I used to hate Valentine’s Day. If there was a “bah humbug” term for February 14th, I would have uttered it all through my early to mid-twenties. In my early twenties, I was simply disappointed – either I wasn’t dating anyone or my boyfriend just didn’t measure up. But, there were some lean years when Valentine’s Day wasn’t just disappointing – it was the darkest day of the year. Even when I started dating my future husband, I just felt it was a lot of pressure to be perfect, when life is often anything but.
The Valentine’s Day I remember most clearly from the days I was dating my husband, Jeff, was a disaster. It was a snowy weeknight and by the time we both got home from work and he fought the traffic from his apartment just south of Boston to my apartment just west of Boston, every romantic restaurant was jam packed with couples more organized than we were. Why hadn’t we thought to make a reservation? Why didn’t I just meet him in Boston, so we could get an earlier start? Who knows what we were thinking? We drove around the snowy streets looking for someplace, any place, with a romantic vibe. Finally, we settled for our usual – a neighborhood pub with a mostly young, single crowd – and ate our chicken sandwiches while trying to hear each other over the din of come-ons and desperation.
That night simply didn’t live up to expectations, though I’m sure I was fairly happy just being with Jeff. A year earlier my Valentine’s Day was something out of a clichéd single girl sitcom. My roommate and I decided to treat ourselves to dinner, since neither of us had a valentine. I planned on ordering salmon, mashed potatoes and a decadent dessert. I was going to enjoy the meal and the conversation. That is, until I walked into the lobby of the restaurant and saw my ex-boyfriend on a Valentine’s Day date. Not only was it awkward for me, he was clearly flustered, since he introduced my roommate, whom he had known for years by the wrong name. It was so bad, it was funny – well, maybe not right away. Let’s just say I imbibed a good deal of white wine with dinner that night.
The year before was almost as bad – it was the beginning of the end for me and that ex. Sitting across from each other at our romantic dinner, I gazed at him as he pulled out a small black velvet box. I sucked in my breath – I had been waiting for this moment for months. We talked about getting married all the time and I couldn’t believe he was finally asking me. My heart raced, tears sprang to my eyes. He opened his mouth to speak as I rolled the “yes” around my tongue, practicing in my head how I would respond – loudly, so the whole restaurant cheered or a whisper, so the moment stayed between us. He placed the box in my hands, as I listened for the words I had been waiting to hear, the “yes” ready to burst forth… Only, I never heard them. Instead of saying, “Yes,” I found myself asking, “What??”
My ex repeated himself, “It’s not an engagement ring.” I downed my vodka and cranberry and motioned to the waitress for another. Then I slowly opened the box. That lovely black velvet box, that “just the right size” box contained a pair of earrings. Beautiful earrings to be sure – amethysts surrounded by gold swirls dusted with diamonds – but still, just earrings. I couldn’t hide my disappointment. I was dumbfounded. We had talked about getting married for over a year and when I saw that box, well I just jumped to the nearest logical conclusion.
Of course now that I am a grown up, I realize that it would have been a huge mistake. I was a month shy of twenty-four years old. My boyfriend was just a couple of weeks shy of twenty-three years old. We were kids. His reason for not giving me a ring was perfectly valid – he wanted me to gain weight and he dangled that ring in front of me like a carrot. (As a parent who has dangled plenty of fancy carrots in front of a child who just won’t eat, I see the irony and I could spend an entire blog post exploring my past and how my son’s refusal to eat feels like the worst possible karma, but that is for another time. I also completely understand it.) Simply put – if we had stayed together long enough to get married; we probably would have been divorced by now. We were just too young. He was just twenty and I was twenty-one when we started dating. So of course it was for the best, but when we broke up two days later, it felt like my world came crashing down. After that year and the restaurant debacle of the next, I was ready to swear off of Valentine’s Day. I wanted to wear all black and a frown as my only accessory on February 14th.
But, a funny thing happens when you hate a holiday for no good reason at all – it’s hard to stay hating it. Life changes and suddenly you may find yourself not only over your hatred of Valentine’s Day, but actually looking forward to it. That turning point for me was my first Valentine’s Day as an expectant mom at twenty-nine. I was almost three months pregnant and blissfully soaking in every joyous moment of first time pregnancy. I loved everything about it. But, I was not happy that Jeff was working Valentine’s Day night as a DJ. I really didn’t want to be alone – every moment being pregnant was special and that night should have been special too. When he told me he would be working, it just confirmed my belief that Valentine’s Day was simply a big disappointment – too much pressure and it’s never perfect.
Perhaps knowing how much it meant to me (and having to balance that with the need to bring in some extra cash as our family grew), Jeff proposed a solution. We would celebrate Valentine’s morning, instead of Valentine’s night. Since I was exhausted by 7:00 pm after a day of creating life, I jumped at the chance to celebrate when I was actually alert and upright. We went to our favorite breakfast haunt – a charming little restaurant that served the best banana walnut pancakes. Much better than a fancy dinner, those banana walnut pancakes satisfied my cravings like nothing else. After breakfast we wandered into the gift boutique next door. While I sniffed candles and inspected picture frames, Jeff surreptitiously bought me my Valentine’s Day gift – “The Pregnancy Journal” (Chronicle Books). It was so special – exactly what I wanted, with a place to record all of my thoughts, dreams and pregnancy minutia. We didn’t have the night, but the morning was great and thirteen years later, I still remember every moment like it was yesterday.
The following year cemented Valentine’s Day as one of my favorite holidays – back in my good graces again. (Before I hated V-Day, I loved it – when I was a little girl, my father always brought me gifts. Some years it was fancy chocolates, some years stuffed animals – one year I even remember getting pearl earrings. In high school I had a sweet boyfriend who made Valentine’s Day special and even sent me candy hearts all through college.) The year I was thirty though, I had the perfect Valentine – one with whom I could cuddle, one who loved me unconditionally and always made me smile – my baby. Drew was five and a half months on Valentine’s Day and I made sure he had a special present – his first drum. It had miniature plastic drumsticks attached, so he could bang on it and when he pressed a large button, it played an electronic drum track worthy of an eighties pop song. Last year I was going through baby toys to give away and Drew grabbed that drum. He brought it up to his room and kept it. He’s an amazingly talented percussionist now, playing in both the school band and on occasion the symphonic orchestra. Yes, his dad is an amazing drummer too, but who knows – maybe that first drum set him on a musical path.
I know it set me on a path – to relishing Valentine’s Day. I have three boys now and every year I buy each of them a small, but special present, candy and a card. Even more importantly, my two younger boys still make me cards. And I know that even though that little baby who reminded me how wonderful Valentine’s Day is now a big boy in seventh grade, he still appreciates my Valentine’s Day gifts. When he saw that his brothers got die cast cars for Valentine’s Day this year, along with candy, while he had only candy, he was disappointed. That is until I told him to look in his card, where he found a pile of scratch tickets. A grin spread across his face – he wasn’t too old to get a Valentine’s Day present from his mom. I know I need to enjoy celebrating Valentine’s Day with my kids now. In a few years, Drew will be in his mid- teens and probably have his own Valentine. But for now, Valentine’s Day is really more about the kids.
Of course, celebrating with one’s children leaves less time for celebrating with one’s spouse. This year Jeff and I ate lunch at Cosi surrounded by moms with preschoolers and business people on lunch break. Then, we did a grocery run at Trader Joe’s next door. Not exactly the height of romance, but at least we were together and really, is Valentine’s Day about the roses, candy and jewelry or is it about showing love in little ways? A fancy dinner at a stuffy restaurant or holding hands and locking eyes over pizza and a salad – even if it’s at a restaurant where you order at the counter? I vote for the pizza and salad. And, I vote for looking for true love – the true Valentine’s Day spirit – in places where you least expect it.
My favorite Valentine’s Day moment this year? Watching my six year old, Aidan, read a Valentine’s Day card to our dogs. He spotted the card when we were Valentine shopping and insisted I buy it. (Yes, they make Valentine’s Day cards for dogs.) I explained to him that we didn’t need to buy it, because the dogs can’t read.
“But, we can just read it to them,” he reasoned. I couldn’t argue with his logic, so I bought the card and he carefully wrote it out. I’m glad I did. Watching him read the card to my dogs one at a time was by far the sweetest, purest, most full of love Valentine’s Day moment I’ve ever witnessed. And that is the perfect reason to cherish Valentine’s Day – now and for years to come.
This post originally appeared on my blog Boys, Dogs and Chaos here: http://boysdogsandchaos.typepad.com/blog/2011/02/valentines-day.html