This is not a Christmas story. Although I have a good one I’d like to tell sometime, this is a story about a different holiday–Valentine’s Day.
I should have saved it for February, I suppose. But I’m thinking about an old friend and the valentines he gave me many years ago.
My friend (I’ll call him Alan R.) grew up with me on the Far North Side of Chicago. We were in a pack of friends who attended the nearby elementary school. This was back when all of us walked to school, walked home for lunch, and walked back to school again for the afternoon.
On the very coldest or snowiest days, Daddy would drive me to school if he could. Those days were different in another way, too. Girl students, who otherwise had to wear skirts or dresses to school, were granted a dispensation because of the sub-freezing weather. We were allowed to wear something that would cover our legs.
I usually opted for blue jeans. But wearing them was verboten during class time. They could be worn only going to and from school. So I would wear my jeans under a skirt, then remove the jeans and stash them in my locker. Heaven forbid that a female child should wear pants in school! Unthinkable!
I had a handsome “boyfriend” in 5th grade. (Although we thought of each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” those terms merely meant that we had some sort of pre-teen crush on each other.) My best friend Helene had a major crush on him, but I was the lucky girl for whom he made a misshapen plastic pin when he went away to camp that summer.
By the fall, Alan R. had replaced him.
Alan was never one of the best looking boys in our class. He was tall for his age and somewhat awkward, and he tended to be rather stocky. But he had a pleasant face and a pleasant way about him, and he became my 6th grade “boyfriend.”
In October, he invited a whole bunch of us to a Halloween party at his house. Helene and I decided to don similar outfits—tight t-shirt tops and skinny black skirts. We were trying to look like French “apache dancers.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but looking back, I suspect that Helene’s savvy mother must have inspired us to choose that costume. However it came about, we knew we looked simply terrific in our very cool garb. We may have even added a beret to top it off.
Alan played the gracious host, and when the party wound down, he led us outside, and all of us paraded through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and yelling “trick or treat.” It was a truly memorable Halloween.
I don’t have a clear recollection of the next few months. The days must have been filled with other parties, school events, and wonderful family outings. But I definitely have a vivid memory of Valentine’s Day the following February.
When my classmates and I exchanged valentines, I discovered that Alan had given me two. Not one. Two. And they weren’t the ordinary valentines you gave your friends. These were store-bought pricier versions. One was sentimental, flowery, and very sweet. The other one was funny and made me laugh.
What inspired Alan to show his affection for me that way? We were fond of each other, but I don’t remember giving him a special valentine.
Looking back, I have questions about his decision to give me those two valentines. Did he choose them by himself? Did he have enough money in his pocket to pay for them?
As a mother, I can’t help wondering what role his mother played. Did she accompany him to the card store on Devon Avenue where we all bought our valentines? Was she standing next to him when he bought his valentines, offering her advice? If she did, what did she think of this extravagance on his part?
I like to think that Alan came up with the idea and executed it all by himself. He saved his money and brought it to the store with the firm intention to buy a valentine for me. When he saw the display in front of him, he couldn’t decide whether to show his affection with a flowery card or try to make me laugh with a funny one.
So he bought one of each and, head held high, gave me both of them. I hope I exhibited a response that pleased him. I simply can’t remember what I did. But I know that his delightful gesture has remained with me ever since.
Sadly, those valentines disappeared when my mother one day scoured our house and tossed everything she considered inconsequential. But they weren’t inconsequential to me. I still remember the thrill of receiving not one but two valentines from my caring beau.
Everything changed in 7th grade. A new school, new boyfriends, and new issues at home when my father’s health grew worrisome. As always, life moved on.
I recently learned that Alan R. died this year. He and I drifted apart long ago, but his fondness for me during 6th grade never faded from my memory during the many decades since we last met.
Did Alan’s flattering attentions give me the confidence to deal with some of the rocky times that lay ahead? Teenage years can be tough. Mine often were. But his two-valentine tribute stayed with me forever.
Thanks, dear Alan, for being a warm and caring young person, even at the age of 12. Although the rest of our lives have had their rough patches, the valentines you gave me back in 6th grade have never been forgotten.