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Saint Valentine's Day 1944

In Niagara Falls, New York, back in the old neighborhood, we called it “Valentime’s” Day. This was back before the War was over, 1944, to the best of my counting backwards. I was six. Why we called it “Valentime’s,” I can’t say, but maybe it was because much of the neighborhood was first or second generation out of the old country, still tripping over English occasionally. Some have said it was because we were mostly working poor and ignorant, though the two don’t necessarily go together. More likely it was some parent, a mother with a houseful of children, who mispronounced the word and they picked it up. From there it spread through the neighborhood like a virus.

As was common then, grade school children exchanged valentines with their classmates. At Nevada Avenue School, where I was in the second grade, each child brought in valentines for their favorites in the class. These were given to the teacher, who dropped them into a cardboard box with a slot cut into the top. Red construction paper hearts, fringed with white paper doilies, covered the box and bulletin board. On Valentine’s Day the teacher called out names, and passed out the cards. The popular children blushed and giggled as they collected scores of valentines from almost every other child in the class—while the unpopular ones, and there were always a few, sat glowing with shame, eyes down on their scarred-varnish desktops where, when all the names were called, there was not a single card.

How the unpopular got to be that way is difficult to say from this distance. Perhaps they had funny names, or exuded a stink from infrequent bathing, or made odd sounds when they laughed, or were just a little shabbier than the rest of us. It could have been almost anything. Back in that second grade class, for example, we had “health inspections,” during which the teacher walked up and down between the rows of desks looking at our outspread hands to check that our fingernails were clean, and making sure we each had a handkerchief. One boy never had one, but day after day pulled out a corner of his soiled pants pocket lining to show the teacher, who mercifully passed by. Day after day I suffered with him that he would be caught. He might have been nicknamed “No-hanky” by the rest of the class. He might have been one who would get no valentine.

My mother, whether someone had told her or she remembered how it was from when she was in grade school, determined that no child of hers would contribute to this unhappiness. Every year before Valentine’s Day, when my sister and I brought home the lists of our classmates’ names, she saw to it that we carried back to school a card for every child on the list.

In February 1944, one day before Valentine’s Day, when my father arrived home from work, he announced that he’d been to several stores and they were all out of valentines. It was already dark outside. This was, after all, during the War, there was rationing, and many things were in short supply. Valentines were made of paper and even though the cards we wanted, those little three- by-three-inch ones for school children that came in assorted packages, didn’t take much paper, they were all sold out. A lot of things were hard to get. They didn’t even have valentine candy, for example, those tiny pastel hearts with “Be Mine,” and “Hot Stuff,” and “Kiss Me” printed on them. Why cards and candy were needed for the War was difficult to understand.

During supper my mother and father talked about what to do and afterwards he went out to look again. He returned with boxes of valentine cards for grownups and boxes of saltwater taffy. My mother and he sat at the kitchen table cutting words out of the cards with scissors, words like “darling sweetheart, two hearts entwined as one,” and “endearing love,” I imagine. My father joked about the cards being censored, like letters home from the front, though I didn’t know what that meant until years later when the story was retold.

Each of these valentines, its message of love cut short, mutilated, stuttering, missing altogether, went into its envelope with two paper-twisted pieces of saltwater taffy and we sealed them shut. This was back when the glue on the envelope flaps tasted like glue. The next morning I walked the frozen sidewalk to school carrying the bunch of them in a paper bag with string handles. I was vaguely embarrassed trudging along with that paper bag half full of lumpy valentines, because they were so different from what the other children were bringing and because I was carrying a bag, something no other child was doing.

In the classroom, the teacher placed the bag on her desk next to the slotted valentine box. The ones I’d brought were too fat to fit through the slot. After taking attendance, she opened the box first and began to call out names and deliver valentines to the children who raised their hands. When the box was empty there were three who had not received a valentine.

Then she started on the bag and when that was empty every child in the class had torn open an envelope and was eating taffy, some with two pieces in their mouths at once. There was a lot of smiling and smacking and licking of lips. Two of the three who hadn’t previously received valentines were boys, and their hands had shot up high when their names were called, quickly, fearing they might otherwise be passed over. The girl, smiling, had raised her hand slowly, fingers slightly cupped as if she had suddenly seen a tiny cupid floating above her that she could capture if only she were gentle enough. One boy had said to me, grinning and chewing at the same time, “The card was kinda mushy, but the candy’s great!”

The curious part of that day’s memory is that I have no recollection of having received a valentine myself. I think I must have, perhaps even two or three, or I’d have remembered that. So was every child in the room eating taffy but me? Did my mother have that much confidence in her child receiving a share of the world’s love, its attention, that she didn’t consider including an envelope with the two taffies for him? I can almost remember that I was also eating taffy, but then I can’t.

But the memories of happiness that day, even in retrospect, are in no way diminished. Other thoughts intrude, though, these many years later, about the triviality of the memory compared to what I’ve become aware of since. The children in that class may have suffered the loss of fathers, older brothers or sisters, uncles or other family members in the war that was going on then, or the ones that followed. Of all the pain and cruelty and sadness in the world, not getting a valentine probably ranks very low.

And yet the memory remains, where I experience that vague embarrassment and joy near Valentine’s Day. Grown up now, and if not, at least grown older, I am still walking down a cold sidewalk toward school with a bag of valentines, self-conscious, simultaneously apprehensive about not getting a valentine and apprehensive about getting one. I don’t carry a handkerchief and never have since the second grade when I had a small folded square for show. My fingernails are often dirty. There are halting, half-uttered telegrams of love that persist through wars and rationing. This may be all we are capable of giving one another. Happy Valentime’s Day.

E. R. Baxter III, Niagara County Community College Professor Emeritus of English, has been a fellow of a New York State Creative Service Award for fiction and a recipient of a Just Buffalo Award for Fiction. Publications include Niagara Digressions, Niagara Lost and Found: New and Selected Poems, Looking for Niagara, and the chapbooks And Other Poems, A Good War, Hunger, and What I Want.

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