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The Valentine Heart

By: Katrina Smith-Robson

As an author, I am aware that not everyone who reads at this site will understand the meaning of St. Valentine's Day. To Americans it is a day to celebrate romantic love. It always occurs on Feb. 14. To many of you, the concept of romantic love may be as foreign as America itself. Let me just say that it is the best of us and the worst of us; and for those who have not yet found it or who have lost it, it is highly valued. For those of us who are lucky enough to have it, we need to be reminded to not take it for granted. This is a very personal story for me. I know that you have a similar story in your life.

Of all the emotions the human animal has to master, surely love is the most difficult. Other emotions can be explained to us as children. For example, if you throw a toy at a sibling, a parent can explain that by doing so you may have injured the little darling. Or perhaps, you might injure yourself. That is the best teacher of why anger is a bad idea. I remember getting so angry at my sister that I kicked my closet door and broke a toe. I still remember that, and have never again let anger get the best of me or my foot.

To understand love, we require many teachers. The first and most important among the teachers is our parents. For better or for worse in sickness and in health, they taught us how to love. Seldom did they ever put words to it. They taught by their example and in my case that was a difficult lesson which I am only now truly learning.

Let me begin by telling you about Mr. and Mrs. Smith, my parents. Their name really was Smith. I haven't hidden them behind a false name. My mother began life as the privileged daughter of a hard working family. Born in 1923 she was old enough to know the Great Depression. But both of her parents had good jobs and were able to provide she and her brother and sister with the necessities of life and a number of luxuries too. Mother was a beautiful girl with movie star looks and a quiet gentle way about her that endeared her to everyone. She had the dark hair of her Welsh ancestors and the piercing blue eyes of her Irish grandfather. She was also very smart and the only girl in her high school chemistry class. She wanted to be a doctor and a brain surgeon. However, her father didn't believe women should be doctors and so off to nursing school she went. She had, however, become engaged to the only son of the town's leading doctor. Her fiancée was off at the University of Michigan. In those days, student nurses were given a great deal of responsibility which included the care of patients.

One fateful day, student nurse Jeanne Lewis was assigned a new patient. Katherine Smith was a tiny woman with sparkling blue eyes and a laugh that was contagious. The middle aged mother of 5 had been hospitalized for gallbladder surgery. The woman was a good patient and she took a shine to young nurse Lewis.

"You really should meet my son Bobby. You would like him." Mother was polite and explained that she was sure she would but that she was engaged to Dick South. Of course, Mrs. Smith recognized the name immediately because he was a hometown superstar at football and also her own doctor's son.

"Too bad, you would like my Bobby."

Now, Bobby had joined the army in 1939. He always said it had been on the advice of a judge. I believe that was probably the truth. He had dropped out of school in the 9th. grade to help his large family make it through what was a very difficult Depression for them. His father was disabled by an accident at the local steel mill. His mother had kept them all alive and well with her excellent cooking skills and her small garden which she lovingly tended. Canning all summer to feed the family all winter. She was an exceptional woman who never failed to amaze those who knew her. Her Bobby was her youngest son, born on December 25, 1919. His two older brothers were normal sorts of children, but her Bobby was something else. While the other boys found jobs working at the mill or at a store, Bobby brought home more money than the two other boys put together. He worked at the local pool hall. Known to his friends as "9 Ball" no one could beat him. He had the good looks and charm to seem angelic to an opponent until the break and then each ball found its home in the pocket of choice and the money rolled in. It wasn't long before he also discovered a talent for shooting craps. Oh her Bobby was something to behold.

When he enlisted in the Army of the United States of America at the age of 20, he was asked if he could type. He thought to himself that if you could type, you probably could get a pretty good job in the army. He answered yes on the form. The next question was how many words a minute can you type? He had no idea what that answer should be so he thought 90 sounded a good number. 90 wpm he wrote down. Now the truth was he had never seen a typewriter, but he went home and borrowed one from a girl he was dating and taught himself to type 90 words per minute before he reported to boot camp. His excellent skills won him a spot in the Finance Corp. He became the Paymaster of the Panama Canal Zone. This was a great job which required consuming much Coca Cola and telling young members of the Women's Army Corp what to do. He was uniquely talented for that job.

When his mother was hospitalized, he was given leave to come home to visit her. One fine evening when young Nurse Lewis was giving her patient Mrs. Smith her medication a young sergeant walked into room 202. Mrs. Smith hadn't known he was coming and so his arrival stunned her.

"Bobby, oh Bobby, how wonderful." Her eyes filled with tears and Miss Lewis turned to see. And in that instant, my sister and I began our lives' journeys. My father always said that he could see both of us in the twinkle of her eye. Life is funny that way. Love walks in a door in the form of a handsome man in a uniform. One look was all it took. Young Mr. Dick South would have to find another bride.

I will skip the war years and the birth of my older sister because this really isn't a story about their early years. The war had ended and life had returned to normal when I joined this family. I must have been 5 years old before I knew about Valentine's Day. At school all the children exchanged little cards with funny sayings and we all had a Valentine Box of our own design into which these cards were placed. A great deal of planning went into the construction of these boxes because somehow we all understood that the quality of the trap would bring in more cards. Did I say trap? Bad me, I should have said project. Well, little girls back then were taught very early the skills of girlhood. They included always be pretty and well dressed with hair neatly in place and never, never be too smart. Your Valentine Box was an extension of yourself.

Always, and I do mean always, my father gave my mother a huge very fancy Valentine Heart full of lovely chocolate candy. My sister and I each received a smaller version. These boxes were treasured and kept hidden away in drawers with our most secret and precious possessions in them. We fought over who got to keep Mom's. I am fairly sure that my sister and I ate most of her candy as well as ours. And each year we would wonder how he could possibly find a better one than he had given her the year before. Each year, we were thrilled to see that he had managed.

In between these Valentine hearts came a year of real living. Nights of him staying out too late and coming home drunk. Gambling away his paycheck and treating other women to his charms. My mother was a very smart woman and while he may have thought she didn't know. She did. She worked all the harder at her job of nursing so that my sister and I never went without. She sewed our clothes with great skill and designed them so that we were always the best dressed kids in school. She too learned to can our food and feed us from the garden.

We heard the fights, we heard my father say things like, "I know you are too good for me. You married down. Why don't you leave?" And sometimes she tried. I remember coming home from high school and seeing her on the phone calling to check on apartments. But, we never moved, and she never left. In between the arguments, there was hugging and kissing and a love for my sister and me to see. In time, he grew more docile and they found that they both enjoyed golfing. Soon, golf replaced the bars and the women. Finally, he was hers and only hers. In all those years, he never missed the big box of candy held inside a heart too big to hold. He was like that, a spirit too big for one heart. But, her heart grew large enough to hold him.

Finally, his life was coming to an end. Lung cancer. The hospital called and said we needed to get there immediately. He was going to die that day. A bit like visiting a condemned prisoner, I thought to myself. I arrived at his room and he was sitting in a chair, he didn't look bad. I sat with him and we talked about how his day was going to end. He asked me what I thought would happen. I told him I thought he would be able to rest awhile and then he would come back and perhaps be my grandson the next time around. I told him that I would watch for him. He smiled and said he would keep an eye out for me too. He asked me to kiss him and I did. Then he said to me:

"I've put your mother's Valentine Heart in the top drawer of the dresser in your old room. The card is there too. Make sure she gets it tomorrow and tell her I'll be watching for her too." It was Feb. 13th and he was dead within the hour.

The next day I gave my mother the Heart and watched as she held it to her breast and wept. She didn't speak; she just went into their bedroom and cried. And the years alone began. She refused the attention of men, she had loved and she wanted no one else.

Finally, it was her turn. Kidney failure the doctor had said. "Too late to do anything about it, she will pass quickly." My sister and I took her home so that she could die in familiar surroundings. It was the most difficult time of both of our lives. She talked and laughed with us and we all knew it was coming to an end. And then, quietly in her sleep – he came for her. It was Valentine's Day in the year 2000. They were together again.

When my grief passed and I could look at their lives with a more mature mind, I realized how much they had loved each other. Not a storybook kind of love, but a love that carried on through heartache and anger, through fear and sickness, through disappointment and unhappiness. I never understood why she stayed with him. Now I do. She loved him.

I have had many lovers and teachers a plenty, but I have yet to find a man I could love like that. But then, no one has ever given me one of those big boxes of candy hiding inside an ornately decorated box shaped like a heart.

And so I wish for all of us a Valentine Heart of our very own.

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