Such a simple, yet loaded, question. For anyone who has sent one, Valentines are as much about the giver as the recipient. On Valentine’s Day, we express our love, gratitude, and loyalty to our loved ones, and, if appropriate, we extol their romantic appeal. (Let’s skip lust, shall we?)
In elementary school, we made Valentine “mailboxes” out of construction paper to hang on our desk. Every classmate received a Valentine, and we weren’t allowed to give a nasty Valentine to someone we didn’t like. Valentines were a lesson about friendship and basic civility, at the very least.
“I’m not giving Bobby a Valentine this year,” I’d say.
“Why not?” My Mother would counter.
“Because he chases me with grasshoppers at recess.”
“Maybe he wouldn’t do that, if you were nicer to him.”
“Ewww. And he chews on the points of pencils.”
“Don’t you eat paste?”
“Well, yeah, but paste tastes good, and that pencil lead turns his mouth gray.”
“Either everybody gets a Valentine, or nobody gets a Valentine.”
I would shuffle through my little box of assorted Valentines, pull out my least favorite, and write “B-O-B-B-Y” on it with a shudder.
Once into junior high school, Valentines disappeared. They were replaced with the dreaded “Valentine’s Dance,” an evening function where you wore your best dress, and the boys wore a jacket and tie. You danced with your girlfriends in large circles to the music of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Petula Clark, the Temptations, and whoever else was on the top-40 chart. If you were really, really, really lucky, one of the boys in your class would ask you to slow dance. It only happened to me once, when some other girls convinced the shortest boy in my 8th grade class to dance with me, one of the three shortest girls. I don’t remember the song, but it was the longest 2 minutes 14 seconds of my life. He was wearing a tweed jacket and wasn’t happy at all. I was just relieved when it was over.
You see, there are no Valentines for mouthy girls. For a smart girl, I should have learned to hold my tongue (still should, for that matter), but no boy was cute enough to sacrifice my lofty principles. There were no dates for the prom or homecoming dances, because, in those days, you couldn’t go to the formal dances without a date. You stayed at home.
Unless you were me.
For the junior prom in 1969, I threw a sleepover for all of my girlfriends who weren’t invited to the big dance. Eight of us were playing records and laughing (think a Taylor Swift fan party without money) in my family’s basement “rec room,” when, suddenly, there was a knock at my parents’ back door.
“Uh, there are some boys that want to talk to you,” my dad called down the stairs. No young man had ever approached my home, so my dad was really confused.
“Huh?” I looked up to the door, where my Secret Crush stood in the freezing February night. I heard sudden furtive giggling behind me and bolted up the stairs.
“Hello,” I said, somewhat defiantly.
“Uh, what are you doing?” Mr. Secret Crush, who had only spoken to me to get answers on tests in my English class, asked. I knew that he and his friends had driven into Ontario to play ice hockey and drink near-beer all afternoon instead of going to the prom.
“We’re having a party,” I replied.
“Uh, can we come in?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I gave him my coyest look.
“No.” My heart was pounding, and the shrew that lives in my head was screaming, “Are you crazy? You’ve waited two years for this!” Ever a woman of principle and stupidity I said,
“If you want to party, we should go to the prom.”
“What?” There was more giggling behind me and snickering behind him.
“Sure,” I looked at my watch, “it’s just 7:30. We could go over now. We’ll even buy our own tickets.”
He looked at his letter jacket and corduroy pants. The girls were wearing skirts, culottes (remember them?), or slacks.
“We’re not dressed for it,” he said, but I was up for the dare.
“I didn’t hear there was a dress code. Who says we can’t go?”
“Well, uh — um,” he stammered, “Ok. Um. I’ll drive. We can go in two cars.”
“Let me get my coat.” We piled into their cars and drove the short two miles to the high school. I jumped out of the car and headed to the door. In reality, I wasn’t sure school officials would let us in, but I was having more fun than I’d ever had in my life.
“Wait,” Mr. Secret Crush stopped. “You aren’t serious, are you?”
And in that moment, he stopped being my secret crush. He didn’t have the guts to be my boyfriend.
“Well, I was, but I can’t go in alone, without a date.” He shrugged. We piled back into the cars and drove home.
“Can we come in now?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so.” I knew that I was ruining my chances of ever dating anyone in high school, but I also was no pushover.
A year later, somehow, The Veterinarian came along, my first (and only) boyfriend. I regularly pinched myself that I had landed someone so desirable. Not only was he smart, well-respected, and sophisticated (he knew how to eat a lobster, which was almost unheard-of in 1960s middle class Midwestern families), he was an accomplished athlete, a diver on our school’s accomplished swim team.
As Valentine’s Day approached, I was delirious, dreaming of the cards and flowers and gifts that would be showered on me by my handsome, popular boyfriend. I searched for the perfect card and wrote an appropriately loving note in it. On February 14, 1970, I proudly sat in the stands for a statewide meet that would determine how large a college scholarship he might get. In the morning prelims, he qualified first out of 50 divers. In the afternoon finals, he was hanging onto a slim lead in the final round when something went wrong on the last dive. He finished third. That night, he came over to my house, despondent.
There would be no full scholarship to the NCAA Division I school that he, the eldest of six children, hoped to attend, although he would be offered both full academic and athletic scholarships to a Division II school. We sat quietly on the sofa in the rec room. I suppressed my eagerness to get to the Valentine’s celebration and waited. He talked about everything but the holiday. He talked about everything but me.
I should have understood that this was what love is really about. I should have realized that you can’t give a greater gift to your beloved than to help them put the pieces back together. When he left, I took out the Valentine that I had not given him, tore it up, and threw it in the trash. He simply hadn’t remembered it was Valentine’s Day, but I thought that I was crushed.
The next year, 1971, our freshman year in college, after considerable hinting from me, he remembered. I wished he hadn’t. The first Valentine that he ever gave me was a joke card whose cover read, “I couldn’t love you more…” and inside, “…unless you were Sophia Loren Ali MacGraw” (he had penciled in). I think I threw the card at him in my fury. It’s a wonder we stayed together for 42 years, isn’t it? That’s love, too, I guess.
I was awake at 2:45 one night this week and logged onto a dating site, because I thought I’d be less likely to be engaged in an “instant” conversation with a creepy stranger in the middle of the night. (Yeah, I get the irony, but I never IM anyone.) But I was wrong! Like a scene from a horror movie, within 30 seconds, up popped a photo of what appeared to be a serial killer with the message “how u doin beautiful” [sic]. I couldn’t log out fast enough and was shaking like a leaf in the safety of my own little bed with the security alarm set and my BFF at the ready.
There used to be a joke that a man’s ideal woman was part Julia Child-part Playmate of the Month. I’m more Martha Stewart-Roseanne Barr, an attractive woman who can cook up a storm with a mouth like a sailor (sorry, sailors). Even Martha does online dating these days, and, if a woman with her money can’t find a man, I surely can’t, either. But I’ll bet she makes a better Valentine out of papier mâché and gold leaf than I can.
Several of this week’s scammer messages contained the phrase “you appear so gentle, kind, and dear.” [rotflmao] Before reporting one of them, I responded, “Come on. No reputable American male would ever open an email to a woman with ‘Hello, my dear’.”
All of this points out why I will probably never have a successful relationship again. I’m still mouthy. I’ve never been described as “gentle.” I am exhausted by the thought of breaking in another man. I don’t want to do the Valentine’s dance because we are all stuck in the 1960s, moving awkwardly with one another. I, of course, was no hippie, so I can’t do the dance under the spell of a lava lamp or controlled substances, either.
Today, I changed my profile to include “Friendships begin with civility, honesty, and humor. Lasting relationships succeed with humility, respect, generosity, forgiveness, and compromise.” Widowers will understand that love comes from the mundane, but I’m hoping it rings a bell with those from failed relationships. I doubt that it will have any meaning to the newly divorced and certainly not to the “currently separated.” They’re all resumés and hurt feelings.
I, however, will receive Valentines from my loved ones, some traditional, some electronic, and have a treasure box full of old Valentines and a heart full of memories, so who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo Gloria!