I grew up in a small town called Loveland, where Valentine’s Day is a big deal. The entire city is decorated in red wooden hearts. In High School I competed to be Ms. Loveland Valentine, a position of citizenship excellence. Twinkling lights lined the streets and there was a special valentine re-mailing program where your cards could pass through the land of love and receive extra affection in the form of special stamps and poems. By the time my forever valentine came along after college, I wasn’t one for whimsical romance. That was just fine for Ted. He was in his third year of law school, I was in the throes of my PTSD. He was stuck in the library, I was disconnected and unfeeling. But we walked into love anyway, besotted.
Ted proposed 10 days before Valentine’s Day. I don’t remember if he had flowers. I missed all the sentimental clues he had planted through out our day. It took ten minutes after the ring box was opened for my shocked smile to soften enough to kiss my new fiancé. But we glowed and giggle and made our single friends roll their eyes.
Black and grey NYC was, by this point, drowning in red and pink hearts. But for my fiancé and I, there were no flower deliveries at work, no special dinners. I wore no special frock or lipstick that day. Having just committed to real, true, forever love, we considered ourselves above such trivial, consumeristic sentimentality.
“I don’t need a day in the calendar to remind me to express my love.” I haughtily told my coworkers that first engaged holiday. They, all older and long married, smiled kindly at me in my youth.
After work the next day, I raided Duane Reade’s candy and chocolate clearance. Pink chocolate hearts were only ok for 75% — which ended up being the first economic policy we ever agreed on. And it was enough for our love.
After we were married, we stayed up late with my insomnia, debating politics and economics across the aisle, reading aloud and laughing without breathing. We’d pray together and explore the wonder that God loved us enough to give us each other. Our infatuation and affection grounded us through some hard years of my healing. And that was enough for our love.
On those early married Valentine’s Days, we made it a point to hang out with our single friends. “We can have romantic dinners and sex any day of the week. But we can’t enjoy Joelle’s creme brûlée just anytime!” we said. And it was enough for our love.
When I promised to love Ted forever, I gave him my body, my mind, and my soul. And then our love grew boys in me, and our gaze naturally shifted from each other to what our sons’ little hands might get into, and what is that brown smudge on his cheek, and what was that crash?
Valentine’s Day feels entirely different this year. It’s neither shunned not anticipated, but it’s welcome. I feel like, in our marriage, we’ve been driving for a while. Many miles ahead, many behind, we’re in a rhythm and paying attention to everything but the driving. Then that speed limit sign goes by, and it’s just a small reminder to check our speed. A date in the calendar reminding us to look in each other’s eyes.
In the rush of the familiar, it’s easy for me to forget that we are married. Oh, I know we’re together for life. I anticipate the hour we have between the boys bedtime and ours. But each day is something we just have to go with. Gas on the right, break on the left, two young kids in the backseat, and the exit another 18 years ahead. It’s not that I forget to wear those rings, or kiss those lips. I just forget to remember that the “us” that began this quotidian grind is worthy–and in need–of enjoyment.
Valentine’s Day always bothered me because it looked like such forced sentimentality. Being a part of the generation that values authenticity above ritual, Valentine’s Day was just another profit-driven venture grown large on economic upturns. I do love my chocolate, but I didn’t want to be told that I had to fall in line and buy the hype. Love wrapped in marked up roses didn’t seem worth the price tag.
Ever since I was a child, “No.” and “Why?” have been my reflexes. And I’ve always wanted to do everything myself. God saw fit to pass these, err, strengths of mine onto both of my sons. At 2.5 years and 3 months, they both show strong signs of those same stubborn, exhausting, and (maybe someday) world-changing reflexes that I have.
So as this Valentine’s Day approaches, I’m tired, distracted, and spending my energy just trying to make sure everyone has two meals and relatively clean clothes by the time Dad comes home from work to help cook dinner. It’s an effort to talk about more than the boys’ bowl movements, cute antics, and the never-ending grocery list.
This year, I am humbled. I need the repetitive reminder of a date in the calendar to revel in the love Ted and I have built. Maybe the cliche’s are clichés because tired mamas like me have always needed to hear them. I do so need the direction and discipline a tradition like Valentine’s Day offers my marriage now and, maybe, for years to comes–even if it’s a rhythm wrought by marketing firms.
My heart hasn’t grown fonder in the absence and space that the presence of children creates in a marriage, but my love for my husband has grown and matured. My PTSD has slowly healed in the safety of my husbands love, and I feel it now when he says “I love you,” which he often says over the din of our two year old’s nightly tantrum about eatting dinner. Our love has blossomed over the years, and I need to see–with my sleep-deprived eyes–all the world awash in pink and red so that I can remember to stop and smell the roses in my happy marriage.
I need the small heart around the 14th of February to remind me of to sit in the glow of our love. This year I bought a special, non-traditional Valentine’s Day gift for my husband: a 1400 piece 4D Game of Thrones map puzzle. (I don’t know what that fourth dimension is but I’ll let you know if I find out). Our love has kept us strong for years, and maybe this year it’s time to help our love stay strong. Some time being puzzled together might just do the trick.
Have you ever had a cliché come to life? One that’s maybe been coming around every year that you, like me, rejected out of youthful pride?