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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Of valentines and roses



A rose in the Swiss Alps, October 2004

Candy hearts for all

Dubuque, Iowa in February was a bitterly cold place in the 1950s and 60s, and going to St. Columbkille school we wore wool hats pulled down as far as they would go, long scarves wrapped around and around our necks and over our mouths. They ended in great bunchy knots at the sides or back of our heads: a knot in front of you meant you couldn't keep your head down to fight the stinging cold. One layer of mittens went on, then a heavy coat, then a second layer of mittens pulled up over the sleeves and attached with metal clips. (Funkypancake, sitting in England 50 years later and taking pictures of lost gloves, would have found a dearth of them then.)

With luck - no slipping on the ice or snow, no snowballs aimed at you - you arrived at school relatively dry, only a little chilled and with a flat, squashed look about you. The school smelled permanently, from November to March, of damp wool over radiators. Children's hair, chopped by mothers, lay hopelessly flat but in some cases patches of it suddenly shot up in strange salutes, and it stayed that way all day.

None of us were beautiful, is what I am trying to say, but we all wanted to be exactly that on February 14, when valentines were passed around.

From a secret admirer - not telling you who!

They were bought in boxes of 5, 10 or 25, each one a little different, and we agonized over who deserved the nicest one, for this was the time to declare friendship, if not love, openly. Some years the teachers banned the practice as unkind and uncivilized, and brought in little hard heart candies with messages on them. Everyone received at least one, but under the desks and on the sly they were passed around, so that you might start out with "Some girl!" from the teacher, and end up with "Love forever!" from Lyle, when you wanted "Very best friend!" from Christine.

It was hard to know which we preferred, the cards or the candies, but rarely did we have both. Other years the teachers tried a communal approach and we all made valentines, in class, for everybody, and praised equal love for all. We didn't believe a word of it, and fretted over who among the equals was loved best. A soothing solution one year was cupcakes with red frosting, for everyone.

Yesterday I found myself in a new role as St. Valentine's day came up. I was asked by my 17 year old to stop off with him and buy roses on the way home. We also had to buy ingredients for chocolate cupcakes, since Celine loves chocolate. I wandered through the roses while he debated interesting-orange versus classic-red. I pondered the staying power of roses - longer than candy with messages, cards or all the other valentine fluff the gift industry offers us. I came home and discovered from the University of Illinois that roses have been with us for 35 million years, an extraordinary time for a plant to have thrived.

The first rose I grew, 2003



The Chinese have been cultivating them for 5,000 years, but cultivated roses arrived in Europe only in the 18th century. Before that they were such a precious commodity that they were used as payment, in barter. The rich and powerful used them and water scented with their perfume in ancient Rome. The French Empress Josephine had magnificent gardens laid out at Malmaison.

I wandered around rose sites on the Interet, vaguely wondering why red roses have withstood time so well as the rose of choice for declarations of love. I never found the answer. Personally, it took me years to like these flowers. I thought their perfume lacked subtlty, they have those unfortunate thorns, and they were linked in my mind to old lady's stuffy houses, for obscure reasons. I don't remember any old ladies with roses, but we had a neighbor named Mrs. Sharon, and some adult used to sing about the Rose of Sharon. Children's memories are skewered by such odd combinations.

Lately, I've grown to like roses, but in gardens, where their heady perfume can breath. I like their gloriously varied colors. For sheer variety, no other flower can compete.

I would rewrite the song: "My love is like a lasting rose that for centuries will bloom . . ."

Meanwhile, here is to cupcakes, too!

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