On Valentine's Day, it's better to give than receive.
At Marland Heights Elementary School in Weirton, West Virginia, Valentine’s Day appeared as a counterpoint to the gloom and slush of winter. My classmates and I decorated our second-grade room with Cupid cutouts and paper doilies, and the teacher covered a big box with shiny scarlet paper.
We dropped in envelopes marked with the names of our friends. When February 14 arrived, the homeroom mothers handed out pink-icing cupcakes and each of us was given a basket filled with candied hearts that said Be Mine, Have a Hug, and Love Always.
Then came the big moment. The teacher passed out the valentines. I ripped mine open eagerly. There was a touch of velvety flocking on the card from Karen Sue Amos, a gleam of satin on the one from Nancy Moore.
And there was always the chance someone would give me a card showing a puppy or kitten with a valentine heart in its mouth. Those were my favorites.
Then, in fourth grade, it occurred to me the number of valentines you received could be seen as a barometer of your popularity. As the teacher passed out the cards that year—and the stack on the desk of the pretty, popular girl in front of me grew—I prayed anxiously that I’d have an acceptable showing of my own.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a nearly empty desktop. Behind it sat Emily, the new girl, gawky and shy. Hardly anyone had sent her a card. I hadn’t even thought of it. Suddenly I felt like crying.
Be Mine, the valentines said. A valentine meant you were somehow chosen. But was it right that some people got lots of attention while others were virtually ignored? What kind of holiday was this?
Romance muddled the day even more when I became a teenager. Mid-February meant dances or parties or presents—from your boyfriend. Even the encyclopedia said it was a day for lovers. What happened to people just telling each other they cared?
Freshman year at Wooster College in Ohio, I felt completely left out on Valentine’s Day when the boys gathered in the courtyard behind Holden Hall to serenade the girls. The co-eds watched expectantly from their dormitory windows. Who would be next to be “pinned?” No chance for me—I didn’t have a boyfriend. I closed my window and rifled through my mail.
What was in the package from my 12-year-old sister, Jeannie? I unwrapped the small box from the Stone & Thomas store in Weirton. Inside was a pretty choker of costume-jewelry pearls, nestled in an array of hearts cut from red construction paper. On the biggest heart was written: To M.A., I love you, Jeannie. I held the necklace to my cheek. Who cared if I wasn’t having dinner with the captain of the football team that night? My little sister loved me.
Despite this lesson, as the years passed and I moved to New York City, my enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day waxed and waned. There were times when long-stemmed red roses arrived at my desk at work and I was ecstatic. There were other times (depending on the man in question) when the attention felt forced. By the time I was in my late forties, cynicism had triumphed. I had written off Valentine’s Day as a trumped-up sham whose only purpose was to make cash registers ring.
One icy gray morning in mid-February a few years ago, I opened my apartment door to retrieve my newspaper from the hall and saw the elevator operator delivering a vase of tulips and freesias to a woman who lived on my floor. “I knew my boyfriend wouldn’t forget Valentine’s Day!” she cried. Envy shot through me, and a flash of bittersweet regret. I shut my door, alternately annoyed by such a stupid holiday and swept up by self-pity. Valentine’s Day. Bah, humbug!
Stomping into my bedroom, I yanked clothes from the closet for work. I pulled on a dark dress (resolutely not red) and then fumbled around for my shoes. Above me on the top closet shelf, a dangle of silk caught my eye—a dark scarf thrust among boxes.
I gave the scarf a tug. It stayed put—but a shower of red paper hearts fluttered down on me, like confetti at a ticker-tape parade. At once I was transported back to the February fourteenth of my freshman year in college. I’d saved the hearts from my sister all these years. Out of my hair I plucked the one with handwritten words: To M.A., I love you, Jeannie.
Thirty years later the power of that simple sentiment still reached me. If there was a point to Valentine’s Day it was to tell people you love that you cared about them, just as my sister had done. I’d gotten sidetracked by the importance of receiving valentines. But those gestures of love could be sent, as sure as Cupid’s arrow, from my hands—to family, friends, co-workers or even acquaintances who needed a word of encouragement.
As I picked up the paper hearts, one by one, people I cared about came to mind. Today I’d get cards in the mail—no matter if they arrived late. I’d use this holiday to reach out to people who were having a hard time, or folks I’d just lost touch with without meaning to.
Valentine’s Day has come full circle for me. In December I’m usually too rushed or frazzled to send out Christmas cards, so February 14 is a chance to let people know I’m grateful for their presence in my life—even if I don’t get a chance to say so very often.
Sometimes with my valentines I’ll include a personal “newsletter” like the ones I enjoy receiving at Christmas. I’ll write some simple words to let people know I’m thinking of them, and say a prayer for each person as I sign, seal and stamp. It’s a rite that does wonders to counteract winter doldrums.
So Valentine’s Day is for lovers? Well, yes, I agree. Particularly since those you love and who need your love are all around you. And these days that’s what makes February 14 a real sweetheart of a holiday for me.