“Life would be so fine ... if you would be mine.”
Mom always made sure I had cool valentines with mushy but not-too-mushy lines like that to take to school. In first and second grade, everybody was your valentine — both boys and girls. And everybody had a valentine box.
The night before the big day, Mom and I spent an evening cutting out hearts, moons and stars, fat little guys shooting arrows, cartoon characters, words and other shapes from last year’s valentines. We pasted them on a shoebox with a large slot cut into the lid. It had to look good in the row of other valentine boxes lined up on the windowsill in our classroom.
Then, Mom read off the names from my class list as I wrote them on the cards so I wouldn’t leave out anybody.
“Do I have to send one to her?” I objected.
“Yes. You don’t want to hurt her feelings, do you?”
“She says I have germs.”
It didn’t matter. Just sign the card. Everybody in my class got a valentine. Even the boy who never chose me when he was dodgeball captain. Even the teacher. Even the janitor.
When I came home with a full valentine box, Mom sat down at the kitchen table with me and looked through them one by one. It went something like this:
“New kid in school,” I said, looking at his “I think you’re super” Superman valentine.
“Do you like him?”
“I guess. He’s a fast runner.”
“How about Laura? This is a really big one. She must really like you.”
“Gee-whiz, Mom. ...!”
About that time, my brother was laughing his sideburns off, so I stomped off to my room with my shoebox tucked firmly under my arm like a football, straight-arming my sister along the way.
There was one from Germ Girl. Even the teacher. I never got one from the janitor, but that’s OK.
I admit, it was kind of fun. Especially opening the one with the piece of Juicy Fruit gum in it. Or a little maze I had to get through to get to a heart because, it said, “You are an a-maze-ing valentine.”
Aside from the school stuff, Valentine’s Day was no big deal at our house.
I don’t remember Pop coming home from work with a bouquet of flowers or a heart-shaped box of chocolates. He didn’t take Mom out to dinner because, well ... we never went out to dinner. There was no dancing to Sinatra — cheek to cheek or otherwise.
That just wasn’t Mom and Pop’s style.
Although I got my share of hugs, I don’t remember Mom and Pop kissing or hugging much at all, except for special occasions — like a milestone anniversary when all the family was gathered around the table. And there was a Happy 40th Hilda & Eddie cake. We coaxed a little peck on the cheek and a hug out of them that day.
Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of romance in our house. After all, as I found out later, they didn’t just find us eight kids in the cabbage patch. The romance was there; you just had to know where to look for it.
It was there after a hard day’s work on a summer evening when they sat in the backyard A-frame swing that Pop had made out of scrap wood. The ol’ swing was big enough for three big people — or two big people and five or six little ones packed like sardines. Mom and Pop sat real close in the middle of the swing. Sometimes, Pop would even put his arm around Mom.
That was my cue. As the littlest Kuhl, I liked to run up to the swing and jump! I knew Pop would catch me, and I’d wind up on his lap. As Mom and Pop talked and waved at neighbors and passing cars, I wormed my way in, little by little, inch by inch, elbows and knees, until I was the cheese in a Mom and Pop sandwich. It was a pretty tight squeeze. But it was the best feeling in the whole wide world.
That’s what I call a hug.
Mom was not only Pop’s wife, but his buddy, which he was fond of calling her. “Hey, Buddy, let’s go for a ride.” “What’s for dinner, Buddy?” Or, he’d just call her Bud when he was teasing. Pop did a lot of teasing.
I tried calling Mom “Buddy” once, but she let me know in no uncertain terms that only Pop could get away with that.
And don’t think I didn’t see that love tap when Mom was bent over in the garden, picking leaf lettuce. Or how Mom’s head came to rest on Pop’s shoulder when she fell asleep watching “Gunsmoke.”
The love really showed in their last years together, when she developed Alzheimer’s disease. Sometimes, she wandered away from home. It would have been much easier to put Mom in a nursing home, but Pop stayed by her side and held her hand more than he ever did. Even a little tighter. She was still his “Buddy.”
After Mom died in 1981, Pop walked several miles to her grave every day. People would offer him rides, but he always politely refused. When a funeral procession passed on its way to the cemetery, he’d take off his hat and bow his head in respect. Then walk on to the cemetery.
He liked to go there, kneel down to pull a few weeds from around Mom’s headstone and stay down to say a prayer. If you went to the cemetery with him, he never talked much. It was like you weren’t even there. Just Mom and Pop. A backyard swing kind of look on his face that told us he still loved her very much.
It wasn’t till years later, when Pop was in the hospital, that I found out he always had been a romantic. I’d push him and his wheelchair around the block into the shade of the big elm tree on the church lawn. All the while, twisting his wedding ring on his finger, he talked about meeting and courting Mom.
But it wasn’t easy. A date meant walking all the way from Aviston to her family’s farm in Germantown to see her. He said it was worth every step.