In elementary school,
we would bring in cast off shoe boxes and spend
the week before February 14th decorating them –
Pink and red construction paper, white doilies
and little tiny parchment hearts with creases up their spines
patched on with rubber cement and
sticky dreams of a future full “mailbox.”
At home, the real work would ensue
(as pre-boxed cartoon cards weren’t allowed)
and the task of making a small heartfelt Valentine
to each and every classmate – became my
childhood labor of love.
Every year, I’d find myself the night before –
laying on the floor propped on my elbows
slowly looping cursive letters together
into the names of those I sat with
day after day….
the girls who spent all of recess on the twirling bar,
the boys who cut in line on the way to the gym,
the kid who ate a bologna sandwich every single day,
and the one who always seems to have a wet smudge of
snot under their nose.
Whether in fact, I adored them (perhaps even secretly wished I
was just like them – or at least had a lunch box
just like theirs) or prayed I’d never
have to partner with them during library time because they
always smelled slightly of moth balls,
I would carefully write their names, and
deliberately chose the appropriate sentiment:
“Be Mine” for the best of the best,
and a simple “Happy 🖤 Day” to those with whom
I didn’t want any misunderstanding about affections to occur.
Down the alphabetized list, I’d work my way –
gripping the pencil so hard
that the funny writing callous on my fourth finger
would be red and indented by the time it was all over.
The morning of, we’d line up our boxes under the chalkboard,
and single-file, drop 27 notes into 27 rough cut slots cut into each lid,
and then return anxiously to 27 seats
to wait out the day – for a frosting-filled fifteen minute
party, just before being released from school. Party over till next year…
And what do I remember?
Not a single Valentine. In truth.
But the making of small gestures of love sticks with me.
And the sense I felt, even as a child, that no one should be left out.
So – it reminds me that it’s the way we give ourselves over to others
(whether they are our favorite – or not quite)
that leaves a crease in our hearts.
© martha lee phelps 2.14.18
2.16.17 Post Script:
I wrote this poem two days ago in a small coffee house that is literally less than a mile from the elementary school that the referenced Valentine’s mailboxes were created in so many many years ago. The memories I “poemed about” – where my own but also mingled with flashbacks of my kids and their Valentine-making days….also in this same little town.
It was brisk and cold here in Ashland two days ago. Rainy sleet toyed with becoming snow for hours and tucking myself into a table near a window where I could warmly watch and write felt decadent and very very safe. To make the scene only that much sweeter, was the displayed art show around me on the walls of the coffee house: artwork from students at Ashland High. And yes, I was sitting directly opposite a watercolor painted by my youngest child. Pretty damned cool. Time slowed, and the present was exactly right.
I did not know. I did not know, until I arrived home that while I’d been penning and posting a meandering poem about celebrating Valentines in schools’ of the past, a tragedy had cruelly carved itself in classrooms and down the hallways of another school. 3219 miles away, February 14th became a living horror as 17 lives were stolen forever.
Once again, we are turning to each other in shock and sadness. Those of us with kids are telling them “I love you” with renewed intent…trying to make the words into bullet proof vests. We cannot fathom the depths of grief being felt by those who have lost their children – at Columbine, in Red Lake, at Virginia Tech, at Sandy Hook, in Roseburg, at Parkland, and so many many other places in America. We cannot imagine their grief, because when we try – it pulls us into a paralysis of fear and broken dreams. So we bow our heads in reverence to their loss and pain.
#LawmakersDidThis #TheNRADoesThis #GunControlNow