by Margaret Sizemore Clark
On a calendar February 14 is singled out as Valentine’s Day, a day for celebrating love. For adults it could mean a proposal or celebrating an anniversary. Today’s moms and dads are busy people so many parents simply go online to buy the cards that their children will be taking to school to share with classmates. When I was a teacher, I set aside time for making Valentine’s bags, which called for LOTS of red and pink construction paper, glue, and the dreaded glitter. As I kid, I can remember making that same kind of bag and looking forward to filling them with valentines on which I had written the recipient’s name with fancy lettering. Then, when Valentine’s Day arrived the cards went into the bags and then were taken to our desks to open and read each one, maybe even hoping to get a special card from a particular person. After school we gathered up our bags and headed home, where the bag was put on a shelf to reread the cards later. “Later” turned into days and weeks and eventually those once-anticipated cards found their way into the ash can and forgotten.
But not so with my mother. She was born in 1922 so when she reached elementary school age it would have been the late 20’s and early 30’s, and the Great Depression was gaining momentum. Her family was fortunate in that her father had a job and kept his job all through the Depression, but I’m sure many of her friends were not as lucky. Money was tight, so things like valentines were a luxury. Many of us that had parents who were raised during that time have learned it’s difficult for them to part with things. In their lives nothing went to waste, whether it was a piece of equipment that broke, flour sacks that were sewn into dresses, even newspapers that were used as insulation on walls. Perhaps that’s why Mom saved her valentines; they were precious things that were given by someone who cared about her, and they meant something to her. Mom saved about forty of her valentines from a range of years and stored them in a candy box, never sharing them with us kids. In the late 90’s Mom developed dementia and when my dad went through her things, he discovered the box. It was hard for him to know what to keep and what to part with, but he kept the valentines, and on the candy box he wrote a note to us “kids”. "These are old valentines Mama received as a child and later youth. They are really keepsakes. One of you please keep them as they were meaningful to her.":
The valentines came to me for safe keeping. When I opened the candy box I discovered a bit of my mother as she had been as a girl. She must have been well-liked. Many of the cards were still in their envelopes, yellowed with age, and on them, handwritten in very legible cursive, was written, “To Mary Lee James” or just “Mary Lee”. Some were brittle and had tears on them, while others were just as bright and crisp as they were when they were new. I opened each card and read the sentiments on every valentine. They were sweet and reflected the innocence of their day. One valentine has a little boy in shorts holding a hot water bottle that says, “Warm up to Me” then below that it says, “and be my valentine.” The little girl is wearing a baby-doll dress with bloomers that peek out below the rather-short dress. Another shows a burglar complete with newsboy cap and a mask over his eyes breaking into a safe. It reads, “I think it’s “SAFE” to say I’m fond of YOU.” His bag of burglars’ tools is red, has a heart on it, and asks the reader to “Be Mine.”
Another card made me smile. It depicts a little boy driving a black jalopy that resembles something one would see in a Keystone Kops movie. It’s a convertible carrying a load of valentines, and the boy has a valentine in his hand that says, “Greetings Old Dear.” (How’s that for a romantic lead-off?) He must have just graduated from the School of Love and is now headed to see his sweetheart, because there is a document in the back seat that says, “Diploma of Love”. His jalopy is emblazoned with his printing, telling the world it was “New York or Bust”. On the driver’s door “She’s My Baby” is written and there’s a drawing of a red heart with an arrow through it saying, “Spiked For Life”. I’m not sure if I would appreciate being spiked for life, but you get the idea; this kid is in LOVE!!
Fruit was mentioned on several of the cards. One had a little boy in an orchard who has just picked a heart from one of the trees. He is handing it to a little girl who is holding both hands out. The card reads, “Say yes, Valentine ‘cause you’re a peach and we’d make a good “pear”!” Another shows a little girl holding an adorable little puppy sitting on a large peach. “It Will Be Peachy” is written on the piece of fruit, but the rest of the valentine is hidden under glass. Several of the cards referred to being up in the air. On one, a hot air balloon is floating with a little boy dropping a valentine saying, “I Love You” down to a little girl. On the gondola is written, “I want to drop in” and the balloon is hovering over a fence draped in valentines that say, “And Be Your Valentine”. There is another that features a little girl who is balancing on a highwire. The card tells us that, “You are keeping me “Up in the Air” My Valentine”. I thought it interesting that it was the girl telling the boy that he was keeping her dangling.
One year I thought of a way Mom’s valentines could be shared with my siblings. I sorted them, carefully trimmed some of them, mounted them on lignin-free paper, and placed them in shadow boxes made with glass that filters 99% of UV rays. I made copies of my father’s note and placed a copy on the back of each shadow box so that my brother and sisters would know the significance these cards had to our mother. I’m sure that the children who presented the valentines to my mother could never imagine that they would still be around almost a hundred years later and that they were cherished by her. They could not know that their sweet little valentines gave Mom’s family the gift of glimpsing their mother as she was as a child. So, if you are fortunate enough to get a valentine this year, think about the person who gave it to you, and consider how much they care about you. Happy Valentine’s Day.