As far as holidays go, Valentine’s Day has always been one of my favorites. It’s a holiday borne of subversion, persecution, and martyrdom. It was later coopted by the privileged classes during the age of formal courtly love, and today has been consumed almost entirely by commercialism. Add to that the holiday’s de facto mascot, Cupid, who started out as elegant Pagan god with a bow and a quiver of arrows and is now a flying diapered baby who lobs pointy sticks at the unsuspecting. (It’s fun to give sharp objects to babies—nothing bad ever comes from that... right?) So, what’s not to love? As I see it, Valentine’s Day is rife with potential—romance, love, lust, passion, heartache, errant projectiles, grievous bodily injury, and of course, candy, flowers, gifts, and maybe a nice dinner out on a good year.
It’s a little bit romcom and a little bit horror movie... for me, it’s nearly perfect.
I have loved it and all of its ridiculous trappings since I was a kid. For this, I thank my mother. Mom, the consummate holiday lover that she was and still is, could turn even the tiniest holiday into an exciting event worthy of days, if not weeks, of anticipation. She loved celebrating and had a knack for finding the good part of just about anything and anyone. As for Valentine’s Day, mom always had some surprise prepared. Usually, it was something small like French toast for breakfast on a school day or a coconut cake for dessert. (In my world, coconut cake was always a big deal since I was the only one in the house who liked it.) On a really good day, I would wake up to find a giant red paper heart with a long piece of red yarn glued to its back outside my bedroom door. The red yarn would trail around the corner, down the hall, and all around the house. Little gifts would be left along its path, and at its end was the biggest surprise. It was almost like a second Christmas only on a smaller, more glitter-covered scale.
Of course, Valentine’s Day in public elementary school provided its own excitement. Every year, as a Valentine art project, we would adorn paper bags with hearts and (more) glitter. Then, at some undisclosed time on Valentine’s day, we would hang said bags off the edge of our desks before marching, single file, up and down through the rows of desks. Our directive was to drop a Valentine card into each and every bag. By the time it was all said and done, I had a bag full of paper hearts and Cupids. Being the relatively self-absorbed child that I was, I never noticed if everyone else did as they were told. I never noticed if anyone was left out, or overlook, or felt marginalized by exclusion. I had been instructed to include a card for every person in our class, so that is exactly what I did. Boy or girl, friend or foe, popular or unpopular, it didn’t matter. I gave one to everyone. It never dawned on me that my bag full of happy valentines was rarefied in any way. Looking back on it now, I can see that it might have been. Not all kids are as bound by rules as I was.
A few times, I think my adherence to the rules might have sent the wrong message. In the 3rd grade, a few short days after the Valentine delivery march, I got my first romantic overture from a boy. That day, Gerald, my classmate, approached me oddly. We were standing apart from everyone else in the breezeway that connected the front office building with the rest of the school. Gerald stood at least one inch shorter than I did. He was smart and a good student who never got in trouble. By 3rd grade standards, he was handsome. He had plenty of friends. (In high school, this would have made him a catch.) That day, Gerald was sweaty and nervous as he stood in front of me. He held out a small, fragrant box wrapped in brightly decorated paper and at least a yard of scotch tape. He mumbled something along the lines of, “This is for you,” as he struggled to look up into my eyes for more than a second at a time. I took the box and blinked back at him. I had no idea what to do next. He didn’t seem to know what to do next, either. I finally croaked out a stunned, “Thank you,” which sent Gerald running off down the open-air corridor. My face flushed, my heart was beating at a furious pace as I stood there holding his odiferous gift. I knew it was perfume without even opening it. I think everyone in a 20-foot radius knew that it was perfume, too.
Then a giggling voice cut through the air, “Alane and Gerald sittin’ in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Then more giggling voices chimed in, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes John in a baby carriage!” Laughter spread through the breezeway. Even the adults giggled a little as they tried to get everyone back to order. There I stood aggressively wondering if I was now obligated to wear Gerald’s perfume and why they picked John as our baby’s name. My chest tightened with embarrassment…
…and then the moment was over.
Gerald had obviously put a lot of thought (and a lot of scotch tape) into his present. Inside the wrapping paper, he popped the question, “Will you go with me?” That was a big deal in the 3rd grade. It was a major binding agreement in kid-land at the time. As far as I can remember, I never answered him. If I did, I must have blocked it out. It wasn’t my intention to hurt him, I just didn’t have the skills to handle it any better than I did. Even so, I knew at the time that this was an important moment. I knew I wasn’t boy crazy. I knew I was going to be trapped in the same classroom with him for what felt like the rest of forever. I wasn’t in the market for a boy to “go with” like some of my friends were already. Actually, the notion of “going with” a boy was a source of great consternation for me. I was perplexed by what I thought to be logical follow up questions like “Go with you where?” and “How will we get home?” Nobody ever talked about that. Beyond that, if I agreed to “go with” a boy, what would I be required to do? My life, at that point, was more or less a series of externally imposed requirements. I was required to go to school, do my homework, clean my room, do my chores, go to dance class, go to bed, and go to the doctor and the dentist from time to time. Of course, I also had to wash my hands and brush my teeth and to say things like “yes sir,” “no ma’am,” “may I,” “please,” and “thank you” among others. To sum it up, my life at that age was mostly a controlled set of requirements with largely foreseeable outcomes. So, before I could answer such a loaded question, I needed a full accounting of the requirements attached to “going with” a boy—Gerald or otherwise. I didn’t think it was all that unreasonable to ask for a straight answer… Was he going to show up at my house? Did I have to introduce him to my parents? That’s what my older brother did with his girlfriends—that and so much more—and I wasn’t ready for any of that.
Later that day, when I showed Gerald’s gift to my mother, she smiled and handled the situation as adeptly as she handled most things. She said kindly, “Isn’t that sweet,” and then called him a “thoughtful young man,” before telling me that I should be nice to him, but I was too young to worry about having a boyfriend. That last part was a relief. At that moment, decided I was going to ride the “my-parents-won’t-let me-have-a-boyfriend-sorry” line as long as I could… and I did.
Looking back on it, Gerald turned out to be the first of many awkward romantic near-misses and flubs. Some were directly related to Valentine’s day, and some were not. Maybe they were all reactions to Cupid’s arrows, but there’s no way to be sure.
Nevertheless, I still love this holiday. Not even my ex-husband’s final—and extremely romantic—Valentine’s Day gift could wreck it for me. That day, he walked in the door and unceremoniously tossed a plastic grocery bag in front of me as he muttered, “Here…” in my general direction. Inside the bag was five bucks worth of bargain bin Valentine’s candy that he picked up at Walgreens on his way home from work. That was the last Valentine he ever gave me. Maybe I should have been honored that he thought of it at all, but I wasn’t. It seemed more like I had been hit with the wrong arrow from that stupid Cupid baby 15 years earlier, and all I got, in the end, was a bag of stale chocolate and migraine.
Even so, I still think we need a day set aside for romance and all of its clichéd trappings. It’s a day for taking risks (like Gerald did) and for investigating possibilities and inspiring passion. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it ends in pain and disappointment, and sometimes serves as a clear warning sign that your relationship has kicked the bucket. No matter how it turns out, we get to experience our lives a little more fully on a day like Valentine’s Day… and I think that’s worth celebrating.
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