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Local View: True Valentine emerges in letters of love

Valentine's Day was an extra-special day in my house when I was growing up. My dad's birthday was on Valentine's Day, and every year Mom made Dad a double-layer chocolate fudge cake. What made his birthday cake different from the ones my five siblings and I had was that Mom used her heart-shaped cake pans.

Besides the cake, Mom always decorated the house with cardboard and foil hearts. She typically had a dime-store centerpiece she placed on the dining table. A lighted plastic heart would be hung in each of the two windows facing the street. As a kid, I, of course, felt Mom decorated the house for us kids. I don't know any kid who thought of their parents as romantically involved.

Besides the goodbye kiss in the morning, the opening of a door, or the occasional wink, my parents didn't show a whole lot of physical affection in front of us. If they gave each other something for Valentine's Day, they must have either done so in private, or I didn't notice.

I never really thought about it, until the first Valentine's Day after my father passed in 2013.

After almost 58 years of marriage, I didn't want Mom to spend Dad's birthday alone. "Can Andy and I take you out for supper? I need to call pretty quick and make a reservation if you're up for it."

I remember hearing Mom sigh before answering. "OK, but don't be thinking we're going to turn this into a habit!"

I was kind of taken aback by Mom's comment. I thought maybe a new tradition would help us all heal. The firsts were always the hardest. I wanted to feel better. I wanted Mom to feel better. But the conversation that dinner, and during the weeks that followed, was the start of understanding just how deep my parents' romance went.

Through the years, my mother spent many hours answering questions I had about what Dad's and her life was like when they were growing up. The stories Mom told me about their courtship always made me feel like it must have been a Cupid's arrow strike to prod them to make their first date.

Mom first met Dad at the age of 18 at his roller-skating rink. She still remembers thinking that he was one of the nicest men she had ever met. Cupid's arrow deflected that time. Mom had no intention of diverting her plans to start college. It wasn't until six years later that they met again on the skate floor. This time, with years of target practice, Cupid hit the bullseye.

"Your dad skated up from behind me and rested his hand on my lower back. He asked me if I had a phone." Mom said that after she gave Dad her phone number, she wondered if he'd even call.

Thankfully, he did.

Mom explained that Dad was an entrepreneur and had a variety of jobs throughout the year. She worked in Duluth during the school year as a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Lester Park. When their jobs separated them in the fall, they promised to write.

Andy and I picked Mom up at 6:15 p.m. on Valentine's Day. The host sat us at a table set for four. After the waitress took our dinner order, Mom said, "I found the letters your dad wrote to me when we were dating. Maybe you'll find something interesting there."

Wow, I thought. "You're going to let me read them?"

Mom managed a chuckle. "Well there's nothing dirty there if that's what you're looking for."

The stack of letters was strapped together with a rubber band. I cleaned off my kitchen table and took extra care to clean the surface. I didn't want any spilled drink or sticky substance to soil the paper. I warmed up my coffee and settled into a chair. I felt my hand tremble when I set the cup on the counter behind me.

The first letter I read was dated Sept. 20, 1953. I chuckled at his message, '"How is teaching? Wish I was back in school, didn't think the teachers where I went to school were like the ones now days. Kind of nice to look forward to going out with one."

I could picture Dad's smile as he scrolled the pen on the paper. There were no scribbled-out words or letters written over. I wondered how long he may have thought about what he was going to write before he wrote it.

According to the dates, Mom received a letter every two weeks or so. After two years of summer dating and exchanging letters in the winter months, my parents got engaged.

On March 14, 1955, Dad wrote, "Got home O.K. last night it seems like a short way up to Duluth and a long way back, guess I'll have to measure it."

There it was. The longing. The desire. That need to be together.

On May 10, 1955, Dad wrote to Mom, "Sure is nice to have a nice girl friend to write and tell all the plans too, and look forward to life with."

I guessed that was where we kids came in. But reading those letters made me realize something. Even though it may have felt like we were the center of our parents' lives, we were more like an important part of a plan, of two people in love.

Mom was right: Dad never wrote anything dirty or too personal in his letters to her. It was in his kind and humorous words that the lovers' spell was cast. Dad was a Valentine's baby, after all. And his life's message to my mom was light-hearted, with just enough sweet-nothings that never let Mom forget that she was the only one for him.

Doris Rauschenbach is a writer in Ashland. She can be reached at doris.author@gmail.com and followed on Facebook at facebook.com/doris.rauschenbach.