The Hudson Valley Mall (small, rural, fading into obscurity by the time I arrived here in the mid-nineties), was my most visited destination when my kids were little.
Trips to Target, the ancient arcade, the food court, the movies , that little booth where the girls tasted their first cotton candy smoothies— all of it was cherished by both girls (and me). There’s not much to do in this part of New York in winter, so a couple of hours of mall walking and smoothie drinking on a dark, cold Sunday afternoon was always welcome.
My favorite thing to do was win a cheap stuffed animal from the claw machine. We’d press our faces to the glass and hold our breath until the toy was safely deposited into the little prize chute.
As my kids grew, the stores they liked changed. We went from Justice to Aeropostale, from Target to H&M. We saw every Pixar movie the day it came out. We bought video games at Best Buy and Christmas gifts at Macy’s.
The years passed and our trips to the mall dwindled, but we still dropped by for movies and last minute items — a dress for a school dance, a Halloween costume, a gift for a friend.
After my older daughter, Ana, got cancer, mall visits were few and far between. Public places were too much of an infection risk. By the time she stabilized — after a liver transplant and months of recovery — she was twelve years old and the mall was really struggling, losing stores every day, it seemed.
Eventually, Ana didn’t want to go to the mall at all — at least, not with me. It was much more appealing to go out with her friends. The last movie I saw with Ana was “The Maze Runner” when she was 13. We saw it on a weekend after she’d spent the day at the hospital. There were only two other people in the theater.
I remember thinking, with a pang, about my mother — how we’d gone to to our own local mall together. I’d stopped going with her when I hit my late teens, preferring to go to the mall with my friends.
Ana died in March 2017 and my desire to go to the mall died with her. At that point, the mall was also dying, losing its battle for relevancy one anchor store at a time.
They had begun closing when Ana was still alive — first JCPenney in 2015, then Macy’s in 2016, then Sears in 2018. The smaller stores quickly followed, shuttering their doors one by one: Aeropostale, Justice, Charlotte Russe, Hallmark, the soft pretzel place, the arcade, even the movie theater, though that recently reopened.
The mall owners stopped trying to fill the empty storefronts and instead (in a baffling move), boarded them up with sheetrock and covered the newly built walls with giant murals and ads. They covered the tile floors with carpeting and a hush fell over the always-empty mall. Walking through there now is surreal, like visiting the inside of a dusty museum.
I’ve spurned malls throughout the years. I’ve judged them — and myself — for returning over and over again and succumbing to the temptation of consumerism. Malls are easy to hate. It’s not a bad thing that many of them are closing.
Once, about a year after Ana died, I went to the mall and visited the newly constructed walls that concealed the entrances to Ana’s favorite stores. It was hard not to feel as though everything was coming to an end — her life, my life as her mother, and the stage of motherhood punctuated by cotton candy smoothies and Pixar movies.
I grew up on Long Island in the seventies and eighties. Malls were a focal point of my childhood. It’s no wonder that I fell back into it with my own kids twenty years later, embracing the mall with guilty relief. The mall got us out of the house. It brought us together. It clothed us, fed us, and entertained us.
I’m sad, but I realize now it’s not about the mall. It’s about lost potential, and aging, and the realization that nothing is permanent.
I rarely visit the mall these days. There are only a few stores remaining — Target, Best Buy, Dick’s and H&M. They’re turning the old Macy’s into a medical pavilion. The rest of the mall remains empty. It holds only memories.
My younger daughter has spurned fast fashion. Thanks to her, I’m discovering the joy of vintage shopping. At fifteen, she doesn’t seem to mind going shopping with me in the small towns and villages in our area. I cherish every outing, every Saturday afternoon spent mulling over treasures that can’t be found in any mall.
The dead mall is a symbol of my past, filled with memories and ghosts. It’s a relic whose best days are behind it, but I’m starting to realize that doesn’t mean my best days are gone too. I appreciate what the mall meant to me, and I’m more than ready to let it go.