Be my Valentine

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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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Goal setting at a birthday

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Happy-Birthday-Cake-2Each year, everybody gets two great chances to reinvent him or herself. One is New Years. Many of us make resolutions that day for the coming year. Now I know that we make those promises to ourselves with good intentions. If they’re not all honored, some probably are. Even if we’ve forgotten every one of them by Valentine’s Day, we don’t forget that we really do mean to be a better person.

Well, it’s the first of September, and New Year’s is months away. Which brings me to the second chance at reinvention. Your birthday. Mine is at summer’s end, August 31. As I’ve done many years, I’m using these days to reflect on my life and see what changes I’d like to make in the coming year.

I’m observing this particular birthday over two days. Our family celebrated Labor Day on Sunday at my sister-in-law Patti’s. That coincided with my birthday. It was an outdoor event, with our nephew Noah doing the grilling of chicken, hamburgers and fish. Patti had fixed a variety of dishes. My wife Toni had baked from scratch an Italian cream cake. That particular cake, my favorite, is so rich and sweet one should allow a piece no more than once a year.

As the half dozen or so guests sang “Happy Birthday,” I managed to blow out the candles that Toni had arranged in two rows, one of seven for 70 years and one of six for 6 years. Yes, I’ve now passed the three-quarters of a century. Obviously whatever changes I resolve to make next must be accomplished within a lot less time than changes I aspired to when I was 20 or 30 years old.

I can rule out a few goals, once admirable, maybe even realistic. I still jog some days. I won’t be running any more 10-k races, much less a marathon. I won’t be entering the Pulitzer Prize contest any more. I was a finalist in the editorial writing category one year when I was The Journal Gazette’s editorial page editor. I have no plan to write any more books. The Pulitzer folk have yet to add the blog as a category.

What is realistic is to draw on my religious traditions to compose an image of myself as a better person. I’m no longer interested in the metaphysics of religion, notions of an all-powerful, all-knowing Being or a hazy prospect of an afterlife. Yet the ethics of the traditions are time-tested. Take the Beatitudes as found in the book of Matthew. For example, “Judge not that you be not judged.”

I’m not sure I’m any more judgmental than the next person. But writing editorials requires a certain judgmental bent. My family would attest to that. I think I can practice being less judgmental.

Then there’s a passage about hungering and thirsting after righteousness. This is about more than being honest. This beatitude enlists you in the cause of community. It challenges you to be an advocate for others, their safety, their well-being, their success. Do you always know what all this means? Granted, this isn’t always obvious. You might need to investigate. You might need to evaluate strategies, to choose the best.

“Blessed are the meek,” gives you another challenge. In I Corinthians, St. Paul says that love doesn’t think of itself first, is not “puffed up.” Nobody loves a know-it-all.

“Blessed are the those that mourn.” Yes. Allow yourself to be sad over the heartaches and sorrows of others. Show mercy. As Philo of Alexandria said, “Everyone is fighting a great battle.” Be a peacemaker, that is don’t start arguments, settle them.

Like the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament book of Exodus, the Beatitudes in Matthew provide a guide for living. These prescriptions require no heroic exertions. You don’t have to be a candidate for sainthood. You don’t have to be religious. You can embrace them at any time in your life, before you graduate from high school or college, in your marriage, with family members, with fellow workers, in your community. Or when you’ve just turned 76 years old.

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