Taking Back Valentine’s Day

Yes, I got married on February 14th. Don’t ever do that.

A vintage elephant Valentine.
image courtesy Pixabay License

I didn’t plan to get married on Valentine’s Day. It just kind of happened. It was February 10th, I needed to get married that weekend, and my mom came over to where I was working. She said, “You know, Sunday is Valentine’s Day.” We shrugged and smiled and pulled together a little wedding for family and friends in my parents’ living room. I wore a red dress and our cake was heart-shaped. It made our anniversary easy to remember.

Twelve years later, when I got divorced, I realized my mistake.

I’m not sure what happened to Valentine’s Day. When I was growing up, it was a kids’ holiday, small and sentimental. We all brought in milk cartons, which we decorated as mailboxes into which our classmates slipped small cards in thin white envelopes. There would be a party, where we would eat cupcakes and open our Valentines. This sounds harmless, yes?

Back then, you were not required to give Valentines to everyone in your class. I certainly didn’t. I got fewer cards than the popular girls, which wasn’t crushing. But my cards always included drawings of hippos, elephants and the like. I was not fat, just tall and shy, but that was enough to get me the insulting cards back in the day. That was crushing. But that’s what Valentine’s Day was in the sixties — small and sentimental, sometimes disheartening.

And as my marriage progressed, we had kids, and they had their school Valentine parties. These were much as I remembered, but some things had changed; everyone brought everyone a card, which I thought was nice, and the card assortments no longer included anything insulting, which I thought was VERY nice. I sent cupcakes for the parties and thanked my husband for the card and flowers that he invariably remembered to get, and that was that, for Valentine’s Day.

And then I got divorced.

I didn’t foresee it being a big deal, having a February 14th wedding anniversary. But somewhere in the 12 years I was married, Valentine’s Day had transformed from kids’ parties to some overwhelming romantic holiday spectacle. A holiday full of jewelry, travel, dinner in places that required reservations, and couples massages. It ballooned in importance, and its approach reminded me that I was alone, abandoned, raising three kids by myself, and bitter.

I was a mess. All it took was one pink cardboard heart to shred my own. I’d walk into the grocery store, just innocently going to get some milk, and I’d be confronted with BANKS of pink flowers and rows of cards and towers of heart-shaped candy boxes. Above it all waved colonnades of shiny Mylar balloons, with sappy messages that reminded me of how alone I was.

Hearts, hearts and more hearts. Pain, pain and more pain.

I tried several ways to fix it. First, I contained it. That’s SOP for me — I put pain in a corner, erect a barrier of humor around it, and deal with it when I’m ready. I made a lot of jokes about how stupid I was to get married on Valentine’s Day, exaggerating my agony for comic effect, fooling no one, I’m sure. Because no matter how biting, how caustic I was, everyone knew I was speaking from my hurt.

Next, I put little decorations here and there, to harden my heart to the pain they caused. Sort of a self-vaccination approach. If I surrounded myself with enough cardboard hearts, maybe they would lose their power to shred my real heart.

Then, I decided to stop moping about not having a Valentine, because I had three. My daughters always woke up to Valentines; a sweet card for each of them, some candy or a troll doll, whatever I’d found to tell my girls that they were, indeed, my Valentines.

That helped, but it did not cure me. I still felt my loneliness in a terrible way when February 14th rolled around. So I started on another strategy; Valentine dates.

Surprisingly, there were plenty of men for those.

All the societal build-up had apparently made grown-up, middle-aged men worried about whether or not they had Valentines. There were little articles about it on the news sites, “How to handle being single on Valentine’s Day” and the like, and they were aimed at men as well as women.

I almost couldn’t believe it. I can guarantee you that none of the men in the generation preceding mine EVER GAVE A MOMENT’S THOUGHT TO HAVING A VALENTINE. But these men cared, and so did I. So we’d kind of fumble our way together in January, and endure some awkward date on February 14th, and then cash it in a week or two after. That only made it worse. Something wrong won’t make it right.

Independently of my Valentine agony, I worked on filling the hole my divorce left in me. Recovering from my divorce took years, therapy, writing a novel about my experience, and a crash course in forgiveness. I had to give up the righteous anger of being wronged, and let myself heal.

And then I started having real relationships.

The kind of relationships you can’t have when you’re toxic from your bad divorce. And when I was seeing someone, Valentine’s Day would come and we’d exchange cards and/or candy, and we might go out to dinner, or stay in, or forget about it entirely. It didn’t feel like a make or break.

And when I was single, I wasn’t hurt by radio commercials for heart-shaped diamond pendants that no woman wants to wear. I didn’t feel pangs when those silly balloons were gently bumping overhead while I grocery shopped. Every heart-shaped candy box stopped being a painful reminder of marital disaster. February 14th wasn’t a yearly anniversary of loss and failure. It was just Valentine’s Day. A sweet, sentimental holiday of cardboard hearts and pink roses.

I kind of like it, now. And I still send Valentines to my daughters.

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