At four years old, Niko’s understanding of “Valentimes” Day is pretty sketchy. “Why is there an arrow in that heart?” he demands. I tell him that there’s a story about someone named Cupid who had a special arrow that he would shoot into people, making them love each other. “But that’s not nice. He shouldn’t shoot people. That hurts.” I explain that it’s a SPECIAL arrow that doesn’t hurt. He’s not convinced. “He shouldn’t hurt people,” he insists.
He feels a certain sense of power, I can tell, selecting Valentine cards for first his classmates, his teachers, then a few family members. He takes the responsibility very seriously, pondering each choice as if it will change lives around the world and through all of history. I have to practice my slow breathing in order to keep myself from ripping the cards from his hands and snarling, “Just let me do it!” I know my impulse is wrong. Bad mom. But I do let him make his choices despite my impatience, so there’s that.
I never experienced this holiday as a child, though I do remember looking forward to February because of the bags of cinnamon hearts you could buy. I grew up in a Christian commune, part of a group known as the Move which held as a minor part of its flexible, ever-shifting doctrine the concept that holiday celebrations were worldly and sometimes pagan and ought to be avoided if one wished to truly dedicate oneself to God. Valentine’s wasn’t actively frowned upon like Christmas and (Lord preserve us) Halloween, but neither was it encouraged or promoted in any way when I was a child. So I never decorated Valentine shoeboxes or prepared cards for an entire class or fretted over whether I, too, would receive candy and cards from friends. I don’t feel I missed anything, particularly — but it’s one more point of connection with my son that’s missing. It’s not an essential one, but sometimes I wonder how many of these disconnected experiences can build up before we have so little in common that we can’t communicate. A silly worry, maybe, but it’s there.
This anxious thought buzzes around in my head, along with Are these cards too big for the shoeboxes? Will other families send candy, or will we be the Bad Parents handing out sugar? Will Niko be able to stay calm during a classroom celebration? and Did I remember to turn off the oven? as Niko painstakingly scrawls his name in each card. I can never think about just one thing, never truly focus on the task at hand — always my mind is busy with many ideas, questions, worries, plans, all bouncing in different directions until I simply can’t continue. Partly ADHD, partly motherhood, I guess. Luckily, I’m working with a four-year-old, and our attention spans run out at about the same time. We put the stack of cards carefully aside while he colors in another card and I help his baby sister hold a crayon on a piece of scrap paper. He peppers me with questions. “Why do we love each other on Valentimes? Is today Valentimes? Will it always be Valentimes? Can I make a card for you? I want a card that says Niko.”
I try to explain that yes, ValentiNNe’s Day (stress on the NNNNNN as a tactful pronunciation correction…) is a special day for loving each other, but really we always love each other, and that he will have lots and lots of cards that say Niko once all his classmates bring their cards to school. He isn’t entirely convinced, but he’s enjoying writing the cards, so he accepts this for now.
After school Wednesday, the day of his class’s Valentine celebration, his face shines with the aura of a child who’s had an excellent time. On his head is a red heart-festooned headband, with heart-tipped antennae bobbing on the front.He didn’t make it; he wasn’t feeling especially participatory, but he wanted to wear one, and a kind friend made one for him. He touches it carefully, with pride, telling me about his antennae that he can smell with, pointing out the heart cutouts, adjusting it on his head. Then he shows me his little mailbox, crammed full of tiny cards. His face reflects his amazement. “Look at all my cards!” His amazement grows when we open them at home, and he discovers that some of them have special treats: a deconstructable little hamburger, a Spiderman and a heart eraser, sticky gel clings, a lollipop.
Clearly, this holiday is going to be a favorite. Love, arrows, antennae, candy…how much better can a day get? I don’t miss celebrating it when I was little, but at the same time, I’m glad I get the chance to see the pleasure on my son’s face as he looks over his little cards and gifts, evidence that another child was thinking about him, too.
Happy almost-Valentine’s Day!