In my memory, Valentine’s Day doesn’t taste like Godiva chocolate, but like the humble flour-and-water adhesive my mother concocted in the kitchen each February.
My sisters and I would gather around the kitchen table with pink and red construction paper, white paper doilies, and boxes of those hard-as-cement conversation heart candies. Then my mother would pour flour into an aqua melamine cereal bowl, dribble in a little water, and stir up the glop. Ostensibly, it was an edible way to glue homemade valentines together. Probably, it was simply easier than piling six little girls into the car and heading out to buy a bottle of Elmer’s Glue-All.
The bookish smell of that floury stuff, occasionally hinted at in the kitchen when I’m making gravy, can still make my heart ache with unrequited grade-school love for Robbie Wolack, the most handsome fourth grader at St. Raphael’s Elementary School. Gordon Gulzinski, the rebel in Sister Clarita’s fifth-grade class. Mike Fasching, the smart kid who sat in the back row in Mrs. Hoffman’s sixth-grade room. I was unrequited all over the place.
We made a card for every classmate, and a big one for each teacher. My mother taught us the trick of folding a piece of paper and cutting out just half a heart. Unfold, and presto! Two balanced ventricles. We’d stick that onto a doily, then press the whole mess down onto a card. The white paste would ooze up through the edges of the doily, and wiping it away would sometimes make the lacy bits break off and tear. Most years, by the end of the afternoon, at least one of my sisters had burst into tears, another one had eaten paste and pronounced it yummy, and we all had shellacked our fingers together into little metacarpal mittens.
The holding power of that flour-and-water mixture was impressive, though I suspect that any vegetable matter pulled out of the refrigerator, pounded into submission, and mixed with warm water would probably be able to hold a sweetheart candy onto pink construction paper, too.
Some of the phrases on those candy hearts were baffling to an eight-year-old: “Oh You Kid,” “Too Cute,” “Swing Time,” “So Gay” (no kidding). Whatever did they mean? They sounded like dialogue out of an old 1930s movie. Though Loretta Young probably sounded swell murmuring this sort of thing to Bill Holden, it all seemed too intimate or too darn odd to mail off to a fellow third-grader. Others were just too frisky: “Sweet Talk,” “Be Mine,” “Kiss Me.” Imagine the gossip in the cloakroom if I sent one of those to the wrong kid.
I tried to craft sentences on the cards out of the word chunks, but sans verbs, they always sounded mysterious, contradictory, open to misinterpretation. “I’m Yours” “Too Cool” “No Way.” Could mean nothing, could mean everything.
Carrying the homemade valentines to school in a paper sack, one or two of the hearts would fall off, changing the meaning of the missive dramatically. Suddenly, the friendly note “I Will” “See You” “Be Mine” became the self-actualized mantra “I Will” “Be Mine.” The worldly “Kiss Me” “Too Cool” “Hot Dog” turned into the cocky command “Kiss Me” “Hot Dog.”
Homemade valentines were, in fact, not cool at all. When I got into class, unpacking them from the paper bag was an impossible task. The doilies caught on each other, the paste, which never seemed to dry completely, glued one card to the next, and the soggy lot was difficult to sort out and deliver. Each classmate brought a decorated shoebox to school with a slot cut in the top. The slot was sized for commercial valentines, the ones other kids’ mothers bought at the grocery store, the ones with Superman or Warner Brothers cartoon characters all over them, the ones with the useless little paper envelopes that had no stickum on the flap. The slot did not accommodate folded sheets of red construction paper with three-dimensional conversation hearts stuck all over them in slippery blobs of damp flour paste.
That meant I had to hand-deliver each card, pressing it into the hand of the addressee. Shame burning my cheeks, I had to come face-to-face with Robbie Wolack, Gordon Gulzinski, and Mike Fasching. I’m sure they knew. How could they not see the adoration from afar, the daily heart palpitations in geography class captured there, for all to see, in crumpled white doilies and pale pink hearts? I might as well have written in red letters across my forehead: “I LOVE YOU.”
The year I handed one to Robbie, his eyes lit up. “All right!” he fairly yelled, and my hopes soared. He ripped the pastel candies off the paper, shredding the doily, and tossed the hearts, bits of construction paper still clinging to them, into his mouth. “Candy!”
And so I learned, on Valentine’s Days long ago, that it can be a tricky business, this composing, delivering, and receiving of messages of love. Still, sometimes all it takes to hold a heart together is a bit of homemade paste, smeared on with loving fingers.
This originally first appeared in Minnesota Monthly, February 2001.