and otherwise shut up fat little bastards like myself who whined for food and distracted their mother from spending money upstairs. Fill him with cream and sugar so mom can close the deal on that wool coat for the fall.
I believe my mother enjoyed taking me shopping. I know she loved shopping, because she had a lot of clothes, and loved it so much that she put up with me and my whining distractions. I know I would have asked to see the monkey in the pet department. I would have begged for the aforementioned miniature milk shake. Another of my tricks was to complain about headaches so that she might give me a Johnson & Johnson’s Children’s Aspirin. They were chewable, orange flavored, and I popped them like Tic-Tacs. It’s a wonder I didn’t overdose, or that my mother didn’t shove the whole bottle down my throat, so persistent were my complaints.
Yes I believe she enjoyed shopping with me, but I must have been a distraction. One day, we needed to take the escalator to ascend to an upper floor. My mother grasped my hand and led me to the elevator. But she led us to the down elevator, and tried to climb up. It didn’t work.
She struggled bravely, and never let go of my hand. Her other hand was thrust out to the railing for support but, alas, that too was working against her, all part of the conveyor system moving people down. We kept up for a few seconds, stepping faster and faster up the stairs as they fell away beneath us, and we gained a couple of feet of elevation. Just as quickly, however, the stress, fear, and exertion took its toll, and she fell.
As my mother crumpled onto the escalator steps, she twisted and lifted me so that I was deposited on the apron unhurt. She suffered scratches and bruises on her legs, and probably tore her nylons, though I don’t remember that exactly. I remember distinctly that two people helped her crawl away from the escalator, and consoled her as she rubbed her wounds.
She didn’t cry. I’m sure she was terribly embarrassed, but that was exactly the sort of time during which she would not cry. I understood her pain, and felt very, very badly for her sake, but I was too little even to help her to her feet. When she was on her feet, we made our way out of the store and back to the car. I asked her if she was hurting.
“Yes,” she said. “It hurts, but I’m fine. How are you?”
I said, “I think I have a headache.”