Long marriages make for many valentines. During the 33 years I was lucky enough to be married to my funny valentine, a tall, shaggy, and whimsical writer named Michael, he and I even came to specialize in our own favorite kinds. Mine were lipstick hearts on his mirror. His were of the Peanuts variety—Lucy dispensing advice to the lovelorn from her sidewalk booth; Pigpen unsuccessfully trying to spiff himself up for the big red day. Michael’s valentines were charming and heartfelt, and I loved and saved every one.
When I look back on that long paper trail, though, I realize that the valentines I loved the best were the un-valentines I received from Paris, during a time when Michael and I were separated by an ocean and big waves of worry.
There had been no wedding trip when Michael and I married. “Who wants a whirlwind honeymoon?” I remember saying. “Yes, we’ll wait and go to Europe when we can stay and stay,” Michael agreed.
It’s the sort of daydream that a lot of hopeless romantics indulge in. But after two years of marriage, Michael and I actually did it. We chucked our dull jobs and our outgrown apartment, cashed in our savings and, one fall day, waved goodbye to Boston. The next day we were strolling along the flowering Promenade of the Corniche in Luxembourg, admiring patisserie windows full of tiny, shiny cakes and babies riding around like little kings and queens in their lacy prams.
“Ah, this is the life!” we congratulated ourselves. And it really was, at least for a time. But then our delayed honeymoon trip began to hit some snags. In Venice it was drizzling. On the Costa Brava we spent a chilly Thanksgiving shivering in our sweaters. And wherever we went, we smacked into the unromantic reality that travel can be just plain hard work—hoisting heavy suitcases, fumbling for the right foreign coin, and getting lost here, there, and everywhere.
By the time we hit Paris in March, we both were ready to stay put for a while. Michael polished up his Peace Corps French and began phoning rental agents. Soon we’d signed a three-month lease for a studio apartment near the Opera.
It was a velvety, chocolate-brown little place, with flocked wallpaper, a coffee grinder, and a view of chimney pots. “We’ll get some writing done here,” Michael predicted. This is where our honeymoon really begins, I thought.
Then one night, the chubby phone on the bookshelf rang for the first time ever. “Oh, no,” I heard Michael say.
My father, back in my birthplace, the cornfields of Maryland, had just suffered a heart attack, and his prognosis was uncertain. My mother, a non-driver, was alone. Michael immediately agreed that I had to go back as soon as I could. Unfortunately, our budget wouldn’t allow for both of us to make the trip.
During the next few hours we ran around like crazy people, buying our tickets, packing my bags. Michael thought to tuck in a French beret that he’d bought on the Left Bank for my father.
As we kissed goodbye at the train station, I was shaking, and I think Michael was, too. We’d never faced such a big separation, and my imagination, running wild, even had me thinking that we might never see each other again.
All during the night I prayed. Then I was in the Baltimore airport, running toward my mother for the news. My father was still alive, and his doctors thought he would keep holding on. “I told Michael you shouldn’t come all this way,” my mother said with a brave smile. Then she broke down. “But I do need you. I do.”
While I was in Maryland, my Zou Zou letters from Michael began to arrive. Written on thin blue airmail paper, they were illustrated with glued-on clippings from tourist brochures that he was picking up back in our arrondissement—squiggly little drawings of French poodles, the Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triomphe, dancing girls from the Folies Bergère . . . These impossibly cheery little drawings even spilled out onto the fronts and flaps of Michael’s airmail envelopes, which he addressed to Zou Zou Lapinski. I doubt very much that the silver-haired postman who delivered mail to my mother’s country mailbox had ever seen anything like them.
I know I hadn’t. And even though my days driving my mother and me to the hospital to see my father were fraught with anxiety about what we would find when we got there, I always carried a tranquilizer in my purse, in the form of a Zou Zou letter or two. Reading Michael’s reports on his breakfasts of baguettes avec confiture, and his observations of fancy French lovers meeting up at the corner café, kept my battery firing while my father was, day by day, getting stronger.
I was in Maryland for three weeks, long enough to drive my father triumphantly home from the hospital wearing his jaunty new beret. Then, at last, I could go back to Paris and the man I’d been missing so.
When I’d left, Paris was still winter-gray. But by April the Seine was glittering in the sunlight, and the trees along the boulevards were budding green. Opening the door of our perfect little studio, I laughed to see the surprise Michael had made for me: streamers dangling from the ceiling with little cadeaux attached. Here, a Mona Lisa keychain. There, a naughty bit of black lace. “Tonight,” Michael said, uncorking a bottle of Champagne, “we are going to see the ballet.” But first we would be together. Watching the celebratory bubbles spill into our glasses, I was suddenly as tremulous as a bride.
Since that rosy afternoon, so many things have happened—wonderful things, yes, and woeful things as well. In the years after Paris, Michael and I were fortunate enough to have two beautiful children, and even the writing careers we’d both always wanted. And now we have a beautiful grandchild, although Michael did not live to see her.
When he died of cancer seven years ago, I thought I would surely die too. These days, to quell the sorrow that comes and goes and comes again, I try to pull back and draw strength from the life we shared and all those many remembrances . . . The lipstick hearts on his mirror. The Peanuts valentines on the mantel top. The letters to Zou Zou from my faraway Cupid. And our Paris honeymoon that was sweeter, sweeter for the waiting.
Image by Rui Ornelas via Flickr