I love Valentine's Day. Always have. Something about the slushy spring-is-coming feeling of the snow and the sun in the sky and the flowers and the fact that my mother always made a Valentine's Day pineapple upside down cake which my husband and son are at home RIGHT NOW putting in the oven. This morning I was remembering an essay I wrote about Valentine's Day when I was 23. I found it on a file marked "really really old computer" (as if that didn't make me feel, well, really really old...) It's from a long time ago. I remember writing it one evening after work in the New Yorker offices where I worked for a time as a fact checker. I remember the keys to the computer, the way it felt to write something so revealing about myself, the danger of it. It was so long ago now and so much has changed....My family has come back together and become a better family for all the pain. BUT, I thought you'd like to read it--the voice is so young, so direct.
Also, as an aside, I'd like to say that I've gotten used to the thrill and recklessness of writing about my own life. Not yet. It's still scary and, yet, I still do it--still try to tell my truth of what happened wherever, anywhere. So now, with my book Made for You and Me about to hit the shelves...it's even more odd to realize so much about my life is about to be...in your local bookshop!
Valentines Day (from 1998)
by Caitlin Shetterly
I will always love Valentine’s day. More than Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. Or any other day that I can think of that is a holiday. Most people associate red with Valentine’s day, for me it’s more yellow. And I think that's because for as long as I can remember my mother always made a pineapple upside down cake on Valentine’s day, and my father was always away, and it always snowed. Yellow because I remember one Valentine’s day in particular when my friend Becca drove me home in her bright yellow Carmen Gia sports car, and it was so snowy the whole bottom of the car was wet from our snow covered boots. But it was not cold, and our noses were filled with the smell of the carnations sent out by the National Honor Society, and our mouths sweet and puckered from all of those candygrams we were passed in History class, because Mr. Dobbs wasn't paying attention anyway. If I remember correctly that was the Valentine’s day Mr. Dobbs came into class looking very somber and announced to the whole class that he had something of grave importance to tell us. And we all just sat there and waited, and he produced from behind his back an enormous bouquet, and proclaimed to the class, our very teacher, that " I am in love with Lisa." And our heads all reeled around to our classmate, the porcelain skinned, heavy dark locked, Lisa, and took her in as she turned the color of our Hallmark Valentines, but her expression belied her flattery, and at the same time her ultimate, horrible shame.
I remember the cake the best. A shining golden yellow round, plopped with a pock onto a cracked china plate, oozing its beautiful syrup to the edge. As I said before, my mother and I seemed, in my memory, to have always been alone on Valentine’s day, at least after my brother went off to college and I was still in high school, and those days my father was away too, because he always had work in Boston. Valentine’s day slips somehow from the cake and the snow to that one year when he was away, and my Spanish teacher Senor Roberto was at our house giving me my weekly two hour lesson--Lorca I think it was-- and the yellow of that cake turns into the green of "verde que te quiero verde," in my minds eye and slides into this terrible feeling at the pit of my stomach where I remember the phone rang and I could just feel my mother's tension from upstairs in her bed room, and I wanted to hurry up and get that class over with because I knew something BIG was happening. I was that nervous. My mother calls me a "highly sensitive person," it’s the title of some book she gave me about that kind of person who is, in her definition, a "sponge," for what is around her and who can never let go of everything that happens. "Highly sensitive person," however, seems to translate awful quick into "highly neurotic person," and I'm pretty sick of hearing that..
So my mother's on the phone. And then it seems like hours until she comes down and her face is all funny and squished kind of like home-made play -dough, and there is this chill that settles over all of us, I mean I'm pretty sure the Senor has caught wind of something BIG happening. Anyway, my mother pays him, and he leaves, and then I ask her what's wrong and she won't tell me at first, and then because as I've learned about my mother, she'll always spill it, no matter the cost in the end, and she says "You're father is in Boston with another woman, your aunt just called to tell me." SHIT. That's all I can think: SHIT SHIT SHIT. And it's fucking Valentine's day.
I'm not sure what happened after Mr. Dobbs actually handed the flowers to Sarah, except I do know that he wasn't around much longer after that, and he just sort of slipped away. Anyway I started going out with this guy who I finally lost it to, but that's another story, and I kind of stopped keeping track of Lisa and Wendy and Cara and Mara and all the rest. Once in a while I'll hear from someone who knows one of those girls that they're doing fine, and they probably hear the same about me.
Recently though things have been weird. I'm no longer speaking to my mother as much as I used to. Things have been pretty tense since Christmas. My parents are divorced. Not really in that order, sequentially I mean. My dad lives with someone else, and my Mom lives by herself.
But, you know, I still really love Valentine’s day. I think of that round yellow cake, I think of the snow, and I think without wincing of those years in high school when the carnations got passed around and maybe I only got one and the girl next to me who wasn't half as pretty, got fifteen, and I still think it's OK. I like the feeling of that made up holiday with the cheesy cards and that whole silly American trivial Hallmark feel. I like it. And I guess I'm thinking about it today because I do miss my Mom. I miss that time of just us together. And I miss who I was before I knew things were that fucked up, and that no goddamn Hallmark card would save us. I miss that cake.
* Some names have been changed.