When I was 17, my family hosted a French exchange student. Isabel had never spent any significant time in the US, and our job was to make her feel at home and to introduce her to American culture. I think we did a pretty good job, engaging her in the hustle and bustle of the life of a family of five, dragging her to school plays and track meets, hitting all of the sightseeing hot spots we could fit in during the short time that she was with us. But I always felt like we gave her an exaggerated view of how Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, since the Berman Family Valentine’s Day is a far cry from the typical card-and-a-box-of-chocolates event. Every year, on February 14, I smile when I remember Isabel’s bewildered look as my mother entered our paper-heart-filled dining room with the Valentine’s cake, the grand finale of a day filled with fanfare for all of us.
Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish tradition, but as it is observed in the US it seems far enough away from its roots to be mostly non-religious. As I understand it, St. Valentine was actually one (or more) Christian saints, and there are some Christians who observe a special feast or mass. The Valentine’s Day we recognize in the US is an amalgamation based on a little Ancient Roman and Christian tradition, bird-mating season, a few great poems, and the business savvy of a bunch of greeting card companies. In my house growing up, it was a reason to celebrate.
My mother loved a good party. She lost her father at age 19 and carried with her a deep understanding of the fragility of life. This motivated her to seize every opportunity to celebrate life. She also was a perpetual crafter, and any holiday that involved scissors, glue and paint was for her. So Mom was in on Valentine’s Day. And having Isabel as a visitor only motivated her to make 1994 more special.
So Isabel’s first American Valentine’s Day went a little something like this: We woke up to a breakfast table set with Valentine-themed paper goods, and a gift bag at each seat. The bags were filled with cards, candies, socks, some goofy tchotchke to put on our dressers, and one gift picked out just for the recipient. Mom had on heart-shaped earrings, and we were encouraged by example to deck out our outfits with holiday-themed embellishments. Mom had probably labored with at least one, if not all four of us, to put together Valentine’s for our friends – homemade chocolate lollipops or personalized cards. When we got home from school that day, the dining room was set for a formal dinner, with some heart-shaped confetti on the table and construction paper hearts spread hanging from the chandelier. We sat down to a dinner that was unusually polished for a school night, and dinner concluded with the cake. A beautiful, heart-shaped cake with pink frosting, set on the table with a grand presentation from Mom.
Incidentally, that year I had my first Valentine’s Day date (after cake, of course). But that was a minor happening in the day’s festivities.
When we become parents, we have a chance to choose which of the traditions our parents gave to us we want to make our own, which we might make special events between grandparents and kids, and which we let slip away. Now that my mother is gone, this choice feels even more complicated, as some days, like Valentine’s Day, I feel pressure to be both Mom and Grandma for my girls. When special days approach, I find myself in the aisle at a gift store, contemplating spending more than usual on something that only my Mom would buy for them, or worried on the eve of Valentine’s Day that the decorations just aren’t living up to her memory.
I know many people who hate Valentine’s Day. They feel it is a “Hallmark Holiday” that encourages needless spending. They hate how restaurants bloat their prices, and how crowded and unromantic that evening out can be. They feel it creates too much stress about being in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship, they feel it creates unnecessary stress to make a grand gesture.
But I love it for all of the reasons that my mother was trying to get through to me. By making it a family holiday, Mom made it about crafts, about food, about a break from thinking about snow and ice, about spreading joy. The love we celebrated was between people, some of them married or coupled, and some of them not. I love having an official Valentine, and having an excuse to tell Eric about how I love him. But I also think back happily on the years I was single and friends and I would enjoy cocktails together, stuffing quarters into the jukebox in our favorite bar, or the years my best friend and I would put goofy off-color poems into each other’s lockers.
That night in high school, when I saw Isabel’s puzzled face, I leaned over to her and whispered, “This is not normal.” But it was not normal in a completely unobjectionable and totally wonderful way. So I am choosing to make this somewhat exaggerated family lovefest a Boatright tradition, too. Over the weekend our dining room became a craft-making factory, the heart-patterned tablecloth a mess of construction paper, stickers and glitter glue. We had a wonderful celebration with my family, a scrumptious brunch followed with the gift bags Mom taught us to make, and way too much chocolate. And this morning, my breakfast table was set for a special Valentine’s meal. Regardless of the origin of this day, I just can’t pass up a chance to celebrate the gift of another day together.