Valentine's Day. For years, the mere utterance of the words caused waves of self-doubt and angst to run through my body. My childhood and young adulthood were filled with disappointing memories of the day. I remember as a small child hiding the few Valentines I had received in class, while other girls proudly displayed their wealth of admiration upon their desks. In high school, I was most definitely not one of the girls who had balloons or roses by their locker from a secret admirer. Even in later years when in relationships, the big V never lived up to its expectations. Just when I would be feeling good about the quiet dinner plans my boyfriend had made for us, a coworker would receive an enormous floral delivery to their desk. When newly married, I would try not to be disappointed when my husband had clearly bought me flowers or a card at the last minute, but I couldn't help myself. As the years have passed, I certainly have learned that the acts of kindness your partner bestows upon you throughout the year mean much more than their performance on this one overpriced and overrated observance. True love is most apparent on the days that are the most ordinary or the most difficult. And even if you are not in a relationship, there are opportunities to receive and give love everywhere if you look. But unfortunately, many disappointing Valentine's Days had passed before I had learned these lessons.
Such was my distaste for this holiday that when I had children of my own, I was determined to start new traditions. I thought that if I turned the focus away from the cupid perspective and towards the love that is present with family and friends, my children might somehow escape the unreasonable expectations of the day. So, Valentine's Day in our home became a day on which we celebrated each other and the bonds we shared. The children always looked forward to the occasion, and for years it seemed that I might just get my wish.
But, alas, my children did not escape the societal notification. Last Valentine's Day, my 13-year-old son arrived sullenly to the breakfast table. After some probing, he shared that he was dreading the day because he didn't have a girlfriend and the girl for whom he harbored a crush barely knew he existed. I gave him my ready speech of how it is just a day and he shouldn't let it bring him down. I reminded him what an amazing person he is and about all the people in his life who love him. It was a conversation that I knew would have fallen deaf on my own teenage ears, but I hoped as every generation of parents do, that he might have actually heard me. He gave me a smirk and a gratuitous "Thanks, Mom," and headed out the door to his day of heartache.
I sat with my coffee and stewed over this rotten day, which was making yet another generation, more specifically my child, feel inadequate. I wished that my son knew that the puppy love he yearned for was merely a fraction of the love he would feel in his lifetime. I wanted him and all my children to know that love and human connection could be found in places other the hallways at school or the local mall. How could we spend the day in a way that would leave my children feeling fulfilled? My mind sifted through varied possibilities, and then it came to me.
I gulped down my remaining coffee and was off running to the wholesale supermarket. Thankfully, there were plenty of flowers left for the last-minute gift givers. I purchased every last red rose and was at the register with my arms full and my excitement building. I called ahead to the location I had in mind and made sure that my plans were suitable. They were met with enthusiasm and I knew my mission to recreate Valentine's Day for our family was underway.
My children arrived home from school fatigued and drained from the emotional day. It was a Friday, so they were not happy when I blocked the path to their electronic devices and instead directed them to our rose-filled minivan. Questions of "Where are we going?" and "Can we just go home?" were fired in rapid succession as we exited the driveway. As we drove, I explained where we were headed.
"I think you guys know that Valentine's Day is a day to show people that you love or care about them. And in your lives so far, that has meant that our family shares gifts or traditions to show we care, or at school the girls who think you are hot stuff try to let you know in some way." Groans of embarrassment echoed from the back row of the van.
"But today," I went on, "I want you to learn another way to feel love in the world. It doesn't just have to come from the people you already have in your life. There are always people in the world who are alone or having a hard time who could use a smile in their day and you have the power to give that to them."
I knew their attention was fading, so as we pulled into the parking lot I go to the point. "Right now, we are going to visit this nursing home together. We are going to give a rose to each of the elderly residents, wish them a Happy Valentine's Day, and give them a moment of our time." I could see their anxious expressions in the rearview mirror. "I know you may be afraid to reach out to these new people," I added, "but I promise you, you will be so glad you did."
We entered the lobby with nervous anticipation and our arms heavy with flowers. The sedate common area was filled with lonely, aging faces. They sat quietly amongst one another each nursing the punch and cookies they had received to celebrate the occasion. It was not hard to imagine that on such a day their minds drifted to memories of loved ones and the special moments of days gone by. Upon seeing my little ones approaching, their eyes lit up and smiles quickly replaced their solemn expressions. We said our hellos and I introduced the children to them. Directly in front of me sat a handsome old gentleman wearing his military cap and staring at his feet. I briefly envisioned him as he may have been many years ago -- a handsome young soldier returning from war to his waiting sweetheart. "Happy Valentine's Day," I said handing him a red rose, "and thank you for your service to our country." He looked up at me and grinned, his eyes still a bright blue impervious to time and age.
That was all my children needed to see. They, too, began to make their way around the room handing out roses, sharing their wishes for the day, and smiling bigger than I had seen in some time. The somber room which we had entered was now buzzing with lively conversation and laughter. My daughter showed a few ladies in a corner her newly-learned ballet poses. Two men chuckled to themselves as my middle son shared some of his prized jokes. My oldest son sat listening to a man talk lovingly about his deceased wife and the many years they had shared together. Another woman, who was unable to speak, sat smiling with her flower at her nose, breathing in its delicate fragrance. As time passed and the hazy winter sun began to illuminate and warm the room, their kinship deepened and the lines of giving and receiving between the generations were made indistinct.
The faces of my children radiated with satisfaction as we later said our goodbyes and headed back into the winter chill to our waiting car. My preschool-aged daughter quickly asked if we could go back tomorrow. My oldest son shared that he couldn't believe he had been feeling down about a girl he hardly knew, when there were people in the world who had lost the love of their life. My middle boy added that he wanted to think of other ways to help people in the community. My youngest son's observation had us all smiling in agreement. As he gazed thoughtfully out the car window, he shared, "I'm not sure why, but I feel warm inside."
That night, we had our traditional heart pancakes for dinner and the usual valentines and candy were dispersed. The children, however, were more interested in recounting all the details of their afternoon. When my husband arrived home from work, he was inundated with enthusiastic stories about our new-found friends. The sibling comradery they felt from their joined experience was apparent in the kindness they showed one another. The children I tucked into bed felt proud of the happiness they had shared.
As I pulled the covers over one of my sons, he conveyed his thoughts about the day. "So many people worry about what they are going to get on Valentine's Day," he said. "They don't even know that if they thought more about how much love they could give that they would be happier." He grinned. "I didn't even know that before today," he admitted. "Well, now you do, my wise little man," I said. "Happy Valentine's Day." I kissed his forehead and he closed his eyes, the trace of a smile still present on his sleepy face.
That night, there were no wanderers into our room or endless requests for water and stories. There were no worries or anxieties about the days ahead expressed. Instead, the only sounds heard were that of the gently falling snow and the wintry winds swirling around outside. Within the cozy walls of our home, each child drifted quietly off to sleep with a happy heart and the satisfaction of a day well-lived.