Tonight I stopped by an older shopping center in a neighboring town to drop something off to my daughter who is working at one of the stores. When I pulled into the parking lot I reflected on the mix of stores in this struggling little strip mall. Some have been here for more than 20 years, while others are recent and tenuous additions to this mall that has always seemed to just hang on.
As I pulled into the main parking area I was transported back 20 years when I was a young, single mother barely piecing together a living while working retail at a national department store that still had a presence in strip malls at the time.
The memories from those years are seared in my mind: earning minimum wage, working as many hours as I could get, attending college full time (during the day in a traditional program) and raising my 2 kids. While I often reflect on how far I’ve traveled since then, tonight I was particularly drawn to the memories of the exhaustion; the hope/fear around finishing my degree and making enough money to support my little family; the many nights after work when I got into my old car, praying it would once more take me home without breaking down along some dark road.
I parked and went into the store where my daughter was working. It was a slow night so I was able to chat with her for a few minutes.
“You know, working in this shopping center while going to college has been a good place to start for this family,” I told her, referring to my own stint here when she was a little girl.
She laughed, “Yeah, I was thinking about that the other day!”
My kids and I went from the edge of poverty to solid middle class the week I graduated from college. My income quadrupled and we escaped the spectre of statistics that haunt single parent households. Within days of graduation I transitioned into corporate America and left the comfort and simplicity of my small, retail job behind.
Tonight I walked out into the crisp night and looked around at the familiar surroundings as I crossed the parking lot toward my car – this time a reliable car that I purchased new a few years back.
I took in a deep breath of cold air and felt a wave of gratitude wash over me as I contemplated the journey I have taken – a journey that began in many ways from this very parking lot.
I felt grateful for the good people who frequented the department store as customers, and for the managers who worked with my school schedule so I could get as many hours as were available and still go to school. I felt a deep gratitude for the people I worked beside; who welcomed me when I was new to the area, and new to the job. They were my work friends and I enjoyed getting to know them and their stories that are all now a part of my memories. There were older women who worked because they were widowed or whose husbands had left them for a younger woman. There were young mothers working to keep a roof over their kids’ heads and young adults trying to make a career for themselves. There were men who had entered retail sales at a time when you could make a respectable living in commissioned sales in retail, and who found themselves struggling to find their footing as the commissions dwindled and the retail models shifted.
This particular store in the strip mall was a cocoon of sorts; a perfect place for a broken person to find shelter, just enough money, work that was clean, respectable and doable and that offered the friendship of others who were walking their own difficult journeys – piecing their lives together as much as they could with a retail job.
I drove slowly past the line of stores decorated with Christmas lights in anticipation of the shopping season that is upon us and was overcome with gratitude that I had been able to know the people, the retail work and the experiences that could only have come in the midst of those circumstances.