Gray, felt walls created a maze in the top floor of the old Younkers building in downtown Des Moines. For my father, then a buyer at the department store, the cramped space and eternal din of the fax machine represented the practical: a way to make money and advance his career. For my younger sister Tara and I, they represented a trip to the top of the world.
As suit-clad bigwigs waltzed by en route to the famed Younkers Tea Room, I entered the Iowa definition of a fairy tale. Delicate crown molding and gold trim decorated the Tea Room. I can’t remember what I ordered (probably grilled cheese, given I was an even pickier eater then than I am now), but I began to realize the power of place in those childhood outings to the Younkers Tea Room.
That power felt particularly real in January, when I traveled to Turkey for J-term. I couldn’t comprehend much of the language, but I felt at once at home and in another world. New places, I realized, have a way of linking the familiar and unfamiliar in the perfect balance, forcing me to reflect on — and adapt — my identity. While the Tea Room let me try on the identity of a queen, Turkey helped me find my wanderer identity.
The power of place hit me again in March 29, when the Younkers building — and my beloved Tea Room — caught fire. Though a large portion of the iconic building burned down, I cling to the memory of the gold trim and the coveted kids’ meal toy, a miniature ceramic plate hand-painted with a pink tulip. Somewhere between the tangible memory of gold accents and doll-sized dinnerware, I realized the role of place in the never-ending creation of my identity.