A Layered Valentine

 An onion, or two, for Valentine’s Day.

“Not a red rose or a satin heart,” as poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote. Nor “a cute card or a kissogram.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with those.

Love is often linked, aptly and sometimes egregiously, not only to light and dark but to food and drink.  Comfort foods which harken back to the idiosyncratic home cooking of childhood, at least for those, unlike my own sons and daughters, lucky enough to have grown up with a competently sustained culinary oeuvre.  Obscenely costly symbols—authentic Champagne, caviar, pure 24K gold itself shaved over Black Forest Truffles as insular and dense as volcanic rock.   Family recipes handed down for better and for worse.  Flourlesss chocolate wedding cake.  Fresh cardinal-red strawberries and purple cauliflower.  Friends who make and feed us the only foods we can manage to eat in times of abject grief.

In my experience, rarely had love’s layers been called to mind by the sulfenic acid particulates which aerosolize as one dissects a vegetable.      

But on my counter sits a stalwart couple: a towering purple onion listing slightly over its companion, a small golden onion, as if giving shelter. They have long outlasted all their brethren, delivered to me by a friend not driven to distraction with anxiety at the thought of going inside in winter to purchase daily bread. Only their surfaces are slightly worse for wear, separating along sepia fissures at their translucent outermost layers, furling ever so slightly, more like Rilke’s unending rose petals than the chafing away of our own perishable brittle epidermal layers, cracked by sub-zero cold. 

Although I unceremoniously felled some of their brethren, I do not plan to do harm to these companionable Alliums. 

I consider them my Valentines. 

Early in the pandemic, knowing both of the exceedingly difficult anniversaries which inhabit my outsized winters and in-house medical issues (soon to be compounded by my mother’s CoVid diagnosis), friends from work began driving significant distances to bring me food. 

After a scale revealed that I had dipped down into double digits, I was delivered troves of healthy food, including bountiful salads someone had endured quite a lot of volatile red onion vapor to adorn. . .along with a not inconsiderable amount of my favorite less healthy treats. The sustaining bounty arrived on my birthday, and fortified me for the hollowed-out holidays which followed.  My brother brought me highly sweetened booze, just in case, to toast my birthday and Jim’s, although of course Jim does not age.  A friend sent Maine coffee to warm my mornings, and then decaffeinated coffee once I had to forgo the real thing.

Writ large, multitudes, alone and in countless communities, continue to risk their own health to continue to provide meals and groceries to those in need of them.    

A century ago, in the pandemic season of her time, Julia Neill Sullivan, at 72, cooked pots of food in the small cottage on Ireland’s west coast where she had raised thirteen children, hauling meals across a stony field to those stricken by influenza and too weak to feed themselves.  More than 50 million people perished worldwide, but her own grace in her remote corner of the world ensured that others would survive. Generations have followed them.

Suffering and deprivations are immense.  It is hard to know where to begin, and daunting to consider all that we cannot heal or fix—certainly not by ourselves, and maybe not while we still walk here.    

But the gift of grace is ours to take as far as each of us can carry it.  It is exponential and enduring.  Trauma can unfold and carry its scars across time, but so does the grace “to help in time of need.”

In his last newspaper column, at the end of May, Jim Dwyer wrote about those who at their own peril now come to the throne, to feed the sick and those whose calling is to minister to them.  He also gifted us all with this final sentence about what Julia Sullivan did a century ago: “In times to come, when we are all gone, people not yet born will walk in the sunshine of their own days because of what women and men did at this hour to feed the sick, to heal and comfort.”

Food is not, strictly speaking, love, but the impulse and the calling to bring or serve sustenance to someone else is. We all need, and may be called upon to give, any “provision for the way” that we are capable of giving. 

Slightly Skewed Symmetry

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The human eye seeks out symmetry as a measure of beauty.

It is not in short supply.  Today’s–February 14th’s–ubiquitous  exaggerated hearts leap from cards in perfectly uniform pinks and reds, with no variegation or variation in outline or tone.

But the world also gives us quirky, imperfect hearts: wavering shadows from intertwined leaves, branches clutching each other into a boxy Picasso love sign, wildflowers gathered in a pointillist Valentine.


Whether by temperament or experience, I gravitate to the imperfect versions.  Give me a nicked heart, one dashed off in a quivering hand or weathered by hurricane-force winds.

Hand me a Valentine visible only to me, as I walk alone by the shore and my eyes narrow against a burst of deep winter memory, or as the sun casts a sharp half-heart shadow against snowbanks lit a ghostly whiter shade of pale.

Ireland 874

Bittersweet Valentines

This week’s writing challenge asked us for a Valentine’s Day story.  Once again I shall travel back in time to a not-so-distant day when our family was whole but knew it was soon to be missing its core. . . .


Just before Valentine’s Day we were visited by two young nieces.  Jim rested up so he could spend time with them.  He gamely assisted with Valentine’s Day crafts, posing with a pair of blue eyeglasses one niece had adorned with sparkling beads and feathers.

He died the following month.


I had to stop at a drug store in which all the pharmacists know and likely pity me by sight.

To look at the cheerful carnation pink and red of Valentine’s Day displays is almost as sobering as it was to walk into a stationery store in June and come face-to-face with the Father’s Day cards.

I wheeled around and hastened back out the door as if the cards might swoop down and attack like Alfred Hitchcock fowl–a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, a sedge of bitterns.  (I am quite the fan of “terms of venery.”)

I do realize this “woe-is-me” me is not my most attractive self, but there you have it.


On the last Valentine’s Day he spent on earth, Jim handed me a box wrapped in shiny Boston Celtics green.  It matched the boxes I had seen and which I knew contained necklaces he carefully had chosen as birthday gifts for our two winter-born daughters.

First, I had presented him with humble and transient treasures: a heart-shaped cookie and some soap he had requested.  He gave me a diamond necklace.  We gave each other cards in which we had both included variations on the phrase that we did not know where to begin.

He had printed out a picture of the two of us on our last family vacation.  Because he chose it, it will forever be my favorite of us.  It remains propped up against the reading lamp next to where I try to sleep, and usually instead take in a great deal of good literature (and some so-so books).

He had adorned it with foam letters from the box of random craft supplies we had used with his nieces a few days earlier, noting that neither crafts nor Valentine’s Day was really his thing, but the circumstances were special.


Jim was frugal only with money.  Perhaps that was an artifact of his family’s reaction to the swift dissipation of the first substantial sum he, the oldest of five children, ever possessed—the amount with which he had been entrusted for both necessities and incidentals during his first year in college.  He was neither a traditionally demonstrative nor a lavishly-spending person.

Since his freshman year, when he blew two entire semesters’ allotted fortune ($500 in 1977 money) on a stereo system (kids: ask your parents), Jim had not spent large sums of money on himself or others–except on the exceedingly rare occasions when he would buy a house, which he excused as more of an investment (even though our timing, market-wise, was notoriously bad).  Our growing family did, after all, require a place to put all of those books, and all of my fabric.

It was a rarity when my husband would spend enough money that it was worth mentioning to me . . . although there was the time I was startled that a man showed up on the doorstep of our new home, asking me for a check because he had “my tractor.”  Jim forgot to mention the purchase.  He had always wanted to be a gentleman farmer in his spare time.

We spent my very first Mother’s Day, with our eight-month-old son, at the Jersey Shore (which then carried somewhat classier connotations in popular culture, due to no fault of the area itself; it was lovely) with friends from Jim’s residency.

All of us went to a diner for breakfast, heavily encumbered by our baby and our friends’  toddlers.  Swirling around us like the cloud of dirt around Pigpen in the Charlie Brown comic strip was a circle of enthusiastic juice-box wielding children (at least one of them sneezing wildly, having planted a direct hit on her birthday cake the evening before), folding strollers, clacking colorful plastic teething toys, diaper bags and assorted baby paraphernalia.

We sat at a long table and the children all experimented, in a Jackson Pollock sort of way, with scattered Cheerios and bits of buttered pancake and streaks of sticky condiments on paper mats.

Other families with less detritus and better-dressed moms (or, at least, moms not adorned with viscous, vivid strained food splotches) shrunk away from our table.

Later that day Jim gave me a lovely silver filigree bracelet with a pale blue gemstone and earnestly told me that the gift was because it was my first Mother’s Day.  I duly mentally noted that I should not expect similarly over-the-top treatment every May.


Years later–five weeks and forever before the surgeon said “This is your tumor,” but within the time when I later realized Jim was first feeling his peculiar upper quadrant pain—Jim again gave me unusually lavish Mother’s Day gifts.  They were not on the order of a diamond necklace, but still gave me pause.

It was so unlike Jim that I wondered, but did not ask him, if there was something special about that Mother’s Day.


I wonder now if he somehow knew–before he knew–that it would be the last with me, with us.  Did his condition register at some level?  Had he, like an Andre Dubus character, “simply known, as a person with a disease may know without giving it a name or even notice, long before its actual symptoms and detection”?

Many friends of ours began their lives as parents much later than Jim and I did.  They all have had fewer children, and most an only child.  More than one of them has told me of making a decision not to have more, given their ages when commencing the adventure of parenthood: “I’d be in my sixties by the time she graduated high school.”

It does not seem to occur to anyone, even when parenthood begins later in life, that he or she will not be around for high school graduation.

It did not occur to us until Jim’s diagnosis that either of us would not be around when one of our children graduated from high school, or that one of us would not be there for the first college graduation, let alone the next birthday or Mother’s Day.


By Valentine’s Day, of course, we all knew.

When I saw the necklace and read his card, I swallowed but couldn’t speak.

Jim said, “It’s also for your birthday of significance,” as if to excuse his lapse in frugality.

I could feel my eyes fill.  Because he knew he would not be here when I actually had my next birthday of significance, or for any other birthdays, and wanted to give me something for all of them.

This One Goes Out to the Ones I Love

I see them on the pavement and in the sky.  They spring up on fresh green stems and are forged from frozen sea foam.  Some beckon in perfect symmetry among mismatched brethren on a rocky shore.

One is formed fleetingly in the illusion of intertwined, gracefully curved necks as two swans silently float past one another.

An unusual tomato slice poses for me before meeting its fate at lunch.

I peer sideways at a sunset’s golden reflection in frigid marsh water and see a charmingly irregular heart.

This Valentine’s Day, may your hearts be healed and whole, and may you find love in unusual spaces.

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