I wrote this essay 4 years ago, and I even submitted it to Literary Mama once. The editor there said that she liked it---but that it was too short. Would I consider expanding it? But I had said everything I wanted to say, so I just filed it away.
But I've always loved it...and now I have a place to put it.
It is Valentine season, and my office is covered in construction paper and glitter glue. My 5-year-old son is making valentines for his 18 classmates, and each one must get just the “right” valentine.
At 5, he hasn’t reached the stage where he understands that some valentines send the wrong message. At this point, it’s all about decoration. “Mom, I’m a great artist AND a great decorator, aren’t I?” “You bet,” I tell him.
He’s still so innocent, my little one. I’m ashamed to admit that I told him he might want to reconsider sending pink valentines to the boys. It seemed such a denial of my feminism. But there are boys in his class who have older brothers and sisters, and who know—for a fact—that boys don’t like pink. I feel shaky when I think of his hard work being shunned because it isn’t the right color.
He sits cross-legged on the floor, humming and talking quietly to himself—an artist dedicated to his craft. He cuts fancy shapes with the scrapbooking scissors and punches holes with the heart- and star-shaped cutters I bought especially for this project. He dabs glitter glue with the precision of a surgeon—and then squeezes huge puddles of it with reckless abandon. His head is filled with visions of the party to come, and of all the valentines that he will receive from his friends. He is one happy camper.
Valentine’s parties at school hold very few happy memories for me. I don’t remember all the valentines I got, or all the candy I ate. My head is filled with memories of all those agonizing decisions I had to make about which valentines to give to which kids.
My mother was not a crafty person, and our valentines always came from a box at the grocery store. I can remember going through the entire box to find ones that said the least about love and all that other mushy stuff. Those went to the boys. It was not cool to have any boy think you might like him—and special care must be taken to ensure that the fat or geeky boys didn’t get any ideas.
My own heedless cruelty saddens me now.
And there were all the years where I gave secret valentines to boys I loved—shoved them through locker doors, hoping no one would see me. Or sent them anonymously and then felt disappointed that no one could thank me or be glad that I wanted them.
My best Valentine’s day was the year my boyfriend and I gave each other the exact same Valentine’s Day card. “What are the odds?,” I thought to myself. Out of the thousands of potential cards, we had each chosen the same one. I took it as a sign from heaven that I had found my soulmate. On the following Valentine’s Day, he proposed to me, and we were married that summer.
Three years later, he came out of the closet, and our marriage was over. Now Valentine’s Day is always tinged with regret for me. It serves as a reminder that, even when you care enough to send the very best, the best may not be good enough.
But my son knows nothing of this. He is nestled in a pile of construction paper, his clothes smeared with sparkly stuff, and he says to me “These are GREAT, aren’t they Mom?!” His happy voice holds only the tiniest question, for he knows they are great—his messy, beautiful valentines. I have a brief respite before he will learn that not everyone is loved on Valentines Day, and not everyone will or can accept a gift from the heart. “Yes, sweetie," I tell him. " These are the greatest valentines ever!”