Mother used to refer derisively to Valentine's Day as "Hallmark Card Day." She dismissed it as a blatant commercial event promoted by the greeting card industry.
So when we three daughters left home for college, it was Father who sent us Valentine's Day cards, not Mother. When we were young, though, Mother ungrudgingly went along with the hoopla surrounding the day and bought packets of valentines for us to give to our classmates at Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica. I remember spreading out the cards and deciding which boys would receive my best ones.
On the Day of Days, mothers brought to school frosted, sparkle-strewn cupcakes in red and pink. I can't remember if we were told that the Feb. 14 day honored early Christian martyrs named Valentine. All I know is that I considered the day very wonderful and still recall a few of the boys I hoped would send me a valentine. Sometimes, in the cards' envelopes we would stuff small candy hearts with two-word messages like "Be Mine."
My savoring of the day was intertwined with my crushes on boys. One boy I adored in second grade was Bobby. I remember we played a cowboy game in his backyard. Since this was in the 1950s, I was not actually a cowgirl. Instead, I was a nurse helping care for wounded cowboys. However, I wore a cowgirl outfit with plastic fringe. My nursing station was in a tree. By the fifth grade, I had switched schools, liked several boys at once and used to play catch-them-and-kiss-them on the playground during recess. I can't recall if Bobby or these other boys sent me valentines, but I do remember my intense anticipation.
Now as Valentine's Day approaches, I remember Mother's commercialism indictment and mull over whether I agree with it. There's no doubt Hallmark Cards Inc. the Kansas City-based company that describes itself as a $4.1 billion enterprise and other card companies thrive on that day: Last year Hallmark estimates that on Valentine's Day 151 million cards were exchanged industrywide in the United States not counting the packets of classroom cards.
The candy and flower industries also do a booming business. Some of the advice these industries offer about the day is amusing. The Society of American Florists includes this commentary on how to stage a romantic evening at home:
Make it special with a floral centerpiece or sprinkled rose petals on the table, orchid blossoms tied to the neck of a bottle of champagne or wine and a flower petal path leading the way to the table.
Make a flower trail throughout your house leading to a bubble bath sprinkled with rose petals.
Lay a few fragrant flowers near the bedside or on her pillow.
My favorite part of these advice nuggets is the flower petal path. At first, I just laughed when I read it. But then I thought I had never tried the petal path approach, and there might be something to be said for it.
The National Confectioners Association website offered this: "As an elixir for love, chocolate has been believed throughout history to bring smiles to the broken-hearted. In the 1800s physicians commonly advised their lovelorn patients to eat chocolate to calm their pining."
If I had only known, I thought, I could have used a chocolate treatment on my heart several times over the years.
Evaluating all this Valentine's Day hype, I am not sure how much it helps prompt people to go out and buy cards, candy and flowers, but something makes it happen: The National Retail Federation predicts this year's Valentine's Day spending will total $18.6 billion.
Looking at these numbers, I can understand Mother's cynicism about the profiteering around the day in an era when wars, famine, global warming and a host of other dark forces seem to foretell the annihilation of humankind.
On balance, though, I defend the day. For one thing, it means enormous profits and jobs: Hallmark and its subsidiaries alone employ 12,000 people 7,200 in the United States. Additionally, I cling to the idea that a day enshrining love in this world isn't so bad.
So with Valentine's Day approaching, I picked through my card collection and found a Hallmark card displaying the small heart candies I loved as a child. I had bought the card some time ago, intending to send it to Mother with a joke about Hallmark Card Day, a statement of love and thanks for all she did for me, including the valentine packets. She died last year, but I know if she had received the card, she wouldn't have complained. Underneath all her grumbling, she actually would have liked it and maybe even have saved it.