I don’t usually dash off blog articles and post them the same day (my fine readers deserve far better!)…. but today I’ll make an exception.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and since my own valentine is away in Vancouver for a few days and my afternoon job just got cancelled, I’ve got time to reminisce and share some vivid Valentine memories with you.
V Day has never been a Top Holiday for me, though the sight of paper doilies or pink-on-red color combos always conjures happy memories of making homemade cards for classmates in elementary school. Not for me the mini-cartoon cards that came in 30-packs! Year after year, I persisted in designing my own beauties, however unimpressed my recipients were, not because I loved my classmates so much, but because I loved doilies, hearts, and construction paper, and it was pure joy to cover my bedroom floor with all my lacy confections before giving them away. I don’t remember getting a single homemade card back, or even a particularly high number of store-bought cards – though I did hit a brief popularity peak in grade six — but it didn’t matter. The aesthetics were everything.
Most Valentine’s Days after that were a blur, until February 1981, when my new sweetheart – Henry – surprised me with HIS version of a homemade V-Day card. We’d only been dating for a month or so, but he’d gotten in the habit of coming by my place when I wasn’t home and leaving a single orange by the door, simple and unmarked. We never discussed what, exactly, each orange represented, but I assumed it meant pure, undying love and devotion. And I sectioned and ate each orange on the spot, thinking of him while I slurped my sweet fix of vitamin C and undying devotion.
The card he left came in two parts – or at least that’s how I remember it. The first part, left outside my door, was modest yet enticing. “When God plants the seed….” it said, and I unlocked the door to read the second part, which he’d pushed under my door.
“…. it grows REALLY BIG!! “ shouted the card – truly the most enormous, creative card I’ve ever received. I loved it. There were some extra oranges on the door step, too, if memory serves me well.
My third Valentine’s memory stands out for its pure awfulness. The year was 1995. Henry and I had been yanked from the mission field in Africa (after nine glorious years abroad), and moved to Washington, DC. I was stupendously depressed. Still reeling from the sudden shock of the move, and pining over lost friends and dreams, I was struggling to love anything about our new life. The weather was cold, the skies were grey, and the culture felt foreign. We lived near the Watergate Hotel, in a childless neighborhood called Foggy Bottom. I was in no mood to celebrate anything.
That year Valentine’s Day was on Tuesday: staff meeting day, already the worst day of the week in my books. At staff meetings I had to pretend to be faith-filled, happy, and grateful for our new placement – no easy task for someone who wears her heart on her face. After the meeting, we went for lunch with our mentoring couple, who took us to a huge, opulent mall in Virginia – a venue far removed from the colorful outdoor markets I missed in Africa. All my life I’ve hated malls, and this was a particularly ostentatious one. I don’t remember the lunch. But I remember our mentors’ suggestion, after lunch, that we stick around and take in a matinee. It was Valentine’s Day, after all – maybe a chance to relax a little.
Born with a strong Protestant work ethic – which naturally abhors watching films in the afternoon — I wasn’t thrilled at spending any more time at the mall, in or out of a theatre. But I had no voice in the decision. Even worse, the Cineplex offered few choices at that particular time of day. The movie my companions chose, by default, was a Sharon Stone special, a hackneyed Western called The Quick and the Dead. It was as awful as it sounded. All I could think, as I waited for the stinker to end, was what a waste of a day it had been.
When the movie let out, our mentors wanted to walk around the mall a little longer, this time as couples: me with the mentoring wife, Henry with her husband. I’m not sure if this was to have private discussions or to window shop more intentionally. It doesn’t matter. My mood, already bleak, was tanking by the minute. We arranged a meeting place around 4, when it was time for us to drive back into DC pick up our son from school.
This was a time before cell phones, and somehow our wires got crossed. The wife and I waited for the guys in one place, while they paced and waited in another. By the time we connected, Henry had given up on me and left to get Daniel. The other couple rushed off to their own plans.
And that is when I totally fell apart.
It wasn’t the end of the world, but it felt like it. Henry had left me without a penny in my pocket, and I felt as bereft as the world’s loneliest beggar. Suddenly, the huge loss of Africa – and my happiness living there — combined with my husband’s abandonment – on Valentine’s Day, no less! – plowed through my heart and erupted in weeping. Massive weeping. Not quiet, self-pitying tears, but body-shaking sobs and shudders.
I wept through the mall in search of a hidden corner, and found a bench off the beaten track. Once seated, I gave myself over to despair. The sorrows of a lifetime were joining in.
And then – someone spoke. He’d sat right next to me, on that little wooden bench, and put his arm on my shoulder.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “What’s your name? Can I do anything to help?”
I don’t know why I answered; I couldn’t bring myself to open my eyes and peek at him, but I told him my name.
“Marilyn?” he said. “What’s going on? Can you tell me why you’re crying?”
I couldn’t. I could only weep. But it got worse.
“Marilyn,” he said, squeezing my shoulder, “do you know about Jesus? Do you know He loves you?”
These words, meant to be comforting, only amped the despair and flooded me with shame.
Of course I knew about Jesus. I’d been a missionary for over a dozen years. All I DID was tell people about Jesus. I probably knew a lot more about Jesus than he did.
But I couldn’t confess that to this stranger, hitting all my worst triggers. I said nothing.
He stuck around for a while, urging me to talk. Then he prayed for me, as if I were a pagan, spooning the gospel message into his prayer. And then, thankfully, he left.
By the time Henry got back, it was way past dinner. The sky was black. The mood was frosty. It took a long time for the missed timing and bad decisions to heal. But they did.
Perhaps everyone needs a Worst. Valentine’s Day. Ever. That way, we have at least one low bar to clear on subsequent V-Days. Because, as anyone over the age of 12 can tell you, not all of them will be full of doilies, hearts, and jumbo-sized surprises. Or even cartoon mini-cards.
Some of them are just ordinary days. And that’s okay.
Praise God for ordinary days. Even if it’s Valentine’s.