Be my Valentine


Valentine’s is the day I always think of Mrs. Zesky, my fifth grade teacher back at Slocum Elementary School in Defiance, Ohio.

That February holiday, Mrs. Zesky invited us to bring Valentine cards for each student. In those days, I imagine, such a card would only cost a few cents so it wouldn’t be a financial burden on most families.

I’d bet anything if some student came to her to say that her family couldn’t afford the Valentines, she’d see that student, somehow, had the cards for each fellow student. That was just the way my favorite teacher handled things. That’s the spirit of Valentine’s!

This year we celebrated the holiday are our house. My wife Toni asked family members to bring a Valentine’s card for each other person, 10 of us in all. Our younger granddaughter Cynthia had to work that evening. Toni’s sister Vicki had the flu and didn’t feel up to making the trip from North Manchester to our house in Fort Wayne.

Still, we had a crowd. That included Toni’s sister Patti and her five-year-old granddaughter Mayzi. This child now sits on a regular dining room or kitchen chair. (What’s a holiday without at least one kid, eh?) Patti also brought a carrot cake for dessert. The youngest sister, Lori, brought shrimp cocktail.

My endlessly creative spouse Toni had put together a bag of treats for each person, along with Valentine’s wishes. For the main course, she baked homemade pizza crust and put out a variety of toppings, meat for the meat eaters and plenty of vegetables for everyone. I skipped the pepperoni and black olives.

Son John the mental health advocate brought his girlfriend Cynthia. Daughter Robyn the Spanish teacher brought her older daughter Tanya and her boyfriend, Brandon. Miraculously, at least most of the family didn’t have to work that evening.

Valentine’s isn’t a romantic holiday for everyone. I suppose that’s one reason it is so universally observed. It celebrates love. That’s something we all can identify with. We got love from parents and close family. We got it from brothers and sisters. We got it, after a fashion, from playmates. As we got older we received love from close friends.

In turn, we loved them all back if in our own particular way. I’m sure I never said to my neighborhood pals, “I love you.” Nor did they ever proclaim such a feeling toward me. Yet we all cared about each other.

I know that in the first grade I broke Davy Morehouse’s collar bone playing football in my yard I felt bad. I hoped he could return soon to our little playing field. I’m sure I didn’t call it love. But I cared.

By the time you’re in high school, you’ve figured out that love is universal, even though other people’s skin color is different from yours, even though they don’t speak your language,
even though they live in another country.

In his letter to church members at Corinth, St. Paul extols various “spiritual” gifts, then declares, “The greatest of these is love.” The King James version of the Bible translates the word here as charity, which resonated with readers in 1611. Today, the word is more meaningfully rendered “love.”

St. Paul notes that love suffers long and is kind. Isn’t that the truth? Whether you’re talking about a child, a parent or a spouse, the notion of love sums up the most critical character of the relationship. It’s the best part.

I can imagine that St. Paul added ways to put love into practice. I can imagine that he suggested that people listen to each other, to hear them out. I can imagine he advised them not to insult a husband, wife or child. I imagine he taught them to apologize when they’ve given offense. I’m positive St. Paul told people to give generously to others.

Back in the fifth grade, I believe that Mrs. Zesky, whether she knew it or not, modeled such a spirit for all her students. I just wish today that I could thank her. I’d sure like to wish her a Happy Valentine’s Day.

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What’s so great about Christmas?


Christmas_tree_at_nightBoy, that was fast. One day we’re gathered at sister-in-law Patti’s for Thanksgiving, the next day Tanya and her boyfriend Brandon were setting up our artificial Christmas tree. So we’ll enjoy the fully-decorated tree for most of a month. Actually, more than a month. We don’t take down the tree until after New Year’s Day.

Charles Dickens wouldn’t recognize the way we celebrate Christmas. At our house, we’ve got wooden, painted Santas on the mantle where eight decorated yet still empty stockings hang. Five Santas sit on the piano. Of course, this isn’t the 19th Century. We do things the modern way.

Even before Kroger’s had sold the first turkey for Thanksgiving, the store had decorations and special treats out on the shelves for Christmas. I may be one of the few Americans who doesn’t mind stores and shopping malls getting a jump on the big holiday. Christmas may not be all about money. But it’s partly about money. In fact, holiday spending accounts for a huge chunk of annual spending for most American families.

That’s all right, too. The spending not only means profits for companies and investors. It represents thousands of jobs all over the country. Complain if you will about stores getting a jump start on Christmas shopping even before the Thanksgiving turkey is sold. But celebrate the creation of jobs. It means a great deal for those households that will have money to spend for presents under the tree.

I love our family traditions. After Thanksgiving dinner, we draw names to see what family member we’ll buy a present for. We’ve done this for years. We set a dollar limit so that the exchange isn’t a financial hardship. Nobody has his or her feelings hurt if you decide the sweater you got on Christmas Day isn’t quite your style and you exchange it for a different style.

We host a Christmas Eve dinner for our immediate family. We might attend a service at our Unitarian church in the neighborhood. Some years Christmas Day we celebrate at sister-in-law Vicki’s some 40 miles west of Fort Wayne. This year the gathering will again star Rod and Cassandra’s two small children, Conner and Chloe and Aunt Patti’s 4-year-old granddaughter Mayzi.

Over the holidays, some family members will celebrate the coming of the Christ child and attend a church service. Those who aren’t particularly religious will still join in singing carols. At our house, with a huge hill in the backyard, we’ll help children sled, providing we get a decent snow covering.

When I was growing up in Defiance, Ohio, Dad and I would trudge several blocks north on Jefferson toward the library to a corner lot filled with fresh Christmas trees. Once home with a tree that wasn’t too crooked, we’d bring out the ornaments. Then we’d spend the afternoon decorating the tree. Mom would serve us hot chocolate. Our little family would be ready for Christmas.

If the traditions of the season provide a structure and routines, they also serve as memories that can brighten your spirits any time of the coming year. I have to smile when I recall one gathering of Mom and Dad’s friends at 602 Jefferson. That year an old classmate of Dad’s named Bus Day and I played catch with my new football in the living room. Yes, predictably, we knocked over the Christmas tree.

After so many years, I can still picture both sets of grandparents, pretending to be surprised and pleased at the gifts I had given them, no doubt bought with my allowance and earnings selling Grit newspaper in the neighborhood.

Never mind what somebody else thinks of Christmas, what’s wrong with it, whether we’ve lost the true spirit, whether its origins are pagan. To be sure, the celebration has changed through the centuries. Now it’s our era’s turn. Besides, who really can be confident that the Nativity stories have any historical basis?

In this culture, what hasn’t changed is that we treat it as the most special holiday. It brings families together. It nurtures forgiveness. It promotes sharing. The carols are fun to sing, on or off key. Through the years, Christmas creates precious memories that last long after your favorite toys have broken and your sweaters and jackets have been shipped off to the Goodwill. There’s just a lot that’s so great about Christmas.

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