My daddy was my first Valentine.
I can’t remember the year he first left me a basket filled with candy, a stuffed teddy bear, and a hand-scrawled note wishing me a “Happy Valentine’s Day,” but I must have been pretty little.
My child-like understanding of the holiday evolved around third grade. This was no longer a day for just receiving candy and dropping notes to friends in decorated shoe boxes—I came to realize there were higher stakes at play. My heart would flutter as I excitedly looked through the valentines from the boys in my class. Did they give me a special card? Maybe one that was bigger than the other girls’? Maybe the note would say something clever, like “Will you go out with me? Circle one, Yes or No.”
Despite my hopes (or slight obsessions), no cards like this ever came. Sometimes I would get really sweet notes from my girlfriends, and that always brought a big smile to my face. It felt good to know I was special to someone…even if not to my crushes. (Brent, if you’re reading this, I’ve moved on…)
But by sixth grade, there was an acute feeling the game had changed. More boys were asking girls out. Everyone was talking about their boyfriends and girlfriends, and starting to have first kisses at recess, or waiting outside after school. When Brent got called to the office to pick up an impressive display of balloons and candy from a girl at another school, I knew I had to get in on the action. I silently vowed to have a valentine the next year. I’d be a teenager by then, and I was ready to date.
Junior high school came quick, and suddenly everyone was just as boy-and-girl crazy as I was. My mind was completely wrapped up with boys, popularity, sports, and making friends (prioritizing whichever seemed more necessary to survive the jungle of preteen chaos day-by-day). My status as a brainy, glasses-wearing teacher’s pet who was reading constantly wasn’t helping me get any boys’ attention. Everyone at my school seemed hyper focused on the “Regina George” types, or the handful of girls who had gotten boobs over the summer.
Adjusting to a new school was hard, but at a football game that fall, I met a boy in my grade, and we hit it off immediately. He asked for my number. I was pretty stoked when he called the next night to talk on the phone. He played me Lou Vega’s “Mambo #5” that he had recorded off the radio, and asked if I wanted to get dinner at TGI Friday’s together that weekend. I was so in.
By Valentine’s Day, we were a full-on item. He got me chocolates and a small figurine of a dog. Which, to be honest, still confuses me…I didn’t have a dog at the time, and I’d never expressed interest in one. I find it as strange now as I did then, but I wasn’t about to question anything since I finally had a valentine. Oh, and I had someone to make out with while we pretended to watch movies at each other’s houses, as well. That part was great. His mom always kept sparkling sodas in the fridge with real sugar, and we only had diet at my house. We would eat snacks, drink sodas, and make out on the couch. That kept me coming back every weekend. He was really into showing off his stuff to me, but I thought most of his stuff was strange. (Seriously, what 13-year-old boy has a cologne collection?)
Throughout high school, my dad’s Valentine’s Day gifts kept coming. I remember opening them before school. They always had candy inside, and some stuffed animal or card.
The thing I remember more than any other was when he would buy me flowers. My dad always bought my mom the most beautiful displays of roses. I could cry even now, remembering how awe-inspiring they were. She would come down to two dozen long stems awaiting her on the counter, often paired with sparkling jewelry and a fancy dinner out. My father, though not one to usually show emotion, was extremely romantic with gifts. I would excitedly watch them slip out on a date while we stayed home with the babysitter. My mom would glow as they left, with an uncharacteristic dusting of blush and makeup, and a simple but elegant dress.
I dreamed a little girl’s dream of having a husband like that someday…I’d sway around envisioning us dancing together to jazz music, and having loving gazes across the table at each other while we played footsie beneath. I never told my dad any of this, but he kept giving me a valentine every year, just the same.
When I went to college, that’s when the value of the Valentine’s Day gift really started to change. I was shocked to find that I had a package in the mail my freshman year…homesick after the long holiday, and back to a cold, lonely winter at school, I excitedly opened the package in my dorm room. Inside, I found the characteristic candy, a stuffed bear, and some fake roses that he had bought at the store just for me. A new addition was a $25 Red Lobster gift card that would become a hallmark of his Valentine’s gift, and go on to become a running joke between my friends and boyfriends and I over the coming years. (Yes, I’ll have a Lobsterita and a basket of cheesy biscuits for one, please.) My roommates and I dumped out the candy into a heart-shaped basket, and threw a party for ourselves, chasing shots of vodka with candy hearts, and celebrating our unwanted single-dom late into the night. We weren’t alone if we were together!
By junior year, I had a boyfriend. This wasn’t a silly high school crush…this felt like the real thing. And so it was. We spent every Valentine’s Day together from 20 until we broke up at 29, spinning me suddenly single into my 30s, alone for the first time in nearly a decade.
That brings us to February 14, 2017, where I curled up on the living room floor, crying my eyes out to “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” I had downed half a bottle of wine and a heart-shaped pizza already that evening, and was now focusing all of my energy on not replying to the ridiculous text messages rolling across my phone. Every man I had ever loved (or been on a Tinder date with) was texting me that evening, and I was in no mental condition to be receiving such correspondence. I felt incredibly lonely, foolish, and cloaked in grief.
Laying on my floor, I ate another piece of candy from my dad’s latest shipment, got out my laptop, and started plotting an escape. I’d never been so grateful for his consistency in his valentine. I held the stuffed bear close to me for comfort, and eventually, my tears turned to laughter at how ridiculous I must have looked laying here. I was a “Cathy” cartoon come to life, covered in candy wrappers and tears. I watched Bridget Jones mope across the screen, going back to that idiot Daniel (Hugh Grant) yet again.
I had to get out of there.
Bridget was certainly not helping me get back up on two feet…I needed to look elsewhere for some inspiration. Books I was reading at the time were Kate Bolick’s Spinster, and Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. Both stories were based in New York City, written by single women in their 30s who were hustling and working hard on their careers. Immediately, I booked a flight to New York. I was going to Brooklyn to see what all this buzz was about.
Two years later, a lot has changed. I’m no longer laying in a pathetic little ball on the floor. (Thank you to the many Colorado yoga instructors who allowed me to cry on a mat in your studio, my friends for your support, and a big thank you to my boy, time, for doing your thing and finally passing.)
As I’ve healed from heartbreak, I’ve started staring up at the mountain that is loving another person again. I’ve traversed the lower path, but know there is much of this route left to climb. I honestly couldn’t remember what I did on Valentine’s Day last year when I sat down to write this piece. It seemed fairly unremarkable, until I remembered having an exquisitely prepared five-course meal my friend Chris prepared for his partner—he’d extended an invitation to me and a few of our friends. My god, I love him. There were candles and fresh flowers, and an unruly brûlée torch that really took dessert up a notch after we’d all enjoyed a few too many glasses of Merlot.
This year, I’m planning to pay it forward by hosting a small “Galentine’s Day” get together at my place for a few friends. I’m making heart-shaped pizzas again, but this time I want to share them with some strong, badass ladies who I love, and marvel at how we’re all still out here doing our thing despite our individual hardships, and 2019 being a tumultuous year.
In an odd series of events, I’m off to Brooklyn a few days after Valentine’s Day, and will be returning back to Manhattan a mere six days later. I hope I have a few minutes to return to Washington Square Park and reflect on the two years that have passed, and make a private toast to welcome in the future.
One weekend last year, I was back in my hometown for one of my best friend’s weddings. Our friend Kay was in town from Seattle, and we stayed at my parent’s house together. We lay snuggled upstairs in my childhood bed, smoking and talking about life together. She shared about recovering from her recent divorce, and I talked about my fears of finding love again. She did my hair and we got all dolled up, and headed out to party. I watched my friend get married February 9, 2019 on my childhood stomping grounds. My 62-year-old dad and I danced the Cha-Cha slide together at her wedding, as my lifelong friends circled around us, cheering him on.
The next morning, I woke to the smell of bacon and coffee. My dad was sitting at the counter, and had a box waiting for me. It was my Valentine’s Day present…ready for the mail, but held back once he realized he could deliver in person. I smiled at him and opened it. The contents aren’t really important anymore to me, but I know there will always be candy and some cute animal to hold on to. I smiled at the little stuffed monkey in the box, and drank a sip of coffee. We heard Kay stirring upstairs, and my dad jumped up suddenly. He returned from the garage with a pink gift bag. I watched as he put a few pieces of candy into the bag, and cut a few stems off a bouquet of fresh flowers that sat on the counter. “I had an extra monkey!” he exclaimed. I smiled to myself, watching him curate one of his famous packages for someone I love dearly. We sat, wrapped up in a shared moment of spreading joy to another, and I felt extreme gratitude for my father.
My daddy was my first valentine.
Whether I was a little girl in school who wanted to feel special, or a woman in my 30s who didn’t want to feel so scared and alone, my dad has always made sure I had a valentine. He has never missed a year of showing up for me, even though there were many stretches where I didn’t fully express my appreciation for his display of love (or by extension, for feeling remembered). The packages kept coming anyway.
Just in case I needed it. Especially when I needed it. He always showed up.