“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” — Charles Schulz
First, please don’t make assumptions about the content of this essay based on its title, or misconstrue this writer’s intent. This is not a, “Poor me I’m single on Valentine’s Day missive,” or, “This is a ridiculous Hallmark Card, florist and chocolatier’s, consumer-driven, holiday.” No, instead let me go on record, I like Valentine’s Day and all the accompanying hearts and flowers, sophomoric poetry, and dinner dates with a special someone. Some years I’ve been known to give, receive and enjoy them.
Ever since I was a child and opened my package of die-cut Valentines my mother or father would buy at Piggly Wiggly or the dime store and I’d carefully select which ones to distribute to specific classmates, determine who would receive the “Valentine to a Special Someone,” or the “Valentine from a Secret Admirer,” (unsigned of course), and lastly, carefully sign my name to the largest Valentine for my teacher — I knew this was a holiday to be taken seriously and embrace.
Decorating a shoe box with construction paper and crayons or water colors, carefully cutting a slot with my safety scissors to collect the Valentines, was an opportunity to set myself apart from my classmates and perhaps invite the special Valentines. Next with the safety scissors, I’d carefully fold red construction paper and cut-out hearts for Mom and Dad, and scribe in cursive a loving message.
On the special day, we’d eat cupcakes with pink frosting and red sugar sprinkles or a red licorice heart or candy hearts embedded in the frosting that someone’s mother made. Often teachers would lift the tops of our shoe box and add candy hearts with messages, like “Be Mine,” “True Love, ” or “Kiss Me.” In 5th grade we put on a play and I was cast as the Princess of Hearts, and the most handsome boy that all the girls had crushes on was the Prince. I swooned.
Years later as a teen, Valentine’s Day became something entirely different. As is common for most adolescents, it was a reminder how I was different, unpopular, or didn’t feel I fit in with the right crowd. I’m surprised most of us survive (and I acknowledge unfortunately, some of us don’t) that “ugly duckling” phase of pimples and baby fat, orthodontic braces, social awkwardness, bad hair and poor fashion choices.
To make it even worse, it comes at a time when our hormones are coursing through us like street drugs, altering both our thinking and behavior, and in most cases, diminishing our self-esteem and for a few, amplifies their narcissism, making them mean girls or bullying jocks (yes, I’m generalizing here). And, if that’s not enough, our popular culture of music and media — and today, social media —piles on more pressure and expectations to find first love and pair off.
This was the environment I found myself in 1967 in Racine, Wisconsin at J.I. Case High School. I would be a member of the first graduating class from the new high school built to educate the growing baby boomer surge of students. In 1967, I was a high school junior. We didn’t have a senior class. One of my favorite classes was Mr. Woodbury’s Journalism/Newspaper class. I had been recruited by my principal at Washington Park High School during my sophomore year, to join the first Case High newspaper staff.
Soon we would hold a contest to name the paper and to nominate and select the staff. Our school was named after the founder of Case Tractors, one of Racine’s largest industrial manufacturers. His name was Jerome Increase Case, and the school became J. I. Case. I already enjoyed mixing metaphors and playing with words back in high school. My name entry was Just In Case. It won. I’m not sure if it was my cleverness at picking the winning name, or that no one else wanted the job, but I became the first editor of the paper. It changed my life.
In keeping with the editor’s role, I had my own column, cleverly titled, From the Editor’s Desk. The column featured an illustration of my haircut and eye glasses. It would change as my haircut or frames changed, from my Prince Valiant page boy cut with cat-eye frames, to my Twiggy pixie cut and tortoise shell, rectangle eye glasses. Occasionally I would write a feature story, Confessions of a Misfit Cupid was one of those stories and brings us back to the theme of this essay, Valentine Blues, or How I Learned to Love the Holiday.
Yes, even though I had not self-identified as gay, queer, or lesbian — all emotionally-charged tags — I knew I was different. I know, most of my fellow students felt different and we were. This is a time in each of our lives when we begin to define ourselves, to choose our own path, develop our character and embrace our personal values. What I didn’t fully realize then, but I do today looking back, I was queer — and that did make me different.
I didn’t have girlfriends (as in sweeties), but I did have crushes, beginning at the age of 12. My friends and I in middle school followed my neighbor Judy, who my father had warned me to stay away from. He said Judy was a lesbian. Well, we all wanted to know what a lesbian did so we followed her one day as she and her girlfriend went on a picnic at Sander’s Park. We soon learned what lesbians did.
I did fall in love the summer of 1967, not with a person, but with a city. At the end of the school year, I had earned my Quill and Scroll membership card, the High School Honorary Journalism Society and I received a summer scholarship and was admitted to a journalism workshop at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for high school students.
Yes, I fell in love with Madison and found the home for my heart where I would move a few years later and remain today.
The song that summer was For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield. My roommate that summer in the Elm Drive dorms, Kris and I, would wander off campus, remove our lanyards identifying us as high school journalism workshop students, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and eat French fries and ketchup at Rennebom’s, pretending to be university students. The anti-war and free speech movement were in full bloom and we wanted to be part of it.
My posse that summer besides Kris, who hailed from Viroqua, was Mike, a gay journalism student from La Crosse, and Scott from Appleton, a gay-acting, handsome, and I suspect in retrospect, closeted young man. I think both Mike and I had crushes on Scott, and in fact, I think I secretly was falling in love with Kris. It was the summer that changed my life.
Like my peers, I had boyfriends in high school, went to formal dances and Proms, and fell in “like.” I’d wrap angora around my boyfriend’s ring proudly displaying it on my finger or on a chain around my neck (some girls displayed hickey’s on their neck instead) to advertise I had been chosen. By the time I was ready to graduate from high school, I had been proposed to twice. Both times declining.
I did fall in love in college. I met the person I would marry, my husband Frank, at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside. We would marry after a few years of protesting the war, experimenting with drugs and living a communal hippie lifestyle. When we tired of what we described as “psychedelic, rock-rock-a-bullshit,” we married, got jobs and sought to be middle class and anonymous. We moved to Kenosha. One year, quoting the little neighbor girl, I made Frank a pink frosted, heart-shaped Valentine cake decorated in red with the words (reader: please read with a sing-songy little girl voice) “I Love You T-O-O Much!”
The turning point for me and the Valentine Blues was when I finally did fall deeply, madly in love with a woman. Her name was Gloria as in G-L-O-R-I-A! We worked at Jockey Menswear in Kenosha and had a standing date once a week when we’d drink a lot of cheap red wine, smoke grass and listen to the Divine Miss M. We didn’t consummate our relationship. I was married, and she was partnered with another woman. Instead, I enlisted Frank to join me in a geographic escape and we moved to the city I fell in love with that summer of 1967, Madison, returned to school at the UW and eventually came out as a lesbian (another story for another time).
When I began courting women, I employed all the tools of the romantic that I am at heart, poems by Sappho, elaborate gifts, treasure hunts, chocolates, romantic candlelight dinners and seductions in front of a fireplace. I placed secret Valentine’s in Isthmus, our independent weekly newspaper, and wrote poetry. For my partner of 15 years, I wrote a poem each Valentine’ Day for 15 years, in the end turning it into a spoken word monologue that was performed on stage.
I’m single now. I don’t feel sorry for myself on Valentine’s Day, just a little stifled and blue. I have lots of love in my life, the love of friends and family and that self-love and esteem that comes with age and learning to love one’s self. Yes, I may have sung the Valentine Blues, but I learned to love the holiday — and myself.
To read more about Valentine’s Day, Valentine poetry, crushes, and being different: