traditional holidays in our house when I was a child were spent timing elaborate
meals around football games. My father tried to make pleasant chitchat and
eat as much as he could during halftime. At Christmas he found time to
have a cup or two of holiday cheer and don his holly-shaped bow tie. But
he didn't truly shine until Valentine's Day.
I don't know whether it was because work at the office slowed during February or because the football season was over. But Valentine's Day was the time my father chose to show his love for the special people in his life. Over the years I fondly thought of him as my "Valentine Man."
My first recollection of the magic he could bring to Valentine's Day came when I was six. For several days I had been cutting out valentines for my classmates. Each of us was to decorate a "mailbox" and put it on our desk for others to give us cards. That box and its contents ushered in a succession of bittersweet memories of my entrance into a world of popularity contests marked by the number of cards received, the teasing about boyfriends/girlfriends and the tender care that I gave to the card from the cutest boy in class.
That morning at the breakfast table I found a card and a gift-wrapped package at my chair. The card was signed "Love, Dad," and the gift was a ring with a small piece of red glass to represent my birthstone, a ruby. There is little difference between red glass and rubies to a child of six, and I remember wearing that ring with a pride that all the cards in the world could not surpass.
As I grew older, the gifts gave way to heart-shaped boxes filled with my favorite chocolates and always included a special card signed "Love, Dad." In those years my thank-yous became more of a perfunctory response. The cards seemed less important, and I took for granted the valentine that would always be there. Long past the days of having a "mailbox" on my desk, I had placed my hopes and dreams in receiving cards and gifts from "significant others," and "Love Dad" just didn't seem quite enough.
If my father knew then that he had been replaced, he never let it show. If he sensed any disappointment over valentines that didn't arrive for me, he just tried that much harder to create a positive atmosphere, giving me an extra hug and doing what he could to make my day a little brighter.
My mailbox eventually had a rural address, and the job of hand-delivering candy and cards was relegated to the U.S. Postal Service. Never in ten years was my father's package late nor was it on the Valentine's Day eight years ago when I reached into the mailbox to find a card addressed to me in my mother's handwriting.
It was the kind of card that comes in an inexpensive assortment box sold by a child going door-to-door to try to earn money for a school project. It was the kind of card you used to get from a grandmother or an aging aunt or, in this case, a dying father. It was the kind of card that put a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes because you knew the person no longer was able to go out and buy a real valentine. It was a card that signaled this would be the last you would receive from him.
The card had a photograph of tulips on the outside, and on the inside my mother had printed "Happy Valentine's Day." Beneath it, scrawled in barely legible handwriting, was "Love, Dad."
His final card remains on my bulletin board today. It's a reminder of how special fathers can be and how important it has been to me over the years to know that I had a father who continued a tradition of love with a generosity of spirit, simple acts of understanding and an ability to express happiness over the people in his life.
Those things never die, nor does the memory of a man who never stopped being my valentine.