I cannot swear to the exact date but Feb. 13, 1973, seems logical.
Saint Valentine’s Day fell on a Wednesday that year, so preparations in my second grade class at West Spring Street Elementary School would likely have fallen on the Tuesday before.
Lincoln’s birthday, still celebrated as its own observance, was Monday the 12th and we probably made construction paper stovepipe hats in remembrance; every kid on the bus going home that afternoon a miniature version of Honest Abe — savior of our grand and sacred Union. But on the 13th our artistic prowess was undoubtedly focused on making paper mailboxes to hang from our desks in which to receive our cardboard Valentines.
For the uninitiated the exchange of cards back then was pretty regimental. Step one — the day before Valentine’s Day, hang your “mailbox” on your desk. Two — the day of, bring your valentines in from home for distribution. Three — at the teacher’s command, walk about the room and deliver your envelopes. Four — once home from school, open your box and see how many cards you received.
This seemingly innocent exercise created quite a bit of anxiety in 8-year-old me. Who to give cards to? Would I be the recipient of any cards? Dear God, what if not?
Valentine’s Day Eve, my mom quickly resolved the first issue. She had dutifully purchased a large box of those ubiquitous Peanuts valentines on a shopping trip to “Rose’s” department store and informed me in no uncertain terms that I would be giving one card to each and every classmate.
“Everybody — even the boys?” I whined. “Yes,” she replied.
“Even (name withheld to protect the innocent)!? Nobody likes her, she’s creepy!” I further whined.
“Every one. And if no one likes (name withheld) then especially her,” mom persisted then added for good measure, “maybe some of the kids think you’re creepy, you ever think of that?”
Ouch! There was some food for thought.
Argument was futile, subterfuge impossible. If I withheld a single envelope mom would somehow know. So with her assistance I filled out a card for each classmate, perhaps 20 in total, attached a safety sucker to each but one and put them in my bag for the next day.
“Each but one?” you ask. What about that solitary valentine? Did I withhold a sucker from the “creepy” girl? No, I did not. Her valentine did in fact have a sucker attached. On that one special card I taped a cherry Tootsie Pop intended for a young girl for whom I had developed my very first crush.
First crush as in staring at her, blowing kisses at her, tugging on her hair? Yes to all three, guilty as charged!
This was a source of consternation that my mother could not resolve. Would “Tootsie Pop girl” give me a valentine or not?
Though certainly not as bad as Christmas Eve, my sleep was quite fitful, downright restless that night. Yet, as it always does, morning eventually came and off to school I went.
Towards the end of the afternoon, after our academic obligations were satisfied, it was finally time to hand out (and get?) our valentines. Alphabetically, around the room we progressed. Some kids delivered a card to each classmate but most were noticeably more selective.
My moment finally came. The teacher called my name and I faithfully gave each classmate a card. There were a few snickers when I put envelopes in the other boys’ boxes (Thanks mom!). I noted with some sadness that my “creepy” classmate had far fewer cards on her desk than anyone else and deep within I was very happy that mom had insisted I give her one. Oh my beating heart — I can still feel the warmth on my cheeks as I presented the Tootsie Pop to my crush before placing it on her desk.
When it was their turn, I did not receive a valentine from either “creepy” or “Tootsie Pop” girl. The girl no one seemed to like did not hand out any valentines, not one. My crush, true to the figurative definition of that word, simply walked past with eyes averted. To this day when I hear the phrase “with mixed emotions” I harken back to those exact few moments.
Later that night at home I sorted through and counted my Valentines. Fourteen, not too bad. Still, I wanted to know why every kid didn’t give out a card to each classmate.
“Did you ever think that maybe not every family can afford to spend money on silly cardboard cutouts and candy?” mom asked quietly while curling the ends of one of my cards between both index fingers and thumbs, fleetingly biting her lower lip.
In a few years I would come to understand that the girl no one seemed to care for came from such a family.
It would not be until a decade or so later that I realized how impoverished my mother’s childhood also had been.
“Hey!” mom perked up. “Did you get anything special from your little girlfriend?’ she asked. At first I wondered how she knew, but she explained that she had suspected that I had liked the girl for some time and that the big Tootsie Pop kind of gave it away.
“No.” I said quietly. “You think her family couldn’t afford cards for everybody?” I asked sheepishly.
“Shoot no, they’ve got plenty of money. I guess she just doesn’t like you like that.”
Subtlety was not one of mom’s strengths, but she never failed to make her point.
What nonsense to have such thoughts today. This all happened 48 years ago, yet as I write, I can feel those same butterflies flitting in my stomach, the ones I felt as my classmates walked in front of my desk some acknowledging me and some passing me by. I remember.
Saint Valentine’s Day still intrigues with its strange romantic rites and rituals. What an odd way to pass a winter’s day unless, of course, one remembers that romance is but one embodiment of kindness and as such worthy of celebration every day.
My mother who was born among the snows of February passed away a few years back, a vessel of common folk wisdom to the end.
The girl who “nobody liked” married a man from a few towns over and had two children before passing away several years ago from complications of diabetes. I’m old enough now that none of these facts about her life and death surprised me but I still cried like a boy when I read her obituary.
My unrequited crush on “Tootsie Pop girl” gave way to another crush, and another, then countless more relationships until someone finally succumbed to my staring, kiss blowing and hair pulling ways. We’ll be married 25 years this June.
For Feb. 14, 2021, my wife and I decided to do “absolutely nothing extraordinary” to commemorate Valentine’s Day. We simply enjoyed each other’s company, agreeing to make this our new tradition.
Regardless of whether or how you celebrated, I trust you made some new memories to commingle with the old.