I love Valentine’s Day. There, I said it. This is not a widely held sentiment among the people in my sociological slice of late middle age.
For friends who are single, divorced or widowed, it can be a lonely day. For the long married, a reminder of just how formulaic and rote their marriages have become.
I listened politely last year as one friend complained about her husband ticking off the boxes on his Valentine’s Day checklist–the same overpriced roses, the same dinner reservation, the same tiny box from which she will extract yet one more pair of earrings—with luck, a variation on the ones he was given her for lo-these-many-years. Of course, that’s exactly the kind of continuity that my unpartnered friends yearn for; but I do get her point. The rituals that made you happy thirty years ago may need updating.
But romance is just a teensy part of Valentine’s Day and it makes me sad to think that our assessment of the day rises and falls on the romance score alone. For me it’s become a day of remembering the unexpected kindnesses that life has delivered.
Case #1–When my sisters and I were little girls, we used to get a manilla envelope sometime early in February from our great aunt Elizabeth. It would be stuffed with doilies and red construction paper and cupid stickers—everything needed to construct gloriously elaborate Valentines.
The great aunt who sent these envelopes was not in any way romantic. She was a spinster and a businesswoman She was the only person I knew as a child who read the Wall Street Journal. On account of this, I assumed for many years that the WSJ was a paper for women, maybe an offshoot of the Ladies Home Journal. The eldest of three immigrant girls whose father had been struck and killed by a Boston and Maine train at the age of 35, it had been a coup for Elizabeth to finish high school. She went to work as a secretary at a pipe foundry, and according to family legend, bought out her boss when he panicked at the outset of Great Depression.
Something Quite Out of Character
Elizabeth was not domestic. She sustained herself on the businessman’s lunches and Delmonico potatoes served at the Kernwood Restaurant in Malden, Massachusetts. When we went to visit her on Christmas Eve, she would bring out a bakery box and casually blow the dust off a china plate before setting out the macaroons.
She wasn’t exactly stern, but she was a serious person, and not the great aunt you expected to go in for the frivolity of Valentine’s Day. I think we loved her packages of fancy bits and pieces because they were so out of character. Children are always on the prowl for adults behaving out of character.
Case #2–I still remember getting a Valentine my freshman year in college from a boy I had known in high school. We didn’t live in the same town or go to the same school, but had met through a statewide student government activity. When it was time to go to college, he stayed in Massachusetts and went to a state school, while I went away at a fancy-pants private college.
But I wasn’t doing any of the great things that Early Decision admission and a named scholarship at an Ivy League school might have portended. September optimism had morphed into February panic. Socially and academically, I was woefully out of my league and in the middle of a hard come-uppance. Even if you are reasonably smart, five years of double sessions at a fair-to-middling public school do not even get you to the edge of the same playing field as graduates of schools that have Academy in their name.
It Was A Long, Cold Winter
And I was cold. So, very, very cold. Most mornings, my hair froze into baby icicles on my way to early morning classes or my work-study job in the library. When my mother and I had gone shopping for college neither of us knew about down-filled jackets and the upscale brands that specialize in cold weather gear. My only defense against the New Hampshire sub-zero was a nylon/polyester parka from Sears Roebuck. It was purple.
I was miserable that winter. By February, I felt like a late winter bank of roadside snow—iced over, coated with emotional grime, just waiting to melt away.
But then I got a Valentine. Out of the blue. Addressed in the cramped hand of someone with messy writing trying to be careful. A happy, silly, unexpected Valentine. Which sort of changed everything.
This story doesn’t end with romance. The sender and I were just friends. We haven’t kept in touch and I am sure he doesn’t even remember sending that card, but it was an unexpected kindness. And maybe a lifeline.
By spring, I found my bearings gain. My grades improved. I figured out what I was doing in that confusing bastion of privilege. I found courses and an area of study that I have stayed immersed in my whole life. I made friends and I made art. I fell in love with the granite of New Hampshire. But I wonder sometimes, would I have stuck it out through that grim winter if I had not received that unexpected Valentine?
The Case for Sending Valentines
Go ahead, send a Valentine. Don’t waste your energy being a Valentine’s Day hater. You can’t control the Valentines you will or will not receive, the roses and chocolates that will or will not arrive. But it is in your power to be a sender. Be the perpetrator of an unexpected kindness. It could make all the difference.