It’s hardly necessary to say that Valentine’s Day is overblown and over-commercialized, heralded by a barrage of advertising that peddles greeting cards, red roses, dark chocolate, sentiment by the truckload, love itself. In my childhood and youth, February the 14th was marked very differently, when it was marked at all. But I imagine that children and young teens have always had rituals that introduce them to the gender norms of their society and prepare them for courtship before it begins in earnest.
In my primary school in Athens I seem to recall a flutter of excitement accompanying the approach of the day, when a student might receive an anonymous Valentine in the internal mail, creating breathless speculation as to the identities of both sender and receiver—among the girls, at least; only dread and embarrassment among the boys, or so they let it be known. As children growing up without the influence of television (or even, in my case, the radio), we were effectively shielded from the incipient youth culture of the early 1960s, our innocent imitations taking their cues from romantic pop songs. Although my parents’ small collection of 45-rpm singles and 33-rpm EP’s contained next-to-no American records, somehow I learned a few songs, memorably Oh Carol (See St. Catherine’s and Miss Tutte), Wolverton Mountain, and perhaps my favorite, Sealed With a Kiss.
In boarding school in Darjeeling we didn’t mark the day at all, but nevertheless had our own year-round rituals and practices that signified to whom our hearts had been given, for the time being, anyway. Again, music gave words—inadequate approximations always, but words just the same—to the inchoate murmurings of our young hearts. I can still see the boys in The Strange Infatuation, our co-ed band at Mount Hermon, sending shivers down our spines with their performance of the Beatles’ Boys at a rehearsal snatched between Afternoon Study and dinnertime. We girls, not to be outdone, responded with a sultry imitation of Nancy Sinatra’s Boots.
In my year-long sojourn in England in 1968-69, I was mostly an outside observer of the strange courtship rituals of British teens. The kind of interaction with the opposite sex that I experienced personally was one at a double remove from the person in question. A boy who had his eye on me might send his friend to tell my girlfriend that he liked me. If I looked up and dared to meet his eye, he would look away hastily, pretending not to have seen me; and if I were to cross the boy-girl divide and actually ask him to confirm the truth of his friend’s message, he would certainly deny everything. Of course, the whole exercise was based on the unspoken understanding that I would never have the nerve to do so. Whether and, if so, how they celebrated Valentine’s Day, I honestly can’t remember.
By 1970, when we got to America and the avant-garde Brookline High School, dating was already considered passé, an teen rituals of the 1950s such as the Senior Prom and Valentine’s Day similarly retrograde. The cool thing to do was to go out in a large mixed group, and not to seem to have a preference for any one individual. But of course, we did have preferences, which we still whispered about with our girlfriends and recorded in our secret diaries. Though we could have friendships and carry on political and philosophical conversations with boys that were never dreamed of in our Indian schooldays, our feelings were essentially unchanged: we were still unsure of ourselves and of how to interpret and express all that we were feeling. Ostensibly, all the rules had changed; in reality, we were as clueless as teenagers have always been.
By the time Nikhil was in primary school in the States a generation later, it was obligatory for all students to make and distribute Valentines to all their classmates, so as not to make anyone feel left out. At first, I think, he rather enjoyed the process, taking trouble with each and every card in the intended spirit of inclusiveness, but as he got older, his interest progressively diminished (or so he feigned, anyway) until it was his long-suffering mother buying the Love Hearts candy and the Valentines and making sure that he inscribed and addressed them all. Still, I got the distinct impression that, despite the best efforts of the well-meaning authorities, certain girls and boys inevitably received more Valentines than did others, and rumors circulated that so-and-so had been seen opening a top-secret envelope that was clearly a cut above the innocuous offerings bought in bulk at CVS or Woolworth’s.
The whispers and giggles of elementary school soon passed. In middle school Nikhil was more interested in film-making than in girls; the love song that echoes through the late 1990’s for me is Aqua’s Dr. Jones, to which he made his first music video starring all his best friends (in my maternal opinion much better than the official one here). The friendships deepened, love flowered all around, and my memories of his high school days are characterized by a heap of leggy teenagers piled on the couch in our den during a study break, melting into the ultra-romantic Come What May from Moulin Rouge or Enya’s May it Be in Lord of the Rings.
You may notice that I have skipped over a quarter of a century, between my young adulthood and that of my son’s. What happened in-between? Just about everything. What was all that Valentine’s stuff all about? Little more than nothing. A rehearsal for a rehearsal. Love, the real thing, remains as mysterious as it has ever been.