Ringing in a Day Of Romance


February 11, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

On the morning of Feb. 14, the doorbell would ring at our house. No visitor would be standing on the front porch, but our vestibule would be filled with presents and candy hearts.

I have no idea how my mother created the customs of our St. Valentine's Day, but it was one great day for her six children. When the bell rang that morning, 12 feet would take off in unison from the breakfast table. We scrambled through the dining room and front hall to answer that urgent summons.

My mother got into the Valentine's mood in a big way. She felt it was a lighter and happier holiday than Christmas. The yuletide holiday was heaped with religious and emotional overtones, she felt. St. Valentine's Day was a jolt of happiness in the long winter calendar.

If there was one rule that dominated the observation of the day, it was to remember someone who didn't have a spouse or a special friend. The expression of remembrance should be made with a card or an inexpensive box of candy.

My mother cranked out cards to widows and orphans, spinsters and bachelors. If she felt somebody was having a bad day, that person became her Valentine buddy.

She mailed red-and-white cards to priests and nuns. She mailed them to the dogs and cats of lonely ladies whose lives revolved around those dogs and cats.

One year she didn't get around to mailing any Christmas cards and just sent Valentine's cards. The tactic proved a smash hit. People who scarcely had the time to read the mail in the weeks before Dec. 25 were delighted to think that someone was thinking of them two months later.

There was a routine to our St. Valentine's Day observance. The cards my mother sent were strictly of the five-and-dime variety, 20 in a box for as low a price as she could find. She stressed it was the thought, not the printing and paper, that counted. As children, we made some Valentine's cards on the kitchen table the night before the holiday. This was a happy night because it was also my father's birthday and thus a mini festival.

His mother, my Grandmother Mary Louise and her sister, my Great Aunt Agnes, came to our home on Guilford Avenue from their homes in South Baltimore. Our 12-member household was temporarily expanded to 14 and made all the more merry.

It was a night of family story-telling. Aunt Agnes loved to tell us tales of cheap Valentine's cards sent in her youth (the turn of the century) whose messages were anything but cloyingly sweet. These cards often mocked the recipient and were routinely unsigned or contained only a question mark.

With glue and doilies, construction paper and crayons, we made cards for the neighbors. We then took off for their homes, not to visit but to stuff the cards in the mail slots. The most important part of this exercise was the doorbell. We got to ring the bell and run away. We were on a St. Valentine's journey -- a trip wherein love and thoughtfulness were supposed to be the main articles of baggage.

You know what? I can think of nothing better on a cold winter night than to get a summons to a door, open it and find a red letter from someone with a message of love.

Part of my mother's enthusiasm for the Valentine's fest was her preparation.

She loved to drop by several of the old city markets and compare the wares at the candy counters. As ever, she shopped for price and value. She looked especially for the hollow chocolate hearts and cupids she had known in her own Baltimore childhood.

In addition to buying candy, she also purchased gifts for family members, the gifts that would appear in the vestibule. She shopped the post-post-post Christmas sales extensively. She had a neat trick of picking up -- at a heavily marked-down price -- some item that might have been overlooked in the frenzy of December shopping. She made notes of the gift that somehow didn't get given at Christmas and then produced it on Feb. 14.

The ringing of the doorbell the morning of Valentine's Day was one of her best surprises. It was done without fanfare. Sometimes it came early in the morning. Sometimes late. The best times were those when she caught us off guard. There should be an element of mystery and surprise in the Valentine's observation.

I figured she loaded the vestibule with the cards, candy and gifts sometime the night before or in the very early morning hours. Did she arrange to have a neighbor to ring the doorbell? I don't know. But of all the rituals in my family, there was nothing quite like that hearty ringing of the doorbell on Feb. 14.

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