I confess, I’ve never hit a cynical patch where Valentine’s is concerned. I’ve always loved it. And with all the rancor in the world of late, the celebration of a day devoted exclusively to love seems more endearing—and more needful—than ever.
I didn’t have a Valentine until I was 24, the year Philip and I were engaged, just months away from our wedding. But before Philip came along, I celebrated with my sister, throwing elaborate tea parties for our friends, usually with a literary theme. My very favorite was our “Little Women” party, with vignettes for each of the four March sisters scattered around the living room—Beth’s music and dolls at the piano, Amy’s sketchbook and paintbox near the fireplace (with a requisite clothespin for her nose!), Meg’s handwork and one glove on the game table, and a lace-draped trunk for Jo supplied with an ink bottle, pen, and parchment. For weeks ahead of time my bedroom was littered with the paper and lace ephemera of Valentine-making, and the bright scraps of the dresses I was sewing for the occasion. Liz went as Amy that year in blue brocade, and I was a blonde Jo, copying Winona Ryder’s red dress from the 1994 movie—minus the scorched back panel!
Such times are truly among the dearest memories of my life—from poring over issues of Victoria magazine for inspiration, to preparing the food, to the old-fashioned songs and parlor games once our friends arrived, I loved every second of it. Even the washing-up afterwards was sweet; Mama never let us jump right into the dishes, but urged us to sit down first with one more cup of tea, just to keep and savor it all. Only then did we throw aprons over our finery and attack the mountains of plates and cups, reliving every detail of the party as we washed and dried my mother’s bone china and polished the silver forks and spoons until they shone.
One year, our uninvited guy friends pooled their funds and sent a delegate bearing an armload of roses, enough for each girl to have some. Another time, we graciously invited my brother’s friends, only to banish them to the den with the pool table and video games and a caldron-sized bowl of popcorn balls.
Whatever the literary influence of our fêtes, the unfailing magic of “dress-up” always prevailed. And the deeper magic of the thing was that it didn’t really feel like dress-up at all. For an enchanted space of time we were Lizzie Bennet, or Jo March, or Emily Byrd Starr. It’s amazing how potent an antique petticoat or a pair of lace mitts can be: in some ways, the blossoming of a girl into a heroine is the culmination of youth’s ambition, but in others, of course, it’s the work of a moment. Sitting primly in my mother’s living room, sipping tea with friends who were similarly befrocked and beribboned, made all the beauty from all the books I loved seem that much more real, my ideals that much more attainable.
Who says there’s no power in a pretty dress?
Once Philip came along I happily relinquished such maiden days for the candlelit dinners I’d dreamed of all my life. (The only Valentine’s I didn’t enjoy was the one before we were dating when we went to a dance but not together. Yeah, that was awful.) One year we spent Valentine’s Day in Paris, strolling through the Marche aux Fleurs and dining at a Left Bank institution (um, more than made up for the aforementioned dance!); another time we snuck away to our favorite place in the world, where our waiter was such a long-standing friend he tucked a Valentine on our table before we were seated.
Tonight we’re dining quietly at home, with a doggie snoozing under the table and a small army of cats begging for a taste. And I could not be happier about it. For the truth of the matter is that, no matter how many memories we’ve made, the only thing I really care about is who is sitting across the table from me.
I don’t imagine you’d have to spend much time around here to pick up on the fact that one of my favorite ways to say “I love you” is candy-making. I’ve made Philip truffles for Valentine’s every year (shhh…don’t tell him they’re white chocolate-dipped this year), always tucking them into the same little tin box I covered with vintage fabric the first year we were married.
If you’ve never tried your hand at truffles before, or if you’re an old hat looking for a no-fail recipe, here’s one of my favorites:
12 ounce bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
¾ cup sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
Melt the chocolate slowly in a double-boiler (or, in my case, a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water). Do not allow the water to boil. As soon as the chocolate is melted, stir in the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, and salt. Refrigerate for about 45 minutes until the chocolate is somewhat firm.
Roll quickly with cold hands into walnut-sized balls. If you’re dipping them in a second round of melted chocolate, you may want to chill them again first. Or you can roll them in finely shredded coconut, or unsweetened cocoa powder.
Makes about 30 truffles.
Happy Valentine’s Day, my dears!