Rather than lining retailers’ pockets on Valentine’s Day, why not just tell your partner what they mean to you more often?
Ironically, the best Valentine’s week I ever spent was also the worst: I got married and jilted within the space of four days.
Granted, I was only 9 years old at the time. On February 14, 1967, a Monday, I waited outside my third-grade classroom for Randy, the dark haired, turtleneck-wearing object of my affections, to emerge from what I knew was a serious private chat with our teacher. He was a bad boy, naturally, the kind I have always been drawn to. My hair was plaited in identical braids, and I wore a dab of my mother’s perfume behind my ears and my best yellow-and-white gingham dress. I fantasized that when Randy came around the corner, he’d have a Whitman’s Sampler in one hand and a greeting card expressing his undying love for me in the other.
That did not happen.
He left the school clandestinely, by a side door, and it scarred me somewhat for a couple days. By Wednesday afternoon, though, the pendulum had swung back and I wed the dashing Randy far out in a grassy field adjacent to the stables at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico, where my father was a flight-squadron commander during the Vietnam War. In those years lots of us military brats at “Roosey Roads” conned our parents into buying us Paso Fino horses from the locals for cheap so we could learn to ride, and we were down at the stables every chance we got, practicing barrel racing and pole bending until we were too tired and sore to argue with them over homework.
Once we put our mares out to pasture for the night, we had half an hour to spare before my mother would pick us up in our family’s station wagon.
We took advantage of that little window of freedom to elope. It was a simple ceremony presided over by another boy who played the part of the minister and one of my sisters, who fashioned a veil for me out of a tack rag and clutched my bouquet of wildflowers during the part where we pledged ourselves to each other, in sickness and in health. I laughed when Randy got nervous, tripped on a rock and fell over, cutting the skin just over his right eye until it bled and he had to use my veil to keep it from dripping down his face.
Maybe that’s the reason our solemn promises didn’t take. He ran away with another girl by Friday, and I vowed to always like horses better than boys. By the time I moved back to California in the sixth grade, he was a misty memory. There were new men to swoon over, myriad paths to relationships that would go wrong, and countless other ways to suffer a broken heart.
At least a hundred of those can be traced to that bullseye on the calendar known as St. Valentine’s Day, which had its beginnings in the Middle Ages and includes terrible tales of wayward priests, fertility rituals, martyrdom, and imprisonment—all in the ubiquitous name of love. Even poets and pop stars disagree about whether the holiday merits attention, indifference, or abandonment. Shakespeare paid it homage in Hamlet, but Taylor Swift can’t seem to find the right note when asked about it in interviews, saying she’ll sit this year’s love dance out in favor of hanging with her girlfriends.
Midway through the second decade of the 21st Century, V-Day’s other sparkly facets, like cuts in a two-carat diamond, have a chokehold on us still. The holiday is a veritable wet dream for retailers, whose Christmas cash flow slips to a trickle after the New Year. Obedient and mesmerized, we drive to the mall or click through Amazon, searching for that perfect gift for our dearly beloved. We buy jewelry we can’t afford, make dinner reservations at fancy restaurants when we’d rather stay home, and say sappy, sentimental things inside Hallmark cards that wind up in the trash weeks before that other saint—Patrick—gets his lager-drenched due in March.
Worst of all, we project our hopes for the holiday, squarely and unfairly, on the unsuspecting shoulders of our mates. We dream, we scheme, and then we get mad when reality doesn’t match our expectations as the long-awaited date draws nigh. If Norman Rockwell’s depiction of two young lovers on the 1936 cover of The Saturday Evening Post were recreated today, it would only be honest if it were rendered in garish green shades of guilt and greed.
We are the diabolical enablers that compel an innocent bow and quiver-carrying cherub to work overtime every winter, making Valentine’s Day into exactly what it has become: a compendium of confusing, disappointing, occasionally euphoric moments that are here and gone quicker than a Beethoven-obsessed Schroeder can crush Lucy’s infatuation-driven overtures in a Peanuts cartoon.
Perhaps, dear lovers, we should ditch the holiday hullabaloo and simply become available to our partners: listening, engaging, laughing, adventuring, and gettin’ jiggy wit it more often. Let’s give Valentine’s Day the boot and instead, speak and show our love all year long.
Nancy Townsley is managing editor of two community newspapers, the Hillsboro Tribune and the Forest Grove News-Times. Her work has most recently been published in Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (Forest Avenue Press), the Riveter Magazine, runnersworld.com, and Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. She lives in St. Helens, Oregon.