I confess: I'm a competitive guy, even when it comes to picking Valentine's Day presents. Each year I try harder to come up with a gift idea that will trump the previous year and dazzle my wife, Kat. I'm rather proud of some of my Valentine's Day efforts, which include using adhesive letters to spell out, "There's not enough time in a day to spend with you..." on the kitchen clock, and carving a heart from a bar of Ivory soap and placing a note on it that read, "Everything about my love for you is pure -- can I share this soap with you?" Then there's my very environmentally incorrect act of using a pint of red food coloring to draw a giant red heart on a fresh snow bank, with the words, "I love you" popping out of the middle. Goofy? Corny? You bet. But Kat got a big kick out of each one.
As I was wracking my brain about doing something really unusual this year, I thought about the most amazing Valentine I'd ever received. It wasn't an "official" Valentine, it just happened to be presented on February 14, many years ago. Call it a "stealth" gift from the heart. The giver of the gift was Aunt Theresa, my father's older sister.
Aunt Theresa often evoked a look of surprise from those who hadn't seen her before. Big-boned, with manly hands and a masculine face, she stood six feet tall in her stocking feet. She often wore black clothes, too, which didn't soften her image.
Our little town didn't have much tolerance for people who didn't follow the strict rules. For example, women who weren't married by 30 were labeled "old maids" and were the targets of gossip and jeering wherever they went. And it wasn't just the men who acted in such a hurtful way -- plenty of women commented on her marital status even when she was within earshot: "There goes Theresa; she's an oddball." Here's what they were really saying: "There goes that poor Theresa; she's destined to remain a lonely and homely spinster."
But she was my aunt, and I loved her, unconditionally. I think I was her favorite nephew. When I was a child, Aunt Theresa often dropped by (she lived next door), bearing freshly baked chocolate cupcakes with white frosting on top. Her visits were magical for me. Here was an adult who enjoyed playing with me for what seemed like hours at the kitchen table as aromas from my mother's simmering stews and soups wafted throughout the room.
Ironically, we played Old Maid, which was my favorite game because it was the only card game I understood at five years of age. Whoever was left with the dreaded Old Maid card, which bears an image of a haggard old witch-like woman, lost the round. A sensitive child, I felt terrible whenever I lost. I was further crushed when my older sisters would laugh and point saying, "You're the Old Maid, Bobby, you're the Old Maid. Ha, ha, Old Maid." Even though I had no idea what that meant, I'd inevitably run out of the room crying.
Strangely, after several outbursts while playing with Aunt Theresa, my luck did a 180. From then on, Aunt Theresa would always end up choosing the Old Maid card from my hand, which I'd slide higher than the other cards. I couldn't believe that she never caught on to my ingenious strategy, that she always took the bait. When the game was over, I'd laugh and say, "Aunt Theresa, you're the Old Maid!" She'd smile and say, "Darn it, Bobby, you tricked me again!"
Decades later, Aunt Theresa was way off her game, dying of a liver condition. I went to the nursing home to visit her, and since it happened to be Valentine's Day, I brought a bright bouquet of flowers. She smiled as I placed them on the table by her bed. Although she was weakened and frail, we reminisced about the times we spent together, including the card games at our kitchen table.
Aunt Theresa then asked me to hand her the large cloth bag on the floor next to her bed. As she reached into the bag, she explained that it was filled with keepsakes that she'd saved over a lifetime, things that meant the most to her. Among the mementos from her life, there was a small stack of cards bound by a rubber band. "I want you to have these Bobby," she said. As I turned each card over, I realized that these were the Old Maid cards from dozens of years ago!
After a good laugh, she admitted that she intentionally chose the Old Maid card from my hand because she knew how much the taunts of my sisters hurt me. "Bobby, save these cards and remember the good times we had together, OK?" she asked. I nodded, kissed her on the forehead, and said, "I'll see you soon, Aunt Theresa." She died two days later.
After her funeral, I told my mother about the Old Maid cards. Her eyes grew teary as she explained how each time Aunt Theresa "lost" a game, she'd remove the Old Maid from the deck and add it to her collection. I suspect the Old Maid cards were bittersweet for Aunt Theresa, telling symbols of her place in life and reminders of her capacity for selflessly sparing a young nephew from pain. She'd then go out and buy a new box of cards so we could play again. This made her sacrifice all the more poignant, given that she had to walk down Main Street to get to the W.T Grant's 25-cent store at the other end of the town. Aunt Theresa rarely went out because she wanted to avoid the insults, snickering, and indiscreet comments from those she passed, but she faithfully made the trek to the store to get another deck of Old Maid cards for our next game.
Aunt Theresa may not have appeared very pretty on the outside, but to this day I've never met a more beautiful person on the inside. Kat is the love of my life, but Aunt Theresa will always be my special Valentine.
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