Like nearly every other child, I had a comfort object. His name was Dear Deer. I got him when I was three years old, and he became my best friend. I slept with him every night, took him on every family vacation and used him as a pillow to cushion my neck from uncomfortable seat belts on every long car trip.
I loved him so much that his once white belly turned the color of Sunday morning storm clouds, heavy with the promise of rain, and the plumpness of his arms shriveled from all the time I spent holding onto them, like beanstalks in a drought. Dear Deer was my playmate and a constant source of love as I slept. I thought we would be friends forever.
Then I grew up.
Our relationship changed. Dear Deer no longer slept in my bed every night, and sometimes I wasn’t even sure where he was in my room. He didn’t come with me on car trips anymore, and sometimes I would go months without thinking of him. The last straw was when I got a bunk bed. I had no use for the top bunk, so I put all my blankets and pillows up there, as well as a few select stuffed animals I no longer needed but still wanted around. Up he went, and he hasn’t come down since.
With age comes disposability, and that’s what Dear Deer was to me: a mark of age. I had outgrown the need for a comfort object, and so, I tossed him away with child-like flippancy.
Somehow, although I am so easily able to reject something that once meant the world to me, I still become enraged and offended when the most important places from my youth are boarded up with “For Sale” signs and dark windows, left to gather dust without a second thought.
Long before Andy’s, Randy’s and Freddy’s Frozen Custard, Shake’s was the place to go for a soft-serve treat on a sweltering summer night. Now permanently closed, the custard shop offered every treat a pre-adolescent customer could hope for. One of my favorite adventures was loading into my father’s car with my brother and mother to savor some frosty custard before it melted all over our clothes. Before the parlor closed, we visited it one last time to pay our respects and say goodbye. A Bandana’s BBQ has now replaced it, but every time I drive by I think of the evenings we spent on the small patio watching cars pass as my hands and face became a sticky, sugary mess.
Even though the new trio of custard shops taste practically the same as Shake’s, they fail to replicate the deep emotional connection my six-year-old self made with the cold metallic chairs and tucked-away secrecy of a place all my own where I could enjoy a soft-serve scoop without being surrounded by crowds of strangers, even in the dead of winter.
Dear Deer was the first domino to fall; Shake’s tumbled to the ground in speedy succession. The next place to go hit me the hardest. It knocked the air out of my lungs and left my head spinning like an unexpected fall from the monkey bars.
Every summer my family and I travel up north to a small cottage in a lakeside town in Canada where we spend several weeks biking, swimming and lying around at the beach. For most of my childhood and part of my father’s, the Back Beach Store was a summer staple. Though it has existed under different names and owners — the thin man who always smelled faintly of cigarettes, the nice woman with curly brown hair — the essence of the store never changed. Each time I visited, I would save my money to buy a new “Archie” comic. Obsessed with the stories of the Riverdale gang long before they were a CW sensation, I returned to the store with a magnetic attraction during the couple weeks per year we were up at the cottage.
Second only to Riverdale tales were pecan butter tarts and the ever exciting Mystery Bags. For $1.25 I could purchase a white paper bag full of year-old easter candy, Bob the Builder chocolate eggs, rock hard bubble gum and wind up toys that broke two days later. As a kid, I thought those bags were as exciting as seeing all the shining colors of unknown Christmas presents beneath our tree on a snowy Dec. 25 morning. I would buy one almost every other day, building up a collection of plastic figurines and bubble gum wrappers to take home as souvenirs, though they never seemed to make it back to the states with me.
When the Back Beach Store closed for good, everyone was shocked. For years it seemed to teeter on the edge of shutting down, but every summer the lights were still on with fresh pecan tarts on the counter for our hungry mouths. Until they weren’t. After 14 years of visiting the same shop every summer, it was gone with a creaking, whimpering sigh. There was no warning, at least none I could see. The summer we left it was open. When we returned, there were no lights and the windows were boarded up. I didn’t know how to react. There were no tears to be shed, just an empty grave marking the death of my childhood in chipping paint and soulless windows.
I returned to Columbia that summer feeling much older than when I left.
It was no surprise when Empire Roller Rink shut its doors for good. Just like the Back Beach Store, the warning signs were clear, but now I knew what to look for. The crowds shrunk from a stream to a trickle, and as I aged I visited its discotech hardwood floors and neon lights less and less until its very existence seemed only a faded memory in the back of my mind.
As a child, however, I celebrated countless friends’ birthday parties in the jungle room, eating store-bought cake and showing off who picked out the best gift for the host. In a mob of munchkin-sized party goers, we would storm the hardwood, skating ourselves to exhaustion until everyone needed sugary sustenance to support our small bodies. During limbo competitions I was the queen, winning prizes on more than one occasion as a result of my small stature and youthful flexibility. I became proficient in quad skating, at least as long as my clothing padded all major bruise-points. Still, a day of roller skating was the epitome of joy at nine years old, and when Empire Roller Rink closed in January, a sliver of my childhood innocence departed with it.
“Somehow, although I am so easily able to reject something that once meant the world to me, I still become enraged and offended when the most important places from my youth are boarded up with “For Sale” signs and dark windows, left to gather dust without a second thought.”
As Joni Mitchell so eloquently put it in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
The march of progress is inevitable and relentless, disregarding tradition for the sake of profit. As easily as I can set aside my most constant childhood companion, the world pushes out what is no longer contemporary, eradicating the simplicity of a soft-serve ice cream cone and a pair of well-worn skates in favor of hollow buildings earmarked to one day be torn down and paved over. Destruction is like telling a child what’s in each of his or her birthday gifts, decorated with balloons and bows, before he or she has the chance to look, and it carries much the same result: sorrow, confusion and pain.
Time, an inconsiderate thief, rips all semblance of closure from my hands as it passes me by without my consent.
I hope one day to look out on the landscape of Columbia and point out to a younger generation the existence of survivors from my childhood: buildings and institutions clinging to relevance long past their prime. I do not want to allow the places I love, the places that make this expansive world home to so many billions of people, seem foreign as others my age watch the mementos of their youth crumble before their eyes.
Preservation is a lost art, but without it we risk losing empathy and memories. Someday, I wish to return and find the spaces of my youth still intact, my childhood preserved in amber, a young girl with strawberry blond hair tugging on her father’s hand as they wait in line on the last day of summer for a deliciously cold vanilla cone, a smile plastered from ear to ear on her face.
What was your favorite place to hang out during your childhood? Let us know in the comments below.