The Christmas I was four, my mother took me to the biggest local mall early in December. We stopped at a kiosk that was selling Christmas stockings to get one with my name on it. They said they'd have it ready later, so we went to the food court to get something to eat. This is where my actual memory begins.
While my mother and I waited in line at Original Pizza, I ventured to the next food stall over and then came back to my mother. Then I ventured just a little bit further and came back. I did this several times until I was venturing around a curve, just out of sight of the line at Original Pizza. The last time I came back, I couldn't find my mother. It looked like the right food stall, but she wasn't there, and now I wasn't sure. I turned in circles looking for her. I raced past all the food stalls, starting to panic. She was gone. My mother was gone and I didn't know what to do or what would happen to me, and I wasn't allowed to talk to strangers.
A mother-aged woman noticed my distress, or maybe the fact that I was alone, and asked if I needed help. My fear of being lost and alone trumped my fear of stranger-danger and I told her, "My mommy lost me." Just then I saw my mother on the big ramp on the other side of the food court. She was talking to another mother with a small child. I raced to her. I told her I hadn't been able to find her anywhere and I was so scared.
She said she had wanted to surprise me. The last time I wandered off, she had left the food court to go back to the Christmas stocking kiosk. She said she had come back into the food court by another route so she could have my stocking to show me. It seemed like an odd choice at the time, but it seems odder to me in hindsight, as the adult mother of a small child. I also know the layout of that mall better than I did at age four, and I cannot imagine leaving my small daughter alone in the food court while I ventured to another floor of the mall where she was even slightly obscured from my view. I wouldn't do that if she asked me to, let alone leave without a word so that she could suddenly find herself lost and alone. I couldn't play anywhere but my room at home without a chaperone standing guard over me. I had what seemed like no autonomy or privacy for at least the next decade. Why was leaving me alone in a mall at the age of four okay?
I wonder if she wanted to see me panic, to prove my love for her (testing her children's "love" was sort of a thing with her). I wonder if she wanted to "teach me a lesson" not to wander off, though she hadn't told me to stay put. I wonder if she hoped something might happen to me so she wouldn't have to deal with me anymore. Or maybe it was just a brief lapse in judgment. She didn't seem to think it was a lapse in judgment. She'd just wanted to surprise me. She was trying to do something nice and I, as usual, ruined it. I was just relieved she hadn't left me forever.