A nineteen-year-old Quaker, Stephen F. Whitman, opened a confectionery shop (if not shoppe) in Philadelphia in 1842. Because of that, here I am, eating the first bon bon from my small Whitman's Sampler. I thought it was a chocolate-covered cherry. I don't like them, so I wanted to get it over with. It turned out to be filled with coconut, though. Yay!
It's Valentine's Day. Have you noticed? Sixty and single, it seems I've sort of forgotten about this day. I know there was a time, when I was young and juicy, when I really craved a Hallmark Valentine's Day. I wanted a boyfriend who was sophisticated enough – and rich enough – to give me the works: flowers, candy, a card so extravagant it would embarrass us all with its velvet and ribbons and embossed hearts and that one thin translucent sheet that protected those reckless, swirling words of eternal devotion.
Turns out those things don't require sophistication, although they do require more cash than perhaps ought to be spent. When I was thirty-five, I had such a boyfriend. A gold necklace may even have been involved. Whatever, it didn't thrill me like I thought it would, and I blame that on my father.
Dad, despite his solid Italian blood, didn't show any emotion besides rage until he was a grandpa, so giving his wife and kids a decent Valentine's Day involved collusive subterfuge. Dinner was usually eaten as fast as possible so we kids could get on with our lives – Scouts or Capture the Flag or skating (ice and otherwise) or reading or homework or whatever the season and various ages suggested. But on February 14, we didn't leave the table. We sat and waited for Dad to finish his meal. Finally, with a sheepish grin and a poorly executed stretch and yawn, he'd stand up. "I'm tired," he'd say. "I guess I'll go up for a nap."
And up he'd go, up our creaking stairs to his bedroom where we'd hear paper rattling. He'd clump back down the stairs and put the big flat brown paper bag next to his dinner plate. "Oh," he'd say, as innocent as bad acting would allow, "I forgot these!" And then he'd disappear up the stairs again.
Mom would open the bag and behold: five small Whitman's Samplers very much like the one next to my keyboard right now, complete with its bit-mapped rose. Oh wait. That's not bit-mapped. That's supposed to look like needlepoint, like a, um, sampler. Yes. There would be five small Whitman's Samplers and one big one for Mom. It's only this year that I paused to wonder if she shared hers with Dad, even though I've thought about Dad's Valentine's Day tradition for years.
I've wondered, for instance, how long he stayed upstairs after he dropped off the hearts. And I wonder what he felt when the year came when he only needed four small hearts because his firstborn – a son! – was off at college. I also wonder if he carried that tradition all the way through to his fifth child – a son! – who was (and remains) four years younger than the fourth child – a son!
Well, however that tradition started or ended, I know that it lives on with me. Even though I much prefer chocolate-covered orange peels from Schakolad (or lemon peels or ginger, if anyone's taking notes), I still want a Whitman's Sampler at Valentine's Day. And in the years when I want to share the love, that's what I give, too. But I always make sure Dad's third child – a girl! – gets one of her very own.