Yes, it’s a Hallmark holiday. And no, it’s not a Jewish holiday. But, growing up, Valentine’s Day was a major event.
My mother has always loved Valentine’s Day. The year I was in kindergarten, she invited all her friends and my entire class over for a Valentine’s Day party. In preparation, we had cut out hundreds of paper hearts and taped them to the walls. She baked heart-shaped cakes with cream cheese frosting and bought bags of conversation hearts. She even roped my dad into making a pin-the-arrow-on-the-heart game.
Perhaps it was prophetic, but what I remember most about that party was throwing up afterwards. It was probably from too much frosting and jumping on the couch — but still.
In later years, I took on my mom’s fervor for the holiday. I looked forward to it all year. I wore Valentine’s dresses and nightgowns and threaded my braids with red ribbons. I loved making Valentine’s cards, decorating them with the heart-shaped stickers I kept in a Sucrets tin and had to lick to make stick.
In fifth grade, high on enthusiasm, I was tasked with planning my class’s Valentine’s Day party. The excitement of the day was only briefly dampened when — as I later noted in my Ramona Quimby diary — a boy gave me a card that said, “Happy St. Valentine’s Day, Jew!”
Eventually, in middle school and beyond, my interest in Valentine’s Day waned — though my mother never forgot to give me a card.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I finally had a boyfriend, and a fresh appreciation for Valentine’s Day. I threw myself into it: buying gifts and decoupaging a shoebox with photos and matchboxes from the restaurants where we’d had dates. My boyfriend was initially reluctant about the whole thing, but he eventually came around.
My best-ever Valentine’s Day was in 2001. It was a dreary, wet day, but I was dressed to the nines. My boyfriend of two-and-a-half years took me to a fancy Indian restaurant, its windows facing Central Park. Afterwards, in a taxi heading downtown — a spectacular indulgence — he presented me with the most beautiful ring I’d ever seen.
I remember thinking I didn’t deserve something so exquisite — not me, a shy, studious girl who had never really dated anyone else before. I was nearly numb with disbelief. But I also remember how happy I felt: I was winning at life. I was keenly aware of my rare happiness that moment — knowing that I would never again be so young, so pretty, so skinny, and so hopeful. I wanted to wrap up that feeling and save it forever.
I wish I could tell you that my happiness only increased from that day forward, and that we lived happily ever after. But although there was some happiness ahead — the birth of three beautiful children were definite highlights — there was also a large amount of disappointment.
Our marriage lasted 14 Valentine’s Days. At first, there were a few more years of cut-paper cards. In 2005, when I was pregnant with our first child, the card I made featured an upside-down fetus floating in a heart-shaped uterus. But the following year — having produced a particularly difficult 6-month-old son — I was too tired make the card my husband had come to expect. I tried to make it up to him the next day with paper hearts taped to the walls — but it was a half-hearted effort, and he noticed.
There was Valentine’s Day in 2008, two weeks after a miscarriage, when my husband thought he could erase grief with jewelry and silk pajamas. There was 2011, when we attempted to go to an Italian restaurant as a family — but it was close to our toddler daughter’s bedtime, and I spent most of the meal chasing her through the restaurant. In 2014, we hired a sitter for our three kids, and with strained politeness tried to enjoy a meal at a too-expensive restaurant.
In the end, it just seemed like there was too much of everything and yet not enough of anything. There was too much clutter and too many stairs up to our walk-up apartment. There was too much fighting over homework, too many kids in the bed, too many meetings with teachers. There was too little time, too little sleep, too little money. Too little agreement about much of anything. Perhaps you could say there were too many Valentines and too little love.
My husband moved out in 2016, just after Valentine’s Day. And this year, as Valentine’s Day approaches again, I am newly divorced. Still, in spite of everything, as the store windows go red and pink, I feel the familiar anticipation. If I were the mom I’d always planned to be, I’d already be cutting the paper cards with my kids, buying the Valentine’s pajamas, and braiding red ribbons into my daughter’s hair. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t be a single mom, and my kids wouldn’t have homework or ADHD or wish they were playing Xbox at their dad’s house. Instead, we’d all bake a heart-shaped cake and cuddle in our not-messy apartment, professing our love for one another.
This Valentine’s Day, there won’t any roses or jewelry for me. The holiday falls on a Wednesday, with its usual weekday obligations, including an after-school therapy appointment for one of my kids. I hope I’ll have the energy to do something, to maybe bake a batch of heart-shaped brownies — or at least hug my kids and tell them I love them with all my heart.
If I can do that — and I will — I will consider it winning at life. And if my kids don’t make me Valentines — and they won’t— I am at least guaranteed to get one from my mom. And I do love my mom. Maybe that’s all I can expect from a Hallmark holiday.