Years ago I met a special band of people who had all endured wrenching losses. Holidays tended to bring them to our group where they felt safe to talk about how difficult seasonal festivities were for them. They could be blunt. They could be angry. They could be raw and share random shocking thoughts and language without the burden of shielding loved ones unprepared for their shattering grief. In the vernacular, when we came together we could be “real”.
Christmas was especially difficult, as one might expect, with some also having anniversaries and birthdays wrapped around the holiday. And just when they thought they were out of the woods, the worst having passed, January snuck by and turned into Valentine’s Day. Red hearts blaring “LOVE” decorated every grocery, drug and department store, as ads on television and radio prodded gift giving, and painfully reminded us all of a time when we were recipients.
My late husband had loved Valentine’s Day and had exquisite flower bouquets created for me. White. Freesias, tulips, roses, Oriental lilies. Each flower visual perfection, sturdy stems of lilies and roses mingled with the gentle bends of tulips and freesias, the stamen of each bright against the cream and white colors. The collaboration exuded a heady fragrance; the freesias always had the last say. When he was gone the pain left in his place crowded out happy memories of Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day had become so serious. It hadn’t always meant I had a sweetheart. Didn’t always hail a marketing frenzy for the retail sector. In my childhood world those cheerful red hearts heralded fun. And treats! Friends, a classroom party, crafts, delights from Mom’s kitchen. Bee (buzz, buzz, buzz) mine.
I know some people don’t like Valentine’s Day on principle. They think it’s a Hallmark invention. Madison Avenue strikes again. Then there are those without mates who yearn for one, and others who had a lifelong love but life was so much shorter than they imagined.
Valentine’s Day coaxes me to my rearview mirror to see all its presentations over the years, and reminds me of those I have loved.
There are memories of white paper bags decorated with crayons and construction paper, taped to desks at school. Corny cards stuffed inside I couldn’t wait to open. Conversation hearts in little boxes. Mom’s heart-shaped spice cake made before Wilton had a heart-shaped pan, her waxed paper template placed atop each layer as she carefully trimmed around it, then frosted it with pink icing, and finished with a border of red cinnamon candies. Made with love for my dad, this was her annual gift to him and lucky for us, he always shared (because we always hovered).
I keep a long-empty velvet heart candy box given to me by my then 11-year old son on the first Valentine’s Day after his dad died not three weeks before. So many miles ago in the rearview mirror, I can imagine how Mom must have taken him shopping for it and how he carefully chose it.
On years when I’ve been sniffling with a cold, tissues and cold medicine littering the bed, I’ve still managed to wear my sparkling diamond earrings, Rick’s gift to me on our first married Valentine’s day, 20 years ago. He handed them to me disguised in a brown grocery bag while apologizing for not having had time to shop. It was a ruse as I lie on the sofa, watching Oprah, recovering from a double mastectomy. He delighted at his successful surprise with the help of a friend, Judy, a jeweler and no doubt gleeful co-conspirator. She’s gone now, too. Each year when I put those earrings on, see them glitter and dazzle as I open the box, the memories dazzle, as well. Today Judy’s face will come to life in their light.
Valentine’s Day is a bubbling cauldron of memories; joy and laughter, grief and loneliness, hope and love. Sorrow and sweetness. It’s a remembrance of those we love and have loved wherever they may be as they linger in our rear view mirrors. The best part is, today is about love. One day on the calendar dedicated to nothing but love. The silly red paper heart kind, the mournful lost-to-us-forever kind, the warm I-can-count-on-you-my-Pal-entine kind. The snuggly pajamas with my cat kind, the sticky-handed little kid kind. The I-did-the-best-I-could-kind. The “I will love you forever” kind.
To everyone, in every way, celebrate this day of love. Celebrate with cupcakes, and hot cinnamon hearts, and cards made with white paper doilies pasted on red, lettered with crayon. There is love in the world. Maybe not just the one we’d like right now, or maybe one so perfect we’re afraid it might go away. Today it’s here. Take a deep breath, open eyes wide and see the love that surrounds us every day in every way.
Have fun! Eat red jelly beans. Tell those you care about how special they are to you. I hope the paper mail bag taped to your heart is stuffed with notes and cards from your loved ones.
This is mine to you.
For Riley Hayes. The King family’s newest little Valentine.