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Just Before Valentine's Day
by Don Rothman

As Valentine’s Day approaches, all the newspapers in town and most of the stores are filled with red hearts, roses, sexy lingerie, titillating books, and silly rhymes. Such is Valentine’s Day in 2010.

It was in third grade when Valentine’s Day gave me the opportunity to express my love for—reveal my crush on—the extraordinarily beautiful eight year old Barbara Sameth. The memory of her brown hair, olive skin, and white dresses is so vivid 56 years later! I remember her with great pleasure.

My teacher in our P.S. 152 third grade class, where old wooden desks had ink wells, ink stains, and initials carved by mythic ancestors who’d sat in this creaky body-smoothed wood and cast iron furniture, encouraged the exchange of Valentine’s cards and candy. Not ordinary candy though.

The small sugar hearts were white, light blue and pink. And they had the words “I LOVE YOU” printed on them with a forthrightness that emboldened me. Once I’d acquired a few of these candy hearts, I had to figure out a delivery system, since Barbara sat two rows to the left of where I sat. I have no trouble recalling exactly how it felt to be separated by two rows from the girl I adored.

Something signaled the exchange of valentines, probably Mrs. Goldstein, a woman of indeterminate age with dyed gold colored hair and what we called “moon shoes,” red, as I recall. She may have decided that just before lunch was a good time for us to exchange our hearts. I think that she’d announced her plan the day before because I’d written Barbara Sameth a love letter to accompany my candy hearts.

To write this letter, I had to engage my ingenuity, especially since my spelling was erratic and I wouldn’t dare to let my mother know my romantic epistolary intentions. So I constructed fictions to explain to her why I needed to know how to spell “forever,” (“I’m writing a fairy tale”), “corner,” (“There’s a traffic light at the witch’s bus stop”), “kiss,” (“The princess and the prince fall in love,”) and “marry,” (“They live happily ever after.”)

Once I’d written the letter, I had to steal an envelope and write “Barbara” on it, across the bumpy sugar hearts that I’d impatiently sealed inside it.

I remember soberly asking my classmate in the next row to pass this envelope to  Barbara. I watched her take it, open it, remove the folded lined sheet of notebook paper, and read my first love letter.

In it, I asked if she’d walk with me at lunch down Glenwood Road, a tree-lined narrow street with islands in the middle, and kiss me. I asked, also, almost as an afterthought, if she’d marry me.

Her sparkling, warm brown eyes and her smile were like a hug. My letter had produced joy, and on the corner of Glenwood Road and my block, East 21st Street, Barbara kissed my cheek. She may have postponed responding to my proposal of marriage.

Somewhere in this concatenation of precise, sensual and emotional memory creeps in what feels like speculation…or possibility. It contrasts with my certainty about what I’ve hitherto described.

My mother had some contact, perhaps by phone, with Barbara’s mother. Somewhere in the past Barbara’s grandparents had owned our house, although we’d bought it from another family. But there was a connection that I learned about around this Valentine’s Day. It re-assured me about my marriage proposal, since our house already had joined our families. I felt as though the universe was re-adjusting itself now that I’d written and delivered my first love letter.

Well, Barbara’s mother told my mother about the letter. My mother acknowledged to me that she knew about it, making no reference to the spelling assistance that she’d provided. She wanted me to know that she knew, but I didn’t feel, as I did about so many other revelations years later, held hostage by her knowledge.

Not long after this Valentine’s Day I was invited to Barbara’s birthday party, where we played spin-the-bottle. I am sure of this, but it surprises me when I think of us as 8 or 9 years old. The bottle became a tool of some amorous god who wanted my love to flourish. I got to kiss Barbara again, amid the high-energy silliness of a well-monitored birthday party. I was euphoric.

1953 marked my beginning as a writer whose love found its way onto the page. That Valentine’s Day is now a portal back to a comforting neighborhood in which intimacy could be expressed on a familiar street corner; spelling needs could be disguised by elaborate fictions; my mother could acknowledge without judging my love letter; and a birthday party where we played spin-the-bottle could confirm the universe’s approval of my new found path.

So much that I have written since that Valentine’s Day has come from the same place as my love letter. I’m thinking of my desire to deliver what is going on inside me—my heart and mind—to the world. And to make something happen.

I think of how many thousands of pages I have written and how occasionally I feel the pleasure of watching someone read my words and smile, as Barbara smiled two rows to my left in third grade.

I didn’t wash my cheek for a few days after she kissed me. I carried her presence on my face until, at least in my memory, a kind of erasure, like coastal fog, removed the details, or so I thought. It turns out they’ve been stored for times like this, shortly before Valentine’s Day, a half-century later.

Don Rothman Photo

Photo by Scott Rappaport
Don Rothman grew up in Brooklyn, New York, went to the University of Michigan and U.C. Berkeley, where he studied English and Philosophy. He began his teaching career at Merritt College in Oakland and then helped to build Oakes College, U.C. Santa Cruz, where he taught writing for 34 years before retiring in 2007. For almost three decades he directed the Central California Writing Project, a think-tank for k-university teachers on the promise of writing to enhance democracy. He has published many essays on literacy education and a book on his lifelong relationship to photography, ONE WAY OF SEEING photographs and essays during a time of reflection, available at and Bookshop Santa Cruz.


Winter 2012 Issue

Wallace Baine
Don Rothman
Karen Ackland

Carolyn Burke
Farnaz Fatemi
Gary Young

Clifford Henderson
Micah Perks
Paul Skenazy

Julia Chiapella

Love Letters Project
Wallace Baine
Lauren Crux
Stephanie Golino
Neal Hellman
Cheyenne Street Houck
Erin Johnson
Wincy Lui
Elizabeth McKenzie
Alyssa Young

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