Some friends went to Chicago last week and they sent me a picture of them eating in the Walnut Room at Macy's. I cringed a bit at the name because that big store on State St. in Chicago will never be Macy's to me. Several years ago, Macy's bought the old and well-loved Marshall Field's store, and when I heard about it, I had to write something. The personal essay below was the result. It was published in 2005 in The Oak Leaves, a Chicago suburban newspaper. For today's post, I would like to share the essay with you. Perhaps it will trigger memories of your own.
Please Don’t Mess With My Memories
By Nancy Julien Kopp
Even though I’m a gray-haired grandmother three times over, I’m computer literate, have a cell phone, get cash from ATM machines and can program a DVD player. I’ve moved on with current technology, in spite of a little teeth-gnashing and grumbling. I even use up-to-date slang with my grandchildren so they’ll think I’m “cool.”
Despite all that, I don’t like anyone messing with my memories. And somebody has tarnished one very special memory. The news anchor on our Kansas City TV station matter-of-factly announced that the famed Marshall Field Department Store in Chicago would soon be known as Macy’s. I nearly choked on my glass of chardonnay, and I slammed a pretzel back in the dish with such force it bounced.
How could they? Marshall Field’s was a huge part of my childhood and teen years. The rest of the newscast was lost as I roller-coastered backwards to the 1940’s and ‘50’s. During the War years, gas was rationed, but my mother and I rode the elevated train from suburban Oak Park to the Loop. Cooing pigeons and the blaring traffic noise of the city surrounded us the moment we arrived. I barely had time to see those soft gray birds strutting on the train platform before my mother whisked me through the double doors that led directly into Marshall Fields.
The entrance led directly to the china department, a wonderland of elegance. I think I developed my great love of fine china as we wended our way through the beauty around us. Linen cloths, crystal, silver and china graced the tops of dozens of show tables. I admired all of it, but the china plates and cups held the greatest fascination for me. It disappointed me that Mother seldom made a purchase in this wonderful section.
Instead, she hurried past the gleaming tables, my little-girl legs moving at top speed to keep up. Sometimes, we visited the entire fourth floor, which displayed toys of every imaginable kind. It was the Disneyworld of that decade, a place where a child could dream and make Christmas lists. Round and round we went looking at dolls and doll houses, tricycles and scooters. Clerks were always available to help but never “pushed” for a sale.
The seventh floor offered several dining spots, but the Walnut Room surpassed the others. When I was four or five, my grandmother introduced me to Tea Time in the well-loved restaurant. The hostess led us through the large, wood-paneled room. Potted palms decorated empty spots, and soft piano music surrounded us. Grandma ordered, and I watched anxiously as other tables were served with small tea pots, plates of tiny sandwiches and petite cakes. Finally, our turn came.
What a treat it must have been for my grandmother to be served, since she supported herself by operating a small bakery and catering service. Grandma poured our tea, putting sugar and a large measure of milk in mine. The aroma of the tea rose between us. Even now, the sound of cups gently placed on saucers and silverware striking plates sometimes brings back that special day. But the best was yet to come. We were treated to a fashion show. Tall, slender models in glorious hats glided between the tables wearing dresses of the latest style.
As a teen, I shopped at Marshall Fields with girlfriends. We started the day with a morning movie at the Chicago Theater which offered stage shows as well as films. Off we’d go to Marshall Field’s, noting the time on the big clock that jutted out from its wall, taking in the numerous window displays as we marched to the main entry. We shopped and tried to look like ladies of the world, but our giggles squelched that plan. We moved from floor to floor making the small purchases our cash supply allowed--no credit cards then, and young girls carried no checkbooks either. Lunchtime brought us to the seventh floor where we had a difficult time selecting one of the several dining rooms, unless it was December. In that month we always lunched at the Walnut Room where a giant, decorated Christmas tree towered above us. Whenever I could talk the other girls into it, I walked through the china department, still taken with the beautiful items on display.
In these earlier years, Christmas decorations and animated window displays were unveiled the day after Thanksgiving. Ignoring the biting cold and sometimes snow, crowds moved from one magical window to another. Those were the days of Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly, and the special Marshall Field frango mints, which melted on our tongues and messed up our fingers if we held onto them too long. They were the days of free delivery service and clerks who went out of their way to serve customers with warmth and respect. The famous dark green shopping bags and boxes were recognizable at a glance. It was a family-owned and operated emporium whose keywords were quality and service.
A few years ago, I visited Marshall Field’s and noted so many changes. The giant retailer could no longer be considered unique. It resembled big department stores in other cities. My heart nearly crumbled when I reached the fourth floor. No longer able to compete with big discount stores, the huge toy department had dwindled to a small corner. I didn’t eat in the Walnut Room, too afraid to see what had transpired there
And soon some young girls will be saying “I’ll meet you under the clock at Macy’s.” Macy’s is a New York store and probably a fine one, but Chicago and Marshall Fields go together like bread and butter or salt and pepper. Each complements the other.
Change is good I’m told, and in some cases, I’d agree. We’ve gone from typewriters to computers and from a cumbersome phone stuck on a wall to a tiny little cell phone carried in a pocket. But my memory of the Marshall Field’s of yesterday is a treasure I’d like to hold onto. Wasn’t I lucky to have the finest training ground imaginable for learning the fine art of shopping?