Christmas memories about to go up in smoke

Salt Lake Tribune – As Cottonwood Mall is demolished, firefighters will train in the crumbling buildings

As shoppers flood stores in search of last-minute gifts, firefighters already have bagged the perfect present: They got a mall.
Through the end of January, the Unified Fire Authority will conduct extensive training exercises in Holladay’s now-nearly-empty Cottonwood Mall at 4835 S. Highland Drive.
“It’s a once-in-a-career opportunity to go there and do drills and practices,” UFA Capt. Troy Prows said Friday. “We use structures that are ready to be destroyed for practice.”
But rarely do those buildings come so super-sized – with 700,000 square feet of prime proving ground.
“We’ve never had a structure like this,” said Prows, 13 years into his career. “We once acquired a Wal-Mart, and it felt like Christmas.”

This little item may seem like an unimportant trifle, but it’s just one more hammerblow to me; it’s yet another place that’s connected with childhood memories of my mom and dad that will soon be gone forever. One more reason not to visit Salt Lake any time soon, now that Mom’s gone, the house is long sold, the many Christmas presents and shopping bags full of school clothes bought “at Cottonwood” lost in the intervening years.

What’s a shopping mall? A big place where a lot of shops come together, but to a little kid in the early Sixties, at least one was a fairly magical place that contained wonders, in different seasonal array. “Going to Cottonwood” contained a measure of glamour and mystery that going any other place to shop (downtown, for example) just didn’t have. Only Trolley Square was more fun, more quaint, more entertaining, but it was designed to be that way. Cottonwood was an ordinary 60’s era shopping mall, with large stores anchoring the ends and smaller, but much more interesting stores along both sides. There weren’t even any fancy fountains or seating areas, at least in the early years, but it didn’t need it – it had a prestige or cachet all its own (at least to my young and naive self).

In the spring, after a long cold winter, that was where we went to get Easter dresses and shoes, shiny pairs of Mary Janes in the colors of dyed eggs. Mom spent a lot of time checking out the specialty candy stores, looking for a particular kind of chocolate fudge egg she called “Penouche” or “panoosh” that apparently only came out at Eastertime. This was somehow connected with her own childhood. She was always tickled if she found black jellybeans, which were a special favorite of her best friend, and another comforting memory for her.

In the summer, especially after my sisters moved out in that direction, we often drove past the mall on our way somewhere, but often turned in to check out the sales at Penney’s or ZCMI’s as summer waned into “BackToSchool Season.”

In fall, when I was very small, we were most often there at night, with the sharp scent of burning oak and maple leaves drifting down the mountainside as we arrived for interminable bowling league games that both my parents played in. Thus we were often there a couple of times a week, until Pop died and Mom joined a different “grandma’s league.” Sometimes we’d stop in if the stores had “late opening” for the pre-Christmas shoppers, and there was at least one time when they had a Halloween costume contest that I competed in as an awkward 12-year-old. Mom made my costume out of an old raincoat, a lot of old stockings, and a couple of odd pieces of lumber nailed together into a T-shape. I was a headless girl, with big horn-rim glasses, which kind of spoiled the effect.

But quite often, the preparations for Christmas would be visible – Santa’s village would start to take shape in late October, in spite of my mom’s muttered imprecations, and the tension would begin to build. What did I want for Christmas? What would Santa actually bring? It was a source of great speculation, and dread, even then.

At Christmas, we’d go and see Santa, although there was a perfectly good one much closer by, in a tiny little hut in the center of Sugar House (which has also been completely remade, and will be remade again this year). Santa’s House was near a giant Christmas Tree at the ZCMI end of the mall, which proved somehow to lots of my friends that ZCMI was theologically a better bet than Penney’s.  About midway down the mall, there was always a giant wooden Christmas Tree designed for school choirs to climb up into its branches, a little like a really steep amphitheater standing upside-down and inside out. In high school, I climbed up into the narrow little shelves three times to sing at various Christmas programs. Afterwards, Mom and I would do some shopping – she always drove me to these things unless they were scheduled during her part-time job’s work hours.  If that was the case, I’d ride with other choir members.

Even as a child, it bothered me that certain treasured shops that had fascinated me as a first-grader, like the little electric race-car and train shop that had big windows and handrails so little kids could hoist themselves up and watch cars and trains endlessly zip around on tracks, was no longer there in the little lower-level hallway off to one side of the main mall. This shop closed or relocated sometime when I was still in grade school, and I missed it, because it was a magical place somehow, and it was replaced by something boring, like a shop for big and tall girls… a shop where I would purchase a couple of pairs of very 70’s jeans before shipping out for the West Coast and college a few years after that.

It bothered me that other shops disappeared, but sometimes they were replaced by shops or restaurants that I liked better. But then those, too, would disappear in some major remodeling project that redesigned the main entrance and forced them to close or move. And I’d hear about it from Mom, who kept me up to date on that kind of thing.

The last 15 years or so, I’ve rarely visited Cottonwood Mall, although it was always there on Mom’s chosen route to my sister Timmy’s house. Mom just could not be convinced to try a different, slightly faster route for years, because she was used to Highland Drive and didn’t want to go another way, especially if it went via “Confusion Corner,” which was really any major intersection that was cock-eyed or contained more than 4 incoming streets. There were several of these between our house and Timmy’s house and they had to be negotiated carefully, if not avoided altogether. The easiest and least confusing was to edge around most of them and go by way of Cottonwood, which also meant you could check out the movie marquee and see if anything good was playing.

The bowling alley was torn down years before, another event that made us both sad when we went past and saw it was gone.  Then the movie theater got torn down and rebuilt into a multiplex, and so that wasn’t the same, either.

I’m not sure what Mom would make of this latest piece of real estate to be completely transformed into something else. I’m pretty sure she’d complain loudly about yet another development dumping even more cars on the road and screwing up traffic on her preferred route to Timmy’s, if she were still driving, and if Timmy and her husband were planning to live out that way much longer (they’re not).

I’m sure Mom would feel sad about not being able to drive out to the ZCMI end of the mall one more time, wait with me in line, and then park herself on Santa’s lap and scold him, “Don’t you come to my house for at least another week, Santa, I’m not ready!” In the old days, this would always cause extreme dismay in the ranks of kids lined up for their consultation with the jolly gent in red, and always get Mom a big appreciative belly-laugh from a Santa who wouldn’t dare flirt in front of the kiddies with this cushy, middle-aged, but still cute housewife.

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