Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Saint Valentine's Day was a big event in our one-room country school. Several weeks in advance we began devoting our limited "Art Class" time to the making of valentines. Obsolete wallpaper sample books were our main material supply. Our teacher would obtain these from a furniture store and drug store in a nearby small town. We would leaf through these catalogs until we found just the pattern we wanted, then would cut out that page and proceed. The amount of time that was spent on each valentine usually depended on how good a friend the giver considered the prospective recipient to be.
For simpler models, the page was usually folded in the middle, like a greeting card, and on the front, a "To" and "From" were carefully lettered with crayon. On the inside, the message would be simple: "Be My Valentine" or just "Be Mine,” with now and then an occasional "I love you." The shape of a heart might be carefully drawn to enclose the message. We all learned to draw pretty good hearts. We found that we could make a nice looking pattern by folding a sheet of paper in half, then drawing half-a-heart. Cutting this out and unfolding it, both sides of the heart would be symmetrical.
For closer friends, a heart was cut out of red construction paper and pasted to the inside of the back half of the wallpaper valentine. Some of these would have a short rhyme like, "Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you."
For very close friends, a fancier card was made by cutting out a white paper heart, smaller than the red heart, and printing the message on the white heart, then pasting it on top of the red heart. Some were even decorated with white paper "lace." that we learned to make by folding and refolding the paper and then making the proper cuts with our scissors, much the same way the girls often cut out hand-holding multiple paper dolls.
As Valentine's Day approached, our teacher would put out a decorated box with a slot in the top. We would carefully write the name of one of our friends on each of our home-made wallpaper valentines, sign our own name, and then drop them into the box. Usually a few "store-bought" valentines made their way into the collection, but most were of our own making.
At mid-afternoon on Valentines Day (or the nearest school day preceding it), we all took our places at our desks. Several eighth graders were assigned to remove the valentines from the box, one at a time, read aloud the name of the student each was intended for, then distribute it to his or her desk. What a time of anticipation! As each of us wondered: "How many valentines will I get this year?" I once received one of the hand-made valentines that featured a short verse I had never read or heard before, or since: "Red roses say that I love you. Do you love me? I hope you do!" I liked that rhyme. It was different, somehow. I soon fogot about it, but must have filed it away somewhere in my memory.
Fifty years later I sat down at a table in a small restaurant. My day of selling had not gone particularly well. And I did not look forward to another evening and night away from home. I am not usually one to indulge in the luxury of feeling sorry for myself, but at that particular moment my mood was not the best.
As I waited for the waitress to bring my evening meal, I looked over the small vase of flowers on my table. The blossoms were pretty, and looked just real enough to prompt me to feel the leaves and petals to make sure. They were not roses, but somehow, for some inexplicable reason that old valentine rhyme popped back into my mind. And on the blank reverse side of my paper place mat I scrawled this lament:


These red roses on the table
Are still in full bloom today.
Seems they've bloomed this way
A million years,
Since that day you
Went away.

They awake an old, old longing;
My love for you lingers on.
They'd have helped me to
Say, “I love you,"
But, though I'm here,
You're still gone.

Tonight I'll watch television,
Perhaps shed one lonely tear,
While I dust off these
Plastic roses,
And wish that you
Could be here.

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