I‘m not much on Valentine’s Day. I liked the grade school tradition of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards with classmates. (Is that just a U.S. thing?) Each of us was supposed to have enough cards for everyone so no one felt left out. But even back then, I was acutely aware that some cards were better than others. Some were handmade and signed in silly, secret messages — a sure sign of a childhood crush, or the 1960s version of a virtual hug to your BFF. But there were always some kids who got the tackiest store-bought cards, or far fewer cards than they had classmates. I learned early on that displays of love can hurt as easily as they can thrill, and to beware of forced expectations.

Even so, I admire people who indulge in the day, and let others see them doing so. Social media has become a playground for public declarations of affection, and of creative opposition to the day. That juxtaposition makes them great fun to read and, for the craft-minded among us, surprisingly instructive as bits of storytelling art. Among my favorites today:

  • The friend who recounted how she and her husband met at an Anti Valentine’s Day party 16 years ago, when she kissed another guy in a game of Spin the Bottle; they’ve been laughing together ever since. This year’s celebration: She bagged up the trash; he took it to the curb.
  • Another friend who, on his fourth marriage, is truly happy in a way that has that feel of forever. As he says, “it took a few decades to get it right.”
  • My ever-thoughtful lifetime BFF who sent me an e-card. She apologized for its schmaltz but said she couldn’t find anything that wished me “snort-until-you-pee-your-pants” laughter.

 

Obviously my relationship with Valentine’s Day, and romance, is not of the Hallmark variety. But in a nod to the day, I offer a select few of my favorite reported love stories. They aren’t glossy or even, sometimes, pretty. But they are real, and so beautifully written that they stay with me as pieces to learn from and teach from.

  • We’ll start with the sweet. Jack Broom of The Seattle Times wrote a Valentine’s Day feature in 2011 about Joe and Marion, both 99, who had known each other most of their lives and, at 87 — after divergent paths finally came together — married. Think love dies with age?
  • David Finkel of the Washington Post wrote a long, haunting story from a refugee camp that was one of the legacies of the war in the Balkans in the 1990s. His piece is called “Exodus: One Woman’s Choice,” but I always think of it as “Love in Tent 37A.” It carries the universal echoes of star-crossed love: Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof — any piece that puts the heart at odds with family, history, culture, politics.
  • Brady Dennis is credited with launching “300 Words,” a feature that ran for awhile in the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). Dennis is now a reporter at the Washington Post, covering the environment and health policy issues. But it is those sweet, short narratives that I remember best. A standout from that time is “After the sky fell,” a bittersweet profile of a man who worked a toll booth in Florida, where he had moved as part of a lifelong dream he shared with his wife — until life had other ideas. Storyboard did a deep dive into the piece in a “Why’s This So Good” analysis by Ben Montgomery, and then a how-to by Dennis himself.
  • Maternal love also is a timeless, universal story — and often a more complicated one than societal gloss paints it as. That ferocity and conflict is never more apparent than in “Never Let Go” by Kelley Benham French, who was a reporter and editor at the Tampa Bay Times when she gave birth to a daughter a day before what science (and politics) considers viability. The story was later expanded into a book — “Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon” — co-written with Benham’s husband, and Juniper’s dad, Pulitzer-winner Tom French. The original three-part newspaper series also was the subject of several Storyboard pieces, including a “Notable Narrative” and a “Story Craft” interview.

 

The point here is that love stories are all around us, and the best defy easy cliches — just as love does. So on this Valentine’s Day, I leave you with another that popped up on my Facebook feed, and brought me to my knees with its exquisite blend of pain and love. It comes from Laura Trujillo Faherty, a longtime newspaper journalist who now works in corporate communications. After half a lifetime of secrets, she is just now finding ways to talk and write about her mother’s suicide, and her own rape. The most notable piece ran in USA Today last November, in a searing memoir called “Stepping back from the edge.” I doubt Trujillo meant yesterday’s Facebook post as a Valentine, but I read it as a story of love that can’t be destroyed by grief. It’s also a piece that demonstrates what can be done — and learned from — writing quickly for social media.

 

 

A BLACK SCARF

The bus pulled up in front of my office, and just as I was about to step off, I heard:

“Ma’am.”

I’ve grown accustomed to knowing that is me. I turned around.

“Is that your scarf?”

Laura Trujillo in her mother's scarf

Laura Trujillo in her mother's scarf

I was grumpy. The morning had been a cluster. The bus was 25 minutes late (and I was 15 minutes early because I have anxiety about being late not just for airplanes but any other mode of transportation). It was raining. And my coffee spilled into my purse, coating my wallet, headphones, notes and a sort of large check that I probably shouldn’t be carrying around , in a brown sludge. Calling it coffee is a compliment; it’s really a shake with a splash of coffee to keep me from eating leftover pad Thai or chocolate cake and ice cream for breakfast, which I might be known to do, and mostly it works. But it was thick and a mess.

I looked back. The thin black cotton scarf was alone on the bench.

My eyes watered and I said thank you in a way that wasn’t enough. And I smiled.

It’s not the scarf. It’s rather ordinary, likely from Dillard’s, and has two holes in it. But if you’ve seen me in the fall or winter, I am wearing it, pretty much every day. It is cold in my office and works as a wrap. But the real reason that I wear the scarf: It was my mother’s.

My mom wasn’t a stuff person. She had a lovely house built into the side of the Phoenix Mountain Preserves, filled with plants and books. She spent most of her money on travel — skiing in Austria, scuba diving in Australia, zip lining in Belize, RVing to Alaska. So when she died almost seven years ago, there really wasn’t anything I wanted that would help me remember her. My sister, a lawyer and mom of four, and executor of my mom’s will, did everything. My sister had to go through a life stopped almost mid-sentence: The clothes in the dirty clothes basket, the coffee cup with her lipstick on it on the kitchen counter. She had every awful task — figuring out what to donate, what to toss, and what to store and maybe go through when everything wasn’t so raw.

It made sense and didn’t that my sister did everything. She still lives in Phoenix, is the older responsible sister, pragmatic and smart. From Cincinnati, I let it happen, with excuses and reasons of having a new job and house, of taking care of four children, and later because my husband was on a waiting list for a pancreas transplant, keeping us within an hour radius of our home. But the truth was different: I didn’t want to go back. Not to Phoenix, not to my family, not to my mom’s house.

Some days it was easiest to just pretend my mom hadn’t killed herself and was just on a trip. She often went on the road for months at a time, and even though we talked daily during that time, I would tell myself she would be back soon. It helped me get up in the morning. If I didn’t go back, I could keep lying to myself.

My sister asked me if I wanted anything from my mom’s house.

“The bird painting,” I told her. I was referring to a little batik print of a tiny sparrow nestled in branches in the snow, something my mom bought at an art fair just after she and my dad divorced. The sparrow seemed tiny and needing protection. Somehow I always saw my mom in it, but in the way a teenager would do, I also told her that maybe it would look better in a different frame than the brass one she bought in the ’80s.

My sister sifted through my mom’s house and picked a few things she thought would remind me of our mom: A pair of diamond stud earrings, a silver ring my mom bought when my sister and I took her on a weekend trip to San Francisco for her 60th birthday, cardigans (which I had actually given my mom as presents), notes and cards I had sent my mom over the years, Christmas ornaments. And then she packed a few scarves and a hat, figuring I might actually have use for them in my new hometown. They arrived in a box with my sister’s familiar perfect handwriting in a note she wrote on stationery found in my mom’s desk drawer.

I didn’t look at most of the stuff for a while. I packed it all in a new box, and with it, my mom. I tried both to not think of her, and yet was consumed by her.

Eventually, I pulled out some of the things — those sent by my sister and other things I had packed away, including the puzzle my mom had done with my daughter, Lucy, before we moved so many years ago. Two of the pieces were still attached and I wondered if my mom was the last one to touch them. I found all of the cards and notes she had written to my children and to me since we had moved. The handwriting felt like a connection, but not the photos. Not the stuff.

The next winter, it got cold in Cincinnati and I pulled out the scarf. Somehow this thin piece of cotton felt like a hug (and anyone who knows me knows how much I don’t like hugs). But it was from my mom and I needed it.

I will take the bus tomorrow to see if I can find the man, to try to adequately say thank you. I took $100 from the ATM as a gift of sorts, not because the scarf wasn’t worth it, but his tiny act of kindness — really just simple decency — kept me connected to my mom.

I know I don’t need the scarf to remember her, but it’s nice to feel some days.

 

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