Everyone has a special place that defined their childhood--a place of many happy memories.
Anyone who grew up in Rochester NY from the 60's to the 90's knows about Midtown Plaza. It was the first indoor mall in the U.S. Many children growing up in Rochester have been to Midtown at Christmas time to Santa on Magic Mountain and ride the Monorail--a miniature train that was suspended from a track that circled the second floor of the mall. The mall had an open layout. Most of the restaurants were on the second floor. There weren't many and it didn't have a typical food court like you see in malls today. Midtown was one of a kind. It had yellow floor tiles that looked like gold to me as a child.
By 2010 that was all gone. Midtown Plaza was a sad hollowed out shell, waiting to be torn down completely. There was yellow caution tape all around it and rubble everywhere at the site. Demolition had begun. All the stores I remembered: Fauna's gift shop; the bakery where I always got a chocolate covered donut; they were gone. It's sad that the residents of Rochester didn't put up more of a fight to keep this place; it was more than a shopping center, it was a social center. Several nearby office buildings were connected to it by the Skyway, an enclosed walkway which was especially convenient in a state where it can snow for up to four months out of the year.
As I stood in front of it, I closed my eyes to the sight of the bones of the old building and the yellow caution tape. I felt the years fall away. The fine lines around my eyes vanished. The scars and tattoos disappeared from my skin. The summer sun turned to snowflakes. I was eleven years old and my mother was holding my hand as we walked into the mall. It was no longer 2010, now it was 1988 and it was Christmas time.
Santa's Magic Mountain was there, standing tall and glittering like it was covered with millions of white diamonds. There was a green carpeted path that winded its way up. At the top was Santa on his ornate white chair. Behind him was Santa's workshop but we weren't allowed to go inside.
I still believed in magic--and at Christmas time every corner of Midtown Mall was magical. Bad things couldn't happen here. Magic Mountain stood at one end of the Mall. In the center of the Mall was my second favorite magical object--The Clock of Nations.
It was 28 feet tall. The top was square and their were four clocks set in it so you could see one of the clocks from any direction. The clock was white, the clock faces were red and the base of the pedestal was painted blue.
Halfway down the blue pedestal were 12 upright cylinders, attached to the clock by an axel, like spokes on a wagon wheel. Each cylinder had a gold striped top and the door of each cylinder was painted two different colors. Every hour the cylinders opened and inside were beautifully crafted puppets and scenes depicting the clothing and culture of that country. On ground level in front of each cylinder was a plaque with information about each country.
Mom and I walked to the fountain at the opposite end of the mall from where Magic Mountain stands. It was the wishing fountain--the coins glittered in the bottom. It was another magical place--the lighted jet of water in the center and the lights under the water. I was never allowed to climb in and collect the coins. Mom said they were other people's wishes. The fountain was a square pool at the bottom of the main staircase. There was a ledge that ran all the way around where people could sit.
'Do the wishes ever come true?' I silently wondered.
A man was sitting on the edge of the fountain watching us approach. He had thinning gray hair and thick glasses. I recognized him from my distant memories.
'I hate him. I don't want to see him. He is a stranger to me.'
I thought this, but I couldn't put it into words and it would not have changed anything if I had. I didn't know anything about him, other than the horrible things that my mother and stepfather had said about him. One story I had heard was that when my mother left him he sat in the window of their house with a rifle shooting at her.
"Hello Annie." He said as he stood up. Thankfully he didn't try to hug me.
"Say hello to your father." My mom said in her usual sharp tone.
'Drop dead, daddy dearest.' I thought.
"Hi." I said, obediently.
Sometimes I have wondered if I had kicked him in the kneecap instead and made a break for it, what would have happened.
We walked around for awhile and they carried on a conversation above my head. I glared up at him as he insisted on holding my hand like we were some happy family. I dug my tiny fingernails into his palm as hard as I could, in the only small act of rebellion I could get away with. If he noticed he didn't comment.
'He shouldn't be here. This is our place and he is not part of our lives.' I remember thinking. That Christmas had been the first time I had seen my father in over seven years.
My dad bought a ticket for me to ride the Monorail. I had always wanted to, but mom never had the extra money. I sat and watched the other kids wave at their parents below and watched the parents wave back. I waved at my mom but she was deep in conversation with HIM and didn't notice. I knew then that they hadn't done this for me but only to get me out of the way so they could discuss whatever it was they didn't want me to hear.
They paid for me to go around a few more times on the Monorail, but it wasn't as much fun as I thought it would be. It was small and cramped. It went inside Magic Mountain and I could see stars hanging there. I reached my hand out the window to touch one but they were too far away.
I got to see Santa that year, for the last time. When it was my turn, I sat on his knee and looked at him. There was so much I wanted to say.
"Ho! Ho! What would you like for Christmas, little girl?" He asked.
'Make him stop coming to my room at night.'
'Don't let them send me to live with someone else like they did to my sister.'
My mother was watching and my father was listening. I know my mother would be angry if I said any of that. I remembered what my stepfather said to me: "You can't tell anyone--they will put me in jail if you do."
Deep down I knew this was not really Santa--he was just a guy in a suit collecting a paycheck. He couldn't help me.
So I said "I would like a new Barbie doll."
That Christmas of 1988 was a season of firsts and lasts.
It was the first time and only time I ever got to ride the Monorail. It was the last time I ate a soft pretzel from the mall. I have had other soft pretzels, but they have never been quite as good. I don't know if my memory is exaggerating how good they were or if there really was something special about them. They were warm, chewy and buttery. They always had too much salt; I brushed about half of it off before I ate the pretzel.
When we got home mom told me to go pack my suitcase. "We are going to live with your dad and your grandma for a while." It didn't come as a surprise. My mom and stepdad had been fighting nearly all the time lately; I didn't know what the fights were about, though.
I was going to live with my biological father, and though I didn't know it yet--it would be the last Christmas I spent with my mother for many years. When I moved in with my father and his mother, my mom lived with us for awhile. She attempted suicide in January of the following year. After she got out of the hospital, everyone told me I couldn't live with her anymore.
I'm sure all of this made sense the adults in my life, but no one took the time to really explain anything. I was just expected to go along with everything and I was punished for "acting up" and not wanting to share with the older sister I hadn't seen in years and the younger siblings from my father's second marriage whom I hadn't known existed.
I was surrounded by strangers that I couldn't confide in even if I had known how to put my feelings into words.
Before all this, I was close to my stepfather's parents. I loved them as much as my blood grandparents. I never got to say goodbye when I moved in with my dad. I called them once, years later when I was a teenager. I hung up the moment someone answered. I was afraid to let anything spoil the memories of them. If they didn't remember me....if they didn't want to talk to me... I decided to let my memories remain frozen in time.
My Aunt Janet--their daughter--taught me to make proper snowballs and how to build a snow fort; essential skills for any kid and something I had little opportunities to do--growing up in the city. I wonder sometimes how my life would have been different if I had their unconditional love in my life.
I remembered what led up to the loss of the whole world I knew.
When I was seven years old my stepfather gave me a picture of Jesus. I hung it over my bed and looked at it every night, wondering if who He really was and if the stories of Him were true.
I had that picture on my wall for more than a year. Until my stepfather came to my room that first night. Just like he had with my older sister. My mom hadn't believed her and had sent her to live with our dad.
I found out my sister had told the truth--after that first night my stepfather came into my room. The next day I threw the picture of Jesus in a drawer and never looked at it again.
It went on for years. My mom found out the year I turned eleven and left him. She called my biological father and we went to live with him.
I opened my eyes. It was 2010 again. It all happened long ago. I wasn't eleven anymore, but thirty-three. I was back in front of the ruins of Midtown Mall and I knew Santa left a long time ago. There was no going back. My mom passed away that year and we were estranged so I hadn't gotten a chance to say goodbye.
The summer sun was warm on my face as I walked away from Midtown I wondered again how my life would have been different if my family had remained whole, if the tragedies had never happened. I would not be as strong of a person. That certainly doesn't mean I'm glad for misfortune. I don't hate my mom and dad. Now that I am an adult with my own child I understand that they did the best they knew how.
As an adult, I have heard stories of people who have suffered through what I did. There is a common theme; the abuser always said some variations of:
"People will punish both of us if they find out."
"It isn't wrong but other people won't understand, you can't tell anyone."
"It's your fault."
Hearing other people's stories, I realized I wasn't alone. I realized the things he said we're manipulative lies. Healing started when I realized it wasn't my fault and that I hadn't deserved it somehow.
Despite the hand I was dealt, was determined to overcome fate and the labels society put me in. "I am not who you say I am."