GENDUSA COLUMN: A Chocolate Box of Valentines

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, February 9, 2022

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When I sit at my mother’s old antique desk, I feel as if I have stepped back in time to visit her and those she loved. On the shelves are sepia-toned photographs reflecting her beautiful face along with other members of our family. All have passed on now, but a few items she saved remind me of the life and loves she treasured.

In the top drawer of this secretary rests an old yellow box that once held chocolates. Whenever Mom received Valentine’s candy from Dad, it was usually a box of Whitman’s Sampler full of a variety of goodness.  I would punch each one until I found the chocolate-covered coconut. I received a scolding every time I did, but it was worth it when I put that delicious little nugget in my mouth.

Once I could finally read the diagram printed on the inside lid of the box showing where my favorite candy was located, I stayed of the corner on Valentine’s Day.

Today, that same Whitman’s Sampler box of long-ago rest inside this desk drawer. The chocolate is long gone, but what is inside the container is far sweeter. 

Mama was never a very sentimental person, but there must have been something special about Valentine’s Day. My mother, Elizabeth, was born in 1919 in Monterey, Tennessee. A small town resting atop the Cumberland Plateau and home to less than 3000 citizens. Everyone knew everyone or was related to everyone else. It is still that way today, making it an exceptional place.

By the time Mama started school, it was customary for the elementary children to exchange small Valentine cards. From 1926 to 1935, Mom saved every card she received. They are housed in the old chocolate box, barely containing over one hundred little gems inside.

Some are intricate, with lace doilies framing cherubs, dolls, flowers and bunnies. Others are sailboats full of hearts with little boys at the helm shouting, “Will you be mine?”  Each one was signed by those whose names I recognize or an aunt, cousin, or someone who would become very special to Mom later in life.

One young man named James sent many of the valentines held in the yellow box. Years later, they dated until Mom met my father.

From then on, Mama got chocolates, James married a lovely woman, and lives went their separate ways.

Mother would live through the Great Depression, wars, bearing children, moving to different states, losing both her son and husband until her life ended on a warm summer day in 2010. For ninety years, the chocolate box of valentines went wherever Mother was. 

“Mom, why do you save these valentines? I once asked. “Well, they create a smile when I recall those old friends and my family, and I find them endearing innocent reminders of days and loves gone by.”

We buried mother beside daddy in the little mountain town where she began her life. I stood on the front porch of the funeral home, looking up toward the cloudless blue summer sky before her service began. I was relishing the bright sunshine mixed with the crisp mountain air when a gentleman stepped up to greet me. 

He took my hand and began introducing himself, but I knew who he was for some strange reason. “Lynn, I am James, an old friend of your mother’s. She was an extraordinary lady.”

“Mr. Robbins, I know who you are, and she thought you special as well. I still have all the Valentine cards you sent her until Dad began giving her chocolates!”

We both laughed, and I think Mom did too somewhere above the heavenly blue skies.

Our lives are full of loves lost, fading memories and waning friendships. We live in a very fast-paced world today with many problems and complexities. If we ever needed to tell someone they are remarkable, it is probably now. Now is when we need those reminders of love, innocence and sincere sentiment.

Hardened hearts need to melt away and remember the times when a Valentine was just a sweet reminder of kindness. 

It has been nearly one hundred years since Mom received her first valentine. She didn’t save the fancy gifts, nor did she care much for diamonds or furs. She didn’t leave me expensive art, glittery finery, or bins of cash. She instead gifted me treasures such as a worn antique desk adorned with precious photos and a yellow chocolate box filled with lovely valentines.

In doing so, she taught me the value of love, priceless friendships and that nothing is brighter than a smile warmed by a kind heart.