Updated: Aug 1, 2021
“ We began to pick up the many broken jars, wrappers and single muddy gloves from under our feet. We would yell out an unusual find, or call for my mother to assess the antique status of an old bottle. "
Six of us walked with my mother to the end of our street and down the hill into the parking lot of Philadelphia Sales. “Phillies,” as our parents called it, was a regional department store, and the one in our neighborhood had been there for many years, a kind of Woolworth meets Kmart, an old factory reconfigured. There were ramped passageways between departments, with a sporting goods section that led to a toy department then rounded the bend of lower ceilings into a fabric warehouse. Throughout the store wafted the smell of fresh popcorn, thin white paper bags stacked to the side of the hot machine, ready to be filled. Intercoms went off constantly, requesting a manager or a cashier, or announcing a daily special or misplaced child. The parking lot behind the store was rough with potholes, built cheaply on landfill, and the houses of this lower middle class neighborhood crossed over onto the pavement with no delineation. Phillies was a family store and we felt it very much belonged to us. In the summertime, my mother was there daily to pick up nails for my dad’s projects, a funny birthday card, yarn for a quilt in the making, or to gossip with the local ladies. This store was my happy place, a bonding experience with my mother, and an inside playground for my friends. We knew every inch of the store, every toy in stock. Along the edge of the parking lot was a strip of woods, wild but for paths forged by students cutting through to the junior high school on the other side of the railroad tracks. It was littered with years of debris, a historic trail of trash thrown from cars or dropped by packs of kids. This day, we walked to the end of the lot as my mother unpacked her tote, pulling out plastic garbage bags and hand wipes. We began to pick up the many broken jars, wrappers and single muddy gloves from under our feet. We would yell out an unusual find, or call for my mother to assess the antique status of an old bottle. We cleaned for hours, slowly bringing the green back to the woods, until the manager of the store appeared and stood at the edge of the trees, stunned. “I can’t believe they’re doing this,” he said to himself. My mother beamed with pride but kept working, explaining how she had told us that the best way to make something better was to fix it yourself. “Please take them all inside and let them pick out a toy,” the manager said. The woods freshly raked and sparkling, we rushed into Phillies to claim our prize, running up and down the aisles, overjoyed. We had spent this day working tirelessly for the selfless pleasure of making our little world a more beautiful place. What we took home was the gratitude of someone’s heart, unexpectedly filled and a little changed, and pockets stuffed with a reminder of how much you get when you want absolutely nothing in return.