As her daughter gets closer to graduating from college, Meredith Cummings recalls what it was like raising her on her own. Together they went through a difficult divorce, the restrictions, and homeschooling. Somehow, the shopping mall across the street became their source of hope, talks, positive energy, and so much more.
They had reading mornings over there and made many memories. While it may seem unconventional compared to a house with a yard, a pool, and trees, the shopping mall is where Meredith connected with her daughter. They see it as a place for bonding, creativity, and learning.
What are the details?
The homeschool mom admits that many eyebrows lift as soon as she mentions how Isabel, her daughter, grew up. After all, you don't hear quite often that a mall played a big part in a child's upbringing. However, for Meredith and her daughter, the fact that they lived in an apartment right across the street made a difference.
"My child grew up in a shopping mall. It wasn't the kind of my youth: an enclosed, dark-floored cave with a fountain whooshing in the background. No, this shopping mall is an outdoor arrangement with a fountain in which people throw pennies along with wishes. It has every type of food, a bookstore, Best Buy, Chuck E. Cheese, and more boutiques and brand names than anyone could ever shop in a day," Meredith shared with Your Tango.
As her daughter gets closer to graduation, Meredith can't help reminiscing on how they spent their time together all these years, and the mall is definitely on her mind.
It was their favorite place to relax, share ideas and thoughts, and get inspired.
"To be clear, we didn't live in any of the stores. We lived just feet away in a condo complex in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We still live there. The problem with this is the temptation is to go there all the time. We did not do that; instead, we would end up walking two minutes to the bookstore and spending our mornings and weekends there. It is still our sanctuary," Meredith said.
As soon as the restrictions started and everyone's life became so much more limited as to places to go and things to do, Isabel and Meredith found a way to balance their feelings by going to the mall.
"We window-shopped, thinking about the events we might wear clothes to if we could've gone anywhere. 'We're so lucky!' we'd say to each other, to have so much to see when the world has stopped. Many people just have their home and grass and trees," the mom shared.
They came to Tuscaloosa after their home was destroyed, and the mom's priority was simply to stop living in a hotel with her child and have a place she could call home.
"I had to get my child out of a hotel into a home, even though living in a mall is not, in fact, what most people call a real home. And that became part of our problem," she said.
Her decision met with a lot of criticism, as not everyone could understand why they liked living there when it wasn't the usual house setting. Even her ex-husband told Meredith that it wasn't a good place to raise their daughter.
"'You should live in a house!' people told me. 'She needs a yard to play in!' my ex-husband, her father, would say, shocked, as if I was raising her in an alley. I hesitated and tried to explain my actions and defend them, feeling like something was off. And it was that one word: should."
After a while, Meredith realized that she couldn't live based on other people's opinions, and she just focused on happy moments with her daughter.
"While people kept telling me what I should do, Isabel and I lived our lives. We had lots of fun! We swam in the condo pool, hosted parties in the clubhouse, played on the mini putting green, and pretended to work out as we played and walk-raced on the treadmills," Meredith recalls.
They walked around their neighborhood, noticing the little things, discovering new games, counting stars, and enjoying the view in every season.
"We walked everywhere, including the stores in the mall. We learned about every local flower and tree. We watched neighbors walk dogs and even a few cats. We got to know neighborhood strays. We played ball in the courtyard. We made up our games. On rainy days we walked the various parking decks that connected. We went to the rooftop to look over the city or see the football stadium. Sometimes we watched the stars. When it snowed, we ran to the roof, breathless, to get a bird's eye view of the beautiful snowy Southern city," the mom said.
Meredith values the shopping mall as a central part of their lives and feels that even if what they call home isn't suited to everyone's definition of it, their hearts are whole, and that's all that matters.
"In this place, we recovered from losing our house, going through a divorce, and restrictions. She and I won awards here. I homeschooled her here. We lost close friends. In this place, I became a teacher and taught thousands of students. I wrote. We lost a pet. I lost and found myself again several times. I wrote some more. She started a worldwide youth activist organization."
Through it all, the mother has learned to value personal choices and how ideals only mean happiness when they are about the people living them.
"I raised a kind-hearted child who gently pushed me to expand my life in this place; this small condo in a shopping mall. The word 'should' stops all good things. When someone says you should do something, question it. People said we should move, buy a house so I could take her out of this shopping complex. They told me we should move to a good neighborhood, whatever that is. Yet we've had the time of our lives here. We made memories in the small moments that turned out to be meaningful. I raised my child in a shopping mall, and if I could do it over, I should," she concluded about the way love gives meaning to each place we choose to call home, where we treasure memories and keep close those we hold dear.