But what was written on the flip side made my young heart pound. It was a request for me to meet the sender on the playground after lunch.
I had endured my crush for months. His name was Brian and he was super-shy. He had brown hair and blue eyes, and I fell for him after he stepped on a nail one day at recess and had to get a tetanus shot.
I nervously waited for Brian that Valentine's Day. He never approached me, let alone hint time was ours to embrace. I was crestfallen. When my best friend Stacy came over to ask what was up, I confided my horror. She giggled shamelessly then confessed her prank.
Since then, I've been skeptical of any valentine that isn't signed by Mom. Valentine's Day is dime-store drivel, I would tell myself.
My mother doesn't buy this for a minute. She's of the ilk that if a boy is worth his salt, he'll mark things like birthdays, anniversaries and Valentine's Days with something special. This goes for girls, too, and extends to family members and friends. It explains, in part, my mom's obsession with calendars, notecards and perfect penmanship.
It also helps explain what I consider to be her abridged Golden Rule: Expect the best. She wrote it down once on a slip of white paper and taped it to her bathroom mirror.
Evidently it appeared to my dad a cryptic message. At times he has fumbled to comply, marking special occasions with a tennis racquet here, a purple pantsuit there even an electric keyboard. For her part, my mom has loved each one.
Valentine's Day is different. There's always a mushy valentine waiting for her at the breakfast table. This seems to make up for plenty.
After all, the story goes, my mom thought my dad was going to propose on Valentine's Day. The signs were there, she thought. It was time. But my dad had his reasons and waited. Maybe he was shy or scared or thought Valentine's Day was too obvious. Whatever the case, my mom must have felt somewhat like I did on the playground and, inevitably, many times since.
I thought about this recently when I was in the "utility room" at my parents' house. Amid an auxiliary pantry, the overflow of laundry and sundry household storage, hang two wooden plaques my dad made with a jigsaw. Both are heart-shaped. One is carved out and reads: "I love you more in '84, dearest Bev." The other is painted in red and declares: "Bev is my hon in '91."
Today, the message of inspiration taped to my mom's bathroom mirror is gone. Maybe after three kids and 38 years of marriage you simply know what to expect like mushy dime-store cards on Valentine's Day. Sure, they are memorable. I'm certain she has a box somewhere that holds every one. But knowing my dad, the poet, she must have expected plaques, too, just as she did his eventual proposal. And time didn't tease her long. When my dad asked her to marry him the day after Valentine's, she gleefully said yes.