You know you’re young when you consider the gift of a $1 carnation on Valentine’s Day the ultimate validation of your worth.
When I was in high school, I dreaded Valentine’s Day. The only good thing was that I knew what to expect. For weeks before the big day, cheerleaders, club officers, and earnest hangers-on would post construction paper posters in the school hallways announcing the carnation sale fundraisers.
And before first period of the big day — or the Friday before the big day, if Valentine’s Day fell on a weekend — we’d hear the main double doors of the school clang open and feel a cold blast of air travel down the main hallway where we stood fumbling with the books in our lockers or chatting with friends.
The urgent shouts of football players, club officers, and their hangers-on would echo down the hall as they lugged tubs brimming with red, pink, and white carnations into the school. Water would slop out of the tubs and onto the already slick hallway as the members of high school royalty made their way to the card tables strategically placed in various areas where the carnation-selling would take place.
We all knew who’d give and receive flowers. Of course, it’d be the cool kids who first staked their claims to popularity when we had all met in kindergarten — Linda, Todd, Bob, Patty, Judy, Jeff, and maybe Tracy. Then, the second-tier royalty — the cheerleaders and their athlete boyfriends, the class officers. Then there’d be the outliers — a few bookworms who had bonded. Girlfriends buying flowers for their BFFs. Students buying for their favorite teachers.
The wallflowers, like me, remained empty-handed.
What made it worse for me was that both my older sisters were the cool kids in their grades. They were the kind of girls (yes, it was OK to say girls then) who had dates for New Year’s Eve by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. But New Year’s always found me watching Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians orchestra on TV with my grandmother, and writing resolutions with such profound goals as, “Lose 10 Pounds!!!” in my journal.
“Don’t be silly,” said my mom when I told her I’d never meet anyone who’d want to buy me a flower. “This is just high school. You’ll date a lot of nice boys and have plenty of flowers and gifts. You’ll see.”
Mom was right.
I remember her smile when Jim, my first serious college boyfriend, sent me roses. Jim and I met the first day of college classes when I was a freshman and he was a junior. He sent the flowers —delivered by a courier in an actual florist truck — two months later for my birthday.
Jim and I had great times. He took me to movies, to dinners, to dances, to concerts. And during the three years I dated him he continually sent me roses, usually at least once a month.
Yes, I told my mom and my friends, he was a terrific boyfriend. Then I silently added to myself, “For someone else.”
The more serious we became, the more those roses symbolized something very different from the “validation of my worth” I had dreamed of in high school.
Instead the roses symbolized the validation of my gutlessness.
There’s nothing wrong with not wanting marriage and children unless you grudgingly accept gifts knowing that you’ll never be able to repay the person with what they truly want. And that’s what I did.
I have no way of knowing if Jim was trying to bribe or guilt me into marriage and children by sending more and more roses. It felt that way. And the more roses, jewelry and clothing he offered and the more I accepted, the more I tried to push my thoughts of “we’re not right for each other” out of my mind.
Love In Bloom
“He’s here,” my mom whispered to me. “And he looks so nice!”
This time it was my turn to smile as I lifted the white spray of roses and inhaled, knowing I would carry them down the aisle in just a few minutes.
Wayne, the man I would marry, was a poor graduate student when we first met. We didn’t go to a lot of movies or dinners or dances or concerts. We didn’t have the money. And besides, we always had so much fun watching old movies and listening to music and sharing stories of our childhoods, our friends, and our dreams that we didn’t have the time.
I knew Wayne paid more than he should have for the bouquet I held to my nose. Just as we had for this bare-bones wedding at the local judge’s house. It was nothing like the grand party house wedding with hundreds of guests Jim had wanted us to have.
And I couldn’t have been happier.
I didn’t need the gifts or the big wedding. I needed Wayne. He listened. He understood my points of view. He didn’t try to lure me away from my goals. Instead we melded his goals and my goals into our goals.
And that validated my worth more than any flower ever had.
To Thine Own Self Be True
When girls and women tell me they never had anyone send them flowers, I feel sad. Not because they haven’t received them, but because they may think — as I did — that flowers symbolize personal value.
I wish I could go back and tell high school me that flowers are nice, but cultivating and treasuring loyal family and friends is even better.
And the best thing of all? Not needing anyone else to validate your worth.
This essay was written by Nancy Dunham, an award-winning freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C.