By George Eckel
I lifted the orange crate labeled Valentine’s Day off the stack of boxes piled high against the side of our two-story, stucco house. The lid was smeared with years of dirt, dried water stains, and reminders that rodents lived unseen right next to us.
“They’re breakables, Al!” my wife, Lois said. “They’re all…”
“I know,” I said, slowing the descent of the crate. “See?”
She stood there balanced on her cane in her long, long sweater that fell flat against her chest. She swept her shoulder-length hair out of her face. All the while, her eyes were trained on me as if I was lowering the Mona Lisa.
I smiled and she moved aside for me. I proudly raised the heavy crate and carried it chest high as if it weighed nothing, which, in my mind, was the same as me giving Father Time the middle finger.
I walked under the second-story deck to the back of the house and tried to ignore my crackling knees as I put the Halloween-colored box of red ornaments on the concrete path. I pried open the black, plastic lid. A little bit of Lois filled the box—in all the carefully-wrapped hearts and candles, the cushioned Valentine signs and lights that I would have just thrown into the box a year ago. But here they were layered with paper and bubble wrap from old Amazon deliveries, neatly snuggled together into a tight fit.
I held back knowing as soon as I unwrapped anything that this lovely trace of her would be gone. My sweet valentine. From my first, absurd twenty-five-cent card I’d bought her in fourth grade until now—my valentine. Through fights and friends, through a picture-perfect Valentine’s Day wedding, through children and parenting and sending them off and losing one, through what became my entire life, my every day—my valentine.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
Her cane clicked on the pavement as she walked behind me into the house. “Let’s start with the one on the left.”
“Right,” I said wanting to forget what I’d asked because both of us wanted the luxury of leaving that question unanswered.
I fetched each ornament for her as she moved from room to room orchestrating the decorations. She had the artistic eye that could turn our old sideboard filled with her aunt Elsie’s plates into a richly-colored, love vignette. I was just the carry-boy. I knew that even if I placed the decorations in exactly the same places next year, none of the rooms would feel the same.
Slowly, the house reddened. The last ornament I pulled out of the crate was a heart-shaped piece of glass with a deep, red center. It had lived in our home one week of the year for so many years. But today was the first time I took the trouble to really look at it. It looked nothing like a human heart. Then, it struck me—this thing, which I knew all my life to be a heart, wasn’t. It was an invention. And what an odd abstraction! How was this in any way representative of a heart? Of love? I was determined to Google it later but slowly an understanding came to me. This art was made of two identical shapes joined down the middle.
Lois took care to position the heart exactly in the middle of the mantlepiece. The light from the floor lamp sparkled brightly through the glass. She backed up and I grabbed her hand. We stood together facing the hearth feeling in every cell the finality of the moment.
Life is infinitely long until it isn’t.
Our hands tightened.
“Thank you for being my Valentine.”
There was a sparkle on her cheek.
“Thank you, love, for always being mine.”
Find out more about George at his web site www.georgeeckel.com.