SPRING HILL — The chocolates have vanished, the flowers have died, Valentine's Day is long gone. Not for Muffy Carrothers. She keeps the card from her husband next to the kitchen sink where she can see it. • Don gave her the card on Feb. 14, 1964, when they were young marrieds living outside of Detroit. The three-dimensional card, with its lovers and angels and flowers and lace and purple prose about "happiness and joy," was schmaltzy even by greeting card standards. • Don devilishly made the card even schmaltzier. • "Adoringly with loviestly and kissiestly affection from what's his name,'' he wrote.
Husbands and wives have exchanged such cards since Esther Howland of Massachusetts became the nation's first Valentine's Day card publisher in 1849. We open the cards over a candlelit dinner, hold hands across the table, say "I love you, honey.'' The card might end up in a sock drawer. Just as likely it will degrade among the rest of the trash at the county landfill.
Muffy chose the sock drawer. When Valentine's Day arrived the next year, she mischievously signed the card and gave it back to Don. Actually, what she did was arrange for the bandleader at a Valentine's Day dance to call Don to the stage. It was the bandleader who handed the card from Muffy to Don.
In 1966, Don struck back. On Valentine's Day, when Muffy was clearing the dishwasher, thinking that Don had forgotten Valentine's Day, she discovered the card among the wine glasses.
And so the years passed, with the same corny Valentine's Day card documenting their happy marriage every 14th of February.
They had met as freshmen at Detroit's Wayne State University in 1959. Don was just out of the Navy and eager to study business. Muffy, five years younger, wanted to teach school. By year's end they were married.
Don sold life insurance and opened his own agency. Muffy taught language arts in middle school and raised their two children. They attended Little League games, PTA meetings, socialized with neighbors, rooted for the Tigers.
Muffy, frankly, looked forward to slowing down. But when they retired to Hernando County's Spring Hill in 1992, Don started sprinting.
He restored furniture. He discovered a talent for interior decorating. He built a stereo. He made his own drapes. He learned how to frame pictures.
He built a deck. He built a 2 1/2-car garage. His thumb was greener than St. Augustine grass. Their yard in the Timber Pines community won a landscaping award.
He always had been a good dancer. Now he became an excellent ballroom dancer. He discovered a latent talent for gourmet cooking. His specialty was onion-encrusted salmon, though some diners swore by his chicken cordon bleu.
He won a contest for his amazingly potent Bloody Marys.
No slouch, Muffy enjoyed golf, visiting friends and poker. She enjoyed needling her husband when he forgot to wear socks or when he touched up his gray hair with something blond out of a bottle.
Don — everybody who knew him noticed it — was a young old man.
Muffy has forgiven him for dying.
Don hated going to the doctor, so he ignored the fatigue at first. When his legs got wobbly, he ignored that, too. He was renovating the master bedroom, after all.
Finally he couldn't escape going to the doctor. When the blood test results came in, the doctor telephoned. He wanted to see Don immediately.
Terribly ill without a doubt, Don went in. The doctor ordered him to the hospital for additional tests. "Advanced pancreatic cancer,'' the gastroenterologist said, pronouncing a death sentence. "What do you want to do?''
For years, Muffy and Don had talked about what to do at the end of their lives. Don didn't want Muffy to suffer; Muffy felt the same way about Don.
"We'll go home,'' Muffy told the doctor.
They got a hospice nurse to live with them. Their adult children flew in from Michigan. Don lay in bed in the living room so he could be in the middle of the action.
Morphine, but no chemotherapy. He never lost his blond hair.
He hung in there for 2 1/2 days. On Oct. 12, a few minutes past midnight, Muffy and her children leaned over Don and kissed him goodbye. They gave him permission to get the rest he had denied himself during life.
He was 78. They buried his ashes in the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. One day Muffy will join him there, later rather than sooner.
She keeps her house spotless, everything in its proper place, the way Don would like. She is finishing the master bedroom restoration Don started when he was sick.
She would like to play more golf, though she worries that her stiff back is going to hurt her left-handed swing. At least the back won't hurt her poker. Don't look deeply into those blue eyes; they will hypnotize you into betting unwisely.
Her mostly retirement-age community has gatherings, has happy hours. She enjoys a drink and maybe a dance.
Life goes on.
"I've never been a wuss,'' she said the other morning. "I'm proud that I've been able to be strong. I know Don would like that.''
At breakfast, the gaudy Valentine's Day card watched her from the kitchen counter.
"Love you. From your pain in the ass,'' was one of the many inscriptions that had passed from husband to wife over the decades.
"He must be driving them nuts up there,'' she said. "He never stops, never sits down. He's organizing everybody in heaven, I just know it. I'll bet he's making some very strong Bloody Marys.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.