Thursday, February 14, 2013

Roses and Ashes

When I was an unathletic, chubby, awkward 3rd grader, there was only one boy in my class who DIDN'T call me fat, didn't try to trip me in the hallways, and even laughed with me over things that we both found funny.  So, when Valentine's Day that year came around, and we all put our little hand-addressed Valentines in the pink and red paper-covered distribution box in Mrs. Dolcetti's classroom, the only boy who got a Valentine from me was Donnie S.  I found out, years later, that the gesture was a bright spot for a lonely little boy who was going through a rough patch himself at the time.

Years later, when we bumped into each other at a summer resort where I was working, between sophomore and junior years of college, Don (no longer "Donnie") greeted me with "Val!! You were the only person who sent me a Valentine when we were in 3rd grade!  I'll never forget that."  Many years after that, at our 30th high school class reunion, my 3rd-grade buddy reminded me, yet again, of that Valentine's Day so long ago.  Funny how some gestures take on a life of their own.

Over the years, I've found myself desperately wishing that someone special would, just once, make a little effort, with no hinting from me, and surprise me with a rose, or a poem, or a card... something a little romantic, something that showed a little thought for me.

And as I've gotten to know the men in my life: a couple of boyfriends and then my husband, I've realized that I need to have some compassion for the way guys feel this time of year.  I've come to understand that Valentine's Day, in that Hallmark card/Kay Jewelers/1-800-Flowers frame is a pretty intimidating thing for them: high expectations, unfamiliar "stuff", and the looming possibility of screwing it up.

Of course, it's not the "stuff" that I was wishing for, it was that sense of being thought of, valued, loved.

During my years with Andre, I learned to just roll with whatever happened or didn't happen that day.

There were many "oops, I forgot" years, a few last-minute dashes to the store at 10 p.m on the 14th, and one year when I was presented with an Alan Jackson CD....yup.  And then there's the story that's still told among the sales staff at a local lingerie boutique.  It seems that one February, Andre decided that I needed a few lacy nothings and went into Sarah's Bare Necessities to find them.  He told the sales clerk my size and had her pick out a few things to show him on the hangers.   He then took the items one by one, and threw them on the floor, nodding approvingly.  When the woman demanded to know what he was doing, he reportedly grinned his rascally grin and quipped,  "Oh, I just want to know what it's going to look like once I get it home."   To his credit, it does reflect some degree of thought and effort.  It was one of the better years.  Another year, it was clear that his wait-til-the-last-minute strategy made the search for "just the right card" a little challenging.  I got a card that year from the Hispanic collection, entirely in Spanish.  And it was actually a pretty romantic card.  My Spanish is pretty good.  Since Andre's command of the language began and ended with the Taco Bell menu , I don't think he chose the card for its message, but for the fact that it had what appeared to be sentences of some kind of text, some pictures of roses, and a decided lack of Tweety Bird or Power Rangers on it. (See above, re: "possibility of screwing up")  Again, looking back, I'd give him points for at least trying.

And today, it's the 13th of the month (Andre died on July 13), and tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and I'm feeling a little fragile.  If there ever were a day to make sure that there's kleenex around every corner, it's been today.  There won't be any romantic gestures for me tomorrow, or even any failed attempts at one.  I could give in to feeling sorry for myself.  In fact, there have been moments all day when I have done just that.  (Investment tip: Kleenex Corporation is a buy and hold stock for a while.)

But today is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection and repentance that leads up to Easter.  This evening, I'm wearing on my forehead a reminder of a gesture of love that was planned before I was even a twinkle in my parent's eyes.  Tonight, I participated in a service that reminds us that the love of God begins with a declaration that we are beloved creations, created in the image of our creator, declared, "very good" ... and that with our free will, we have the capability, indeed the propensity to screw up, AND that our screw-ups are forgiven: now, tomorrow, next year, and on and on forever.

Tonight's service included the writing of short anonymous confessions on little pieces of paper and tucking them into the "stones" of a replica of the Wailing Wall (I love the creative worship team at my church--never the same thing twice)  and the imposition of ashes --the burned and ground-up remains of last Palm Sunday's palm branches--on our foreheads, in the shape of a cross, a reminder of the length to which God goes to prove how loved we are.  As I struggle with my inevitable guilt--over Andre's death, over feeling relieved that the nightmare of life with him is done, guilt over moving on, guilt over not being the 100% wonderful mom I should be... it's a great relief to be given time to write down the worst of it, fold it up on a little slip of paper, and let go of it, and to do so in the community of people who have supported me every step of this journey, people who translate God's love into gestures of love that are far too real, far too thoughtful to have ever come from a card store or a florist stand.

In a frame that is way, way bigger than Hallmark, Kay Jewelers, or 1-800-flowers could ever be, I think I've received my love note for this year.  It's just not the red/pink/sparkly one I might have been wishing for.  But, once I dry my eyes, re-apply the mascara, and get over my self-pitying self, it really is way more than enough.

Oh, and I actually did get surprised with a rose today.

Even though I pruned my rose bushes mercilessly in preparation for the winter, months ago, I guess Somebody  knew I'd need one rose, right about now.  I found this one on the bush this morning, and brought it inside before the cold air at night zaps it.

Yup, I think I'll get through the day ok.

“A new command I give youLove one anotherAs have loved you, so you must love one another.    John 13:34


  1. Valerie, this is beautiful, even though I know it is borne of sadness this year. Much love to you from this part of the world on this Valentine’s Day..! <3

  2. Thank you so much, Ellen. I am so blessed to have all kinds of love flowing my way this year. Thank you for adding yours to the stream :-) Your mom would be proud of you.