The meaning of Valentine’s Day has changed a lot for me over time. As a child, it entailed a busy day of making cards for loved ones from white doilies and construction paper in various hues of red and pink. My mother always put small bowls of those chewable hearts with carefully curated messages at the dinnertime places of me, my sister, and my father. She also, once, bought all four pounds of the delicious, red jelly hearts made by a now defunct Buffalo confectioner; they were soft, not too sweet, and apparently a time-consuming challenge to make, hence the small batch production. In subsequent years, the confectioner restricted Mother’s purchase to two pounds. Until the shop went out of business sometime around 2000, I looked forward to receiving a half-pound box annually.
Handmaking ‘valentines’ became onerous once elementary teachers required pupils to bring them for every classmate; that’s when Mother gave in to purchasing those little, irregularly shaped cards with red hearts featuring cute, fluffy kittens, bunnies, and puppies conveying messages like “You’re the cat’s meow,” “Just planet right and I’m yours,” or more straightforwardly, “Be my valentine.” I spent the evenings of the 13th deciding on the most appropriate messages and images for each of my classmates. Naturally, nothing declaring “I love you” on cards destined for boys. Unless one harbored a crush.
By my teenage years, the day was about family – always family – and my closest, mostly girl, friends, for whom I again hand-crafted Valentines. Subsequently, emphasis shifted to romantic partners with the always delicate decision surrounding gift selection – somehow things had escalated from cards. Is it too intimate? Insufficiently intimate? Too expensive? Not expensive enough? And, despite the infinite possibilities with which men must grapple limited, as they can comfortably be, to flowers (roses) and chocolate, it’s a lot harder for women. A book? A service? Tickets? Other?
After a few years into a relationship, however, the pressure lessens, the decisions become less fraught. My most memorable Valentine’s Day gift was an Art Nouveau jardiniere I’d admired at an antique store filled with fresh, red roses. The jardiniere is still around, but not its giver. In years when relationships had soured, Valentine’s Day was just a depressing reminder of what could be but wasn’t.
Now, I’ve substituted self-love for romantic love, and it works great. “How would you like to spend the day?” I ask myself. Two years ago, I was on a remote, Pacific Costa Rican beach on Valentine’s Day, several weeks into a solo ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ adventure. My options were limited, but pleasant. I spent the morning on the beach, as usual, watching the pelicans dance in the sky, little crabs fight over bits of fallen mango, and the tide ebb. I left when the shade retreated. On the walk back to my cottage I chanced upon a stone, coral really, to add to the heart-shaped stones I collect as souvenirs of places. Now, it’s just a basket of stones of various colors and textures since the happy memories they once contained have now vanished. I don’t even remember where I found most of the stones.
But this one, I’ll never forget: a lacey vestige of former marine life that presented itself, serendipitously, on Valentine’s Day. I only realized this the following day because at the time I was living a calendar- and clock-free exisitence. I was puzzled. (I had a lot of time to reflect on all sorts of things during my two months of near absolute solitude.) I thought I recognized every stone fist-size or larger on my isolated stretch of beach and I hadn’t noticed this beauty even on my walk to the spot where I’d spent the morning. I like to think that the universe gifted me with this token of love – an object created over long duration, superficially delicate yet strong, with a beautiful appearance and an unimaginable essence, containing a history and secrets I can only imagine.