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When looking back through the years, can you recall any one specific Valentine’s Day gift? Does one stand out above the others in your memory as singularly special? Of all the Valentine’s gifts I’ve received over the years, only one in particular comes to mind, and it’s not what you might expect.

It was a modest gift of a few carnations, sent to me by my mother when I was 13 years old.

Many of you—or at least those who live in places where Valentine’s Day is celebrated—are likely familiar with the elementary school tradition of valentine card exchanges. That generally disappears as a school-sponsored activity once you hit junior high, though kids in the 80s still liked to exchange them informally in the hallways or slip them into classmates’ lockers.

In our school, the student council developed a “V-Gram” fundraiser, in which students could buy single roses or heart-shaped lollipops for friends or crushes, to be very publicly delivered by the council members during class. It was a prestigious affair at the time. As you can imagine, however, it elicited tons of anxiety for anyone who wasn’t popular or “going steady” or otherwise considered crush-worthy.

This poor child only months earlier had wallowed in Valentine’s Day Despair. (me after Junior High Graduation)

I was none of those things.

I didn’t have any close friends and never had a boy express feelings of affection for me. I was gawky and awkward. I dressed in unfashionable hand-me-downs, never bothered with styling my hair, and was forbidden to wear makeup until I was 16. In other words, I was not considered very attractive.

The previous year, when I was in seventh grade and my closest sister—a girl everyone adored—was in eighth, she’d come home not only with several V-grams from her besties and other crushes, but also an actual small bouquet AND a stuffed teddy bear from her “boyfriend.”  (Side note: we technically weren’t allowed to date until we were 16 either, so she had to hide those from our dad…) I, on the other hand, had come home with nothing. Maybe a small valentine with a single candy heart inside from a fellow classmate who given them to everyone, but there’d been no flowers or bears for me.

I knew eighth grade wasn’t going to be any different. The day before, the school was abuzz with excitement. Dollars were flying and secrets were whispered about who was buying what for who. My anxiety reached peak levels come lunchtime. I walked the few blocks home, crawled into my bed, and broke down in a flood of tears.

My mom told me I had to return to school, but I couldn’t. I was too distraught. I blubbered about how everyone but me would get V-Grams or flowers or candy. I wailed about how no one liked me, not like they liked my sister Deedee, and I would be forever friendless and unloved. I cried and cried and cried. My mom finally left me alone, letting me stay home from school the rest of the day (a small miracle given how strict she usually was about it.)

Photo of my mom, taken around the same year-ish as the story.
Don’t tell her I posted this. She’d be the one mortified.

I returned to school the next morning, resigned to my loveless fate. I was sitting in history class when one of the student aides came into the room with a delivery: a small glass vase with several carnations in it. To my utter shock, the teacher pointed me out, and the student brought it to my desk.

For once, I was the center of attention. Everyone was curious about who sent me—Dorky D—flowers from an actual florist. With as much casual swag as I could muster, I opened the card. It was from my mom. I was mortified.

Now, you’d think I’d have been grateful or touched, but at the time, getting flowers from your family was the absolute worst. Better no gifts than public pity gifts from mom! It was embarrassing. I slid the card back in the envelope and only smiled when classmates asked who it was from.

I don’t remember if I thanked my mom when I got home, or even acknowledged it, but I can tell you I didn’t appreciate the gesture at the time. It was no small thing, either, considering money was always tight in our single-income, eight-kid household, so she probably had to scrape together the cash to buy the flowers, and then make the trip to the florist with a toddler or two in tow. Years later, when adult me fully recognized and appreciated what she’d done, I retold her the story and thanked her.

As an adult, I’ve cared less and less about Valentine’s Day. I know many people honor it with gusto, and even I love the romantic aesthetic of the holiday. But it irks me that flower, chocolate and jewelry companies have instilled this panic-inducing sense of gift-giving in a way that seems to be very one-sided (sorry, men!) And as I said at the beginning of this post, I hardly recall any of the gifts I’ve received over the years, anyway. Other than the handmade cards I’ve received from my children—many of which I still have—only one has a special place in my heart, and that’s this one:

Yes, this is the original card that came with the carnations. Yes, I’ve kept it all these years.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

— D.M. Domosea