Valentine’s Day: Learning from a history of romance

Valentine’s Day is less about finding your one true love than finding yourself.

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Valentine’s Day is less about finding your one true love than finding yourself.

I was 8 when I had my first crush. It was a Saturday morning, and I walked three houses down to my pal Joseph’s house on 96th Place in Evergreen Park.

“Yo, Joe,” I called, since it was considered impolite in 1957 for children to ring doorbells. 

While waiting, I sat on one of the swings in Joseph’s back yard when I saw a girl on the other side of the wire fence. Black hair, large dark eyes, she waved and smiled brightly from the other yard, and I fell in love.

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She accepted my invitation to come through the gate, told me her name was Diane, and she swung next to me while I sang the words to the song playing on my mother’s radio all week long, “Peggy Sue,” in which I substituted Diane for Peggy.

Alas, however, Diane was apparently only visiting for the day, since I never saw her again. Being sad enough that I had a belly ache, I sang “Diane Sue” to myself for hours, in hopes that the melody might magically precipitate her second evanescence.

At 14, like thousands of other teens, I learned four chords on the guitar, G, Em, C, and D, so that I could play Beatle songs. A bonus was that pretty Lynn DiBennardi, just three houses down, was captivated by what she heard, and I spent the next several weeks sitting at her back yard picnic table singing “Mr. Moonlight,” “And I Love Her,” and “It’s Only Love.”

This precipitated a magnetic attachment to Lynn’s smile, her voice, her gossipy observations about people on our block, followed by her contagious laughter. All of which, of course, added up to what I assumed was love, though once again, it was infatuation with her reaction to me.

In high school, I moved on to the next block where lived Michelle, a beauty with long dark hair, who made me think of Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee, Shakespeare’s Ophelia, or any number of tragic loves to which I was introduced in junior English.

Lacking both money and wheels, we spent most evenings sitting on her front stoop while I explained my newly adopted philosophy of transcendentalism, from reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, and about living a life communing with nature, the way Steinbeck’s character Junius Maltby did. 

Luckily for Michelle, she found somebody else who could actually take her to the Evergreen Plaza movie theater on Saturday night, while I resumed figuring out a way to turn my newest love, literature, into a career.

In college, my brother set me up with his girlfriend’s friend, Jessica. I knew very little about her except that she was older, wore sharp clothes and jewelry; and together we discovered how we had more room in the back seat of the car where there was no steering wheel.

Love happened so fast, like slipping off the end of a diving board, that I needed to be with Jessica every night, and on the phone with her for hours in the daytime, even when my mother formally requested that the operator break into one of our conversations after she had been trying to call home from her job at Montgomery Wards.

After Jessica had a falling out with my brother’s girlfriend when they wore the same dress on one of our double dates, my romance with Jessica ended, since after all, it was dependent on my brother’s car.

Marianne was a cashier at the Jewel where I started as a bag boy.

She was pretty and popular and influential at work, so I was embarrassed that she saw me up close and at my worst, fumbling with grocery items, while doing little to overcome my social phobia with customers.

She had to re-pack my bags when I made them top heavy or explain to me what kind of help was needed by a customer who had trouble communicating. 

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Such a miserable frump with nothing to offer, I was shocked and confused that she spent time talking to me at Jewel’s Christmas party. She had known and seen the real me, absent a guitar or camouflage, jarring my brain to want to learn all about the likes, the thoughts, and feelings of this extraordinary person.

Ours became an unlikely pairing, and it took many years before I realized it was because we met on level ground of truth and mutual interest, instead of my flights of egotistical fancy. 

My truest Valentine, it turned out, was the only one that was ever true.

Emeritus English professor David McGrath is the author of SOUTH SIDERS about growing up and living in the Chicago area. 

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