Mary Lou Sanelli
Mary Lou Sanelli

If you want to read something that will either make you laugh or form a lump in your throat, read one of your early letters or emails to your parents, one you wrote during your freshman year of college, say.

It’s like being reintroduced to your younger self. Or a stranger. A familiar stranger, but still, strange.

Either way, it will startle you. And you may have to delve in pretty deep to remember feeling so hopeful and buoyant.

And yet, I could hardly believe I had told such lies. Well, not lies. I prefer modifications. I was even a little charmed by a few of them, even as I kept hearing my voice in the background echo, hmmm ...

Like when I described my work as a short-order cook in the college cafeteria. I went on and on about the free meals, but I failed to mention that I’d gained 15 pounds eating all that white bread and orange cheese, or that I had to be tested for mono after accepting a second job in the admissions office.

I wrote about how my roommate was able to get me a “great” internship at the Boston Fine Art Museum. What a lie. I never once mentioned the fact that just to be able to work there I had to pretend I didn’t resent not being paid, or how, no matter what I said, my co-worker had to outsay me, or mentioned that I was growing used to this kind of behavior from men in general, or that my boss wasn’t hitting on me half the time — naturally, I skipped over those particular details — or how that experience brought out a protective reflex in me. Resilience. I also said that I thought I might stay on at the museum after graduation.

I had to stop, read that line again, and ask myself, now wait a minute, how could you say such an untrue thing to your parents? Did they really believe everything I wrote? Did I?

My mother saved every letter. And I’ve saved every column since. And sometimes I feel the same embarrassment when I read one of my earliest. Like when I described the newly remodeled Nordstrom flagship store as a promo for “grayscale.” I felt so hip using that word. That’s how amateurish I was.

Today, let me say this about Nordstrom’s: I have a friend who buys her clothes there, and I remember thinking that was ridiculous of her. Had she not heard of TJ Maxx? But I have walked through that store for years and not only to use the ladies room. I have my favorite sale rack where I dream of winning a Pulitzer (I’d settle for a Pushcart), and for years I’d go into the coffee shop for a hard-boiled egg before hiking up to Velocity Dance on Capitol Hill and exit through the little floral shop just for the joy of it. Almost always, I didn’t buy anything, but I liked to imagine myself buying everything.

While growing up, it was Macy’s. Pure happiness. I remember gauging my mother’s mood by the way she tore through the racks. Was someone annoying her? Was someone about to get a spanking if she didn’t stop begging for that whatever jeans she just had to have.

I know kids today can’t be swayed by anything as corny as “Miracle of 34th Street.” They are growing up in new dark ages (beheadings on YouTube!), and their sort of film choices reflects this level of gloom.

When I look back at Macy’s now, it was a simple mother/daughter escape, all too common on Saturdays. The store was air-conditioned, and the ladies room was bigger than our entire apartment. Every moment in those aisles shone: the expanse of floral carpet; the ability to try on clothes we couldn’t afford; those impossible shoe styles showed us an imaginative sense of the world.

I was shaken when I heard about the senseless attack of Nordstrom’s windows. It seemed impossible, those boys with their hammers. I don’t want to hear the petty details of their collective grievances. I no longer care what they are trying to prove. What I mean is, more and more of my friends are out of work, so what is the point of more violence? There are just too many senseless things happening in the world, but privately I grieve for our city.

Never have I heard my friend Stephanie — a downtown building manager — say in such a dismal voice, “They just keep cutting us down.”

I hadn’t been downtown in a while, so when I rounded the corner at Pine, I was taken aback by the new plywood over the windows. How could just one block hold so much defeat? Gone were the mannequins in their stern stylishness, the reflected light, the passers-by looking at themselves in the large plate glass windows, assessing their attractiveness.

Resilience. Indeed. After that, I tried not to forget that even the worst chore I had to tackle was a luxury.

Nordstrom’s has reopened, and I don’t know, I feel … positively hopeful and buoyant somehow.


Mary Lou Sanelli has been part of The Queen Anne & Magnolia News since 2009. Her novel, “The Star Struck Dance Studio (of Yucca Springs),” was released in 2019. Her newest title, “Every Little Thing,” is coming in the fall of 2021. For more information, visit