Twenty-six years ago on Valentine's Day, a special fellow handed me a small, hand-carved wooden box. I slid the lid back. There was an engagement ring surrounding a small conversation heart with the words "Marry Me."
It still rates as one of the best proposals I know.
It was not the first — nor would it be the last — time those little candy hearts with messages would be special to me.
When we got married in 1987, Jay and I had five children, ages 7 to 17 — two of them mine and three of them his. We were both divorced, and many thought we were facing mountains by combining families. The five children, two sons and three daughters, stood with us as we exchanged vows. There were challenges, but we worked hard to handle situations, including how to send the brood to college on two teacher's salaries while we both earned our master's degrees. Sometimes we felt like ships passing in the night as we both worked extra jobs, evenings and summers, to cover family needs.
Last September, the oldest of the five retired after 24 years in the U.S. Air Force. Two of the daughters graduated from Florida State — one majored in dance and the other is a teacher in Orange County. The third daughter earned her degree from Saint Leo University and teaches at Oakstead Elementary. The second son, a University of South Florida graduate, is a civil engineering project manager at Pepperdine University in California and completing a doctorate degree at UCLA. Four of the five are married and, to our great delight, eight grandchildren fill out the picture that started with that conversation heart.
I've loved those little hearts from the time I was in second grade. Prior to Valentine's Day, we created construction paper envelopes, taped them to our desks and eagerly peeked inside each day to see if any little white envelopes had been delivered. In those days, most parents were adamant that a Valentine be given to every child in class, encouraging friendships and making certain no child was shunned.
Valentines in the late 1950s weren't based on movies, TV shows and such as they are now. Most had sayings built around figurative language or word play, like "I'd shoes you for a Valentine!" with a pair of shoes pictured on the card. Cards with wild animals such as a stretched neck giraffe might say, "I long for you." Another favorite between a little boy and girl who "liked" each other was a big basket filled with heart shapes and the words, "Bushels of love to you." Those were handed out after careful consideration.
A few children came from families with the means to add a few of the little conversation hearts to the Valentine envelope. I wasn't one of those children, but my sister and I usually got a small package of the candy and we'd eagerly pour out the hearts and read messages, like "Cute One" or "Be Mine."
We were good at sharing but careful to whom we gave a heart that said "Love You." Few of us, at elementary school age, were bold!
Years later, the conversations hearts were special again. My son, the engineer fellow who's now 35, was about 11 and at Little League practice on Valentine's Day evening. It was growing late when I picked him up at the ball field. He asked if I'd swing by a convenience store. After a long day of teaching, shuttling kids to activities and cooking dinner I was eager to be home, but the look on his face said it was important, so I stopped. He hoped out and in short time returned with one item. He handed me a package of conversation hearts and said, "Happy Valentine's Day, Mom!"
I still have that package of hearts and the memories of a very special son, then and now.
Since 1866 when Daniel Chase of the New England Confectionery Company (Necco) started stamping out words on little wafers, the candies, shaped as hearts and officially named Sweethearts by Necco in 1901, have remained popular, with about 8 billion produced each year and sold around Valentine's Day.
Flavors have changed through the years and now include a wide range from sugary to tart to even smoothie flavors.
Romantic expressions are still favorites, while other messages have kept pace with current times and include "Email me." Some of the messages are now suggestive and some puzzle this 64-year-old!
Not sure I'll find it, but I'm looking for a conversation heart for my husband, in answer to his "Marry Me" one. I'd like one that says, "I did and I'm glad."
Heart or none I think we both agree.