I’ve never been much for hearts and flowers, and though I’ve ordered my share of roses over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever given them for Valentine’s Day. Yet it occurs to me now that all the serious romances in my life (there have been three) began in this, the dreariest of all months. It must have something to do with coming in from the cold.
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The third-century martyr’s feast happens this year to come the day after Ash Wednesday, which for many Christians ought to rule out celebrating with champagne or Swiss chocolate, though as far as I know, nobody’s ever given up flowers for Lent. At my parochial elementary school, the big question this time of year was what we would abstain from till Easter. The class wag would suggest spinach, and the nun would patiently remind us that it had to be something we liked, something we could “offer up.” Most settled on candy or ice cream. I can’t remember if I ever stuck to my resolutions, but children can be remarkably zealous. When I was twelve our parents took us to hear Mother Teresa speak at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, in Washington, D.C., and when the missionary urged us to sacrifice some strong worldly desire, I knew right away that my family should forego our upcoming summer vacation. You can imagine my dad’s reaction. Or if you can’t, suffice it to say that it was not: “Great idea! Let’s give the money we would have spent to charity, and spend those two weeks working in a soup kitchen.” Which was fair enough, since he’s the one who really needed a vacation.
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The last person to tell me he was giving up something for Lent was a college friend, a towering Irishman who could down a pint of Harp in a single gulp. Once on a bet he drank five in a row this way, and promptly threw up after the last. The only way to top that was to quit drinking altogether, and this he did, for forty days straight in the midst of the undergraduate social whirl. There was genuine piety behind his action, I think, though it may have been mixed with a therapeutic motive. It also gave him the chance to observe with a clear eye the rest of us in all our invincible undergraduate idiocy, an experience that might have persuaded some to swear off booze for life. Not in his case, however.
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I haven’t been back to the States for nearly a year, but from what I read, the “irony” that plagued our culture high and low for over a decade is now all but taboo. (I place the word within ironical quotation marks to distinguish it from more substantial ironies, such as the tragic and the Platonic, that presumably won’t go out of style.) Which makes Valentine’s Day an occasion for sincerity again, and that’s fine with me. I remember my first and last tongue-in-cheek February 14th party, in 1988 on Capitol Hill. As I flirted with a charming environmental lawyer, I reached casually into a basket of what I took to be after-dinner mints wrapped in red foil. Only as I began to open it did I realize I was holding a condom — then gave a small yelp and tossed the thing back into the basket. The lawyer laughed pleasantly; she must have thought I was playing the klutz. If only I’d managed a clever follow-up line, she might have gone on thinking so, and I might have initiated yet another February romance.
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I met my last beloved on Ash Wednesday, 1998, and that Easter she drove me to the Venice airport for the first of many separations in what would prove a year-long transatlantic courtship. Already the joke between us was that I had been her Lenten penance. Now she says, if only she had known what life would be like as my wife… So maybe I should visit the florist’s this year after all.
Francis X. Rocca is a writer in Vicenza, Italy.