Being born on Aug. 14 meant Valentine’s Day was my half-way mark, and suffering through the winter doldrums, the bright spark of candy and cupcakes were a welcome relief.
The year I was 4 ½ Mom threw a cupcake party for me and the neighbor girl to celebrate my half birthday— any excuse to brighten a snowy February day. I don’t remember how long the half-birthday gig lasted. At least another year or two, because a photo exists of me seated at the kitchen table with a heart-shaped candy box with a plastic doll on the cover. My age, 6 ½, is noted in the family photo album.
Back then candy boxes were done up right with lace ruffles, ribbon and fake flowers stapled to the lid. Who cared if the candy was terrible? The fancy box made up for it.
At school, there were heart-shaped window decorations and maybe, if the teacher went all-out, a tissue honeycomb heart perched on a corner of her desk, or another one suspended from the ceiling.
Valentine’s Day was an excuse for a class party, thanks to Room Mothers. These were the homemakers who signed up to bring goodies to their child’s class for holidays—Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter. Room Mothers came in pairs. One brought the treats—always homemade—and another with the drinks, cups and napkins. The party came after lunch, during ‘milk time.”
Occasionally there was a rebel Room Mother who would dare to skip the school milk and bring waxed cups and red Kool-Aid. She was a lady after my heart.
I aspired to be a Room Mother when I grew up. I was particular charmed by the creative ladies who put special favors on top of the cupcakes—adorned party picks, though today such frivolity would be considered a lawsuit waiting to happen.
One year, maybe 1992 or so, I got to be my son’s Room Mother at Startown School. My long-held dream had come true. And then I learned that school policy had changed. “Room Parents” could no longer bring homemade goodies. Store-bought treats took some of the fun out of the class party, which made things more expensive but cheapened them at the same time. A pre-packaged Little Debbie cake was no match for a home-baked cupcake with a huge dollop of pink icing.
Whenever Valentine’s Day rolls around, I still think about vanilla cupcakes with strawberry icing, sprinkled with red hots. and pastel “conversation” hearts with stamped sentiments such as “be mine” or “luv you.” Sadly, as of this year Necco Sweethearts are no more; a travesty for Valentine purists like me.
Of course Valentine’s Day was more than eats. Days before the big classroom party, we spent Art Time creating crepe-paper covered shoeboxes or hang large construction paper envelopes to collect cards from the whole class. Heart cut-outs, doilies. Is there anything that holds more promise than the site of a school Valentine box stuffed with hand-signed cards from the dime store?
Long about fifth grade, I took things to another level when I spotted a Hallmark Make-It-Yourself Valentine kit at the drug store. As a budding crafter, I begged my mother to buy it, and she reluctantly did. In early February, I went to work on the kitchen table cutting out the cards, assembling heart-shaped doilies, glitter, and stickers and pink feathers and red plastic jewels onto the cards. Elmer’s glue was my best friend as I tried to make these special greetings for all my friends.
After the first half dozen or so, neat stuff was already used and the rest of the glue-able do-dads were growing scarce. So there I was, trying to beat the clock, being “creative” and having less and less fun with every hand-decorated card. By the time #30 rolled around, I was wishing I’d never heard of the Hallmark Valentine kit.
Of course we all know the Valentine etiquette: never leave anyone in the class out, including the teacher. Especially the teacher.
Valentine receptacles were an Art Time project. The mailboxes were disguised shoe boxes until someone came up with the clever idea of making oversized envelopes from red and white construction paper. The top flap was to display your name and the whole affair hung on the front of school desks to be filled with penny Valentines, or five-cent ones, or ten-cent ones, depending on your vintage.
I’m still a sucker for tissue honeycomb hearts and candy boxes and “Victorian” fold-out cards. The fussier the better. If I’m going to be a half-year older, might as well celebrate.