I remember my first clumsy efforts at cutting hearts from red paper to create a valentine for the person I loved most in the world, my mom. No matter how crooked the edges, she always praised my efforts as if they were priceless pieces of artwork. Although my mom died over 20 years ago, each Valentine’s Day I recall all the lessons about love that she taught me.
When I was an infant, my mother revealed her soul of tenderness, as I perched in the bathroom sink and she ran a soapy washcloth over my tiny body, all the while telling me stories and singing to me.
In elementary school, she told me it was all right to be different, and I really needed to hear those words because I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was a fat, awkward little girl and always the last chosen for teams.
While other girls boasted of boyfriends who slipped them valentines, my mailbox was conspicuously empty.
In high school, when all my friends were spinning elaborate fantasies about the senior prom, I was heartbroken because I didn’t have a date. I remember standing on the front steps with my mom, a big Miami moon smiling down at us, as I confessed my certainty that no man would ever love me. And I remember the way she took me in her arms and assured me that sweethearts would come in time.
She taught me that you stick by the people you love, no matter what. My dad had a gambling problem, and the money he earned as a cabdriver had a way of slipping through his fingers at the racetrack.
In the days before gambling was recognized as an addiction, my mom simply did what had to be done. She got a job to keep the family financial ship afloat, but she never pointed an accusing finger at my dad.
I learned from my mom that people you love sometimes are so vexing that you have to take dramatic measures to get them to toe the line.
When my sister and I were toddlers, we sometimes were so rambunctious that my mom would quietly pack a small suitcase, climb into Annabelle, our old black Chrysler, and drive around the block a few times, leaving my dad to contend with the chaos. We always knew she would return, but the gesture shook us back into obedience.
My mom taught me that love is deeper than blood. She cherished her best friend, whom we called Aunt Madeline, with the same fervor she bestowed on her two sisters.
That lesson rings in my heart today, when my best friend’s little children, who call me Aunt Lorraine, reach for my hand as we cross the street.
She also taught me that love transcends time. I remember walking into the kitchen one morning and seeing her weeping as she was making a batch of cookies from her mother’s recipe. When she told me the tears were for her mom, I was at first baffled.
Her mother had died 25 years earlier, and it took me a while to understand that the bond between mother and child is eternal, and whether a child is 10 or 50, memories of mom always tug at the heart.
One memory is engraved on my soul forever. I see myself pulling out of the driveway of her Fort Lauderdale home, heading back to college, and there she is, standing in the driveway in one of those flowery cotton shifts and waving, until my car disappears from her view.
More than anything, though, my mom taught me about compassion.
When she was in the final stages of cancer, I rushed home from college to see her at the hospital. When she noticed that I was coughing and sneezing, she pressed her lips to my forehead in a way that was infinitely familiar and declared weakly that I had a fever.
I wanted to stay with her in the hospital, but she insisted that my dad take me home so I could get a good night’s sleep. For the rest of my life I will remember that on the night she died, my mother’s deepest concern was for me.
I still miss her, especially on Valentine’s Day, but I believe she’s in heaven, and I believe it’s a blissful place where she can peek into my life now and again and nudge me gently in the right direction.
And this Valentine’s Day, I will give my mom the most precious thing I have, the same gift I gave her as a child. I will give her my heart.