I do love Valentine’s Day. It has taken me awhile to get there, but I am there now.
I started having trouble with Valentine’s Day in elementary school. It was our practice that everyone was to get valentines from everyone else. Since these “valentines” came by the gross and sold for pennies per heart, that wasn’t as financially extravagant as you might think. My problem wasn’t the financial extravagance; it was the emotional extravagance. These valentines said the most preposterous things! They said “Will you be mine?” I tried to think of what that would mean to Bruce Motter or Larry Butts or John Zimman. They would overlook it, I thought, since they had to give out valentines their mothers bought at the same store, probably from the same clerk, where my mother bought mine. On the other hand, I also had to give valentines that said “Be my special valentine” to Jayne Dennis and Donna Humphries and Marylyn Hendricks. Would they understand that I didn’t mean anything by it? Would they be opposed to being my special valentines? Or worse—would they like the idea?
It was hard. Eventually, I rebelled. I refused point-blank on the grounds that it offended my eight-year-old dignity and my precious but rigid autonomy. My mother baked cookies for me. They said nothing at all and both boys and girls liked them.
Then I remember a period of time when my kids went through the valentine machine. I don’t remember that any of them had trouble with it. I remember feelings of obligation about the “celebration” of Cupid’s Day that date from this period, but it’s all fuzzy. Probably that’s a good thing.
The next era is crystal-clear in my mind, but knowing what caused what is a little dicey. I had a new valentine by then (Marilyn) and a new home (Oregon) and a new relationship with my kids and stepkids (older and perfectly capable of handling Valentine’s Day on their own, thank you very much). So for me, Valentines’s Day wasn’t all that much. Marilyn was my very own dear valentine, but neither of us cared in the slightest for Valentine’s Day. I think we might still have been in that anti-institutional phase where NOT celebrating Valentine’s Day was the thing to celebrate.
Valentine’s Day was always the kind of event where you are leaving a meeting you aren’t allowed to talk to the press about and someone sticks a microphone in your face and asks you to say something. The demand that you say something is what confronts you. It isn’t at all that you have something you want to say.
I don’t think I got more romantic, necessarily, after Marilyn’s death, but I did become less anti-institutional. It might even be that I started looking for some way to celebrate Valentine’s Day before I had a valentine to celebrate it with. In any case, when I finally met Bette, it was already late January and only two weeks until Valentine’s Day. Not counting our first date—just coffee at Starbucks—we had had only two dates by then and Valentine’s Day was coming up and I didn’t know how to use it to say to Bette the kind of thing I was beginning to think I might want to say.
So late on the evening of Valentine’s Day, I showed up at Bette’s condo with a present for her. Pretty daring for an old man, but in the sixty years since I rebelled against elementary school valentines, I had acquired a sense of myself and a willingness to go down swinging if necessary. Bette knew that I was a baker, so I assembled a little spelt flour, a little graham flour, a little white flour, and a little rye flour and put them in separate plastic bags and held the four bags in my hand the way you would hold a bouquet. When she answered the door, I said, “I don’t know you very well yet, so I don’t know what your favorite flowers are. But I did bring you these—they are my favorite flours.”
And then three really good things happened. That’s not bad, when you consider how many bad things could have happened. The first is that she got the joke. That probably meant more to me than it should have but I was already starting to think serious thoughts about us and you don’t want to live the rest of your life with someone you have to explain jokes to—especially if your jokes aren’t any better than mine.
The second good thing is that she liked it that I had thought about her in the context of Valentine’s Day. It’s a very formal sort of flirtation, but it does move in the direction of saying “Be my Valentine” and I think Bette liked it that I took the chance when it presented itself.
The third good thing is that when I left, she thanked me “for the flowers.” There’s a difference. Trust me. I know that flowers and flours are homophones and I know you could argue that there is no difference you can hear in the pronunciation of the two words. It isn’t true. When she looked up at me—looked me right in the eye—and said, “Thank you for the flowers,” I knew what she meant and I knew that she meant for me to know. “Wow,” I said to myself as I walked back to the parking lot, “there are probably more women who would like to do that than there are women who know how and this one nailed it on the fly in one try.”
The day coming up will be our ninth Valentine’s Day—the eighth since that first one—and I come to it with a whole new appreciation for what the occasion offers to me. This is not at all like leaving a meeting and having a microphone stuck in your face. This is like wanting very much to say something and having the microphone handed to you.
Last year, Bette was in Germany on Valentine’s Day and I made up a packet of cards for the days before and the days after and packed them in Bette’s luggage with instructions to Bette’s daughter to take charge of the package and to give each one to Bette on the day marked on the envelope. It was a wonderful Valentine’s Day for us. Bette is one of the best receivers of gooey sentiments I know and if I have ever made a mistake in appreciating her on Valentine’s Day, she has found a way to turn that mistake into something good.
And that’s why I like Valentine’s Day. There is something I really want to say and this day gives me a stage, a special setting, that helps me say it. And the audience is small, but very receptive. So it’s a really good day. I can hardly wait.
 I have been told that there is a current movie in which Will Farrell makes that joke. I probably did it better and I certainly did it first.