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The On Being Project

Love In All Its Incarnations

Racing home after school on Valentine’s Day, I would count the cards I received from my classmates — handmade ones that smelled of paste and construction paper and store-bought ones in impossibly tiny envelopes, an occasional powdery candy heart tumbling out as I opened it. I wondered what those faded fortunes really meant. “All Mine?” “Let’s Kiss?”

In high school, I pined for boys who never sent me carnations, presaging years of singledom. Even when I’d become half of a couple, I spent more adult Valentine’s Days on the couch in front of the TV than over candlelit dinners at romantic restaurants.

But no matter how bleak or confusing or ordinary the holiday might have felt, for as long as I remember I’ve always received the same Valentine’s gift, a giant foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kiss. It arrives like clockwork every February 14th, and though with time it’s shrunk down to the size of a grapefruit and its packaging has changed slightly, the Kiss’ milk-chocolaty aroma and tissue streamer like a kite tail waving from its silvery peak have remained the same, as have the handwritten words on the card that accompanies it:

“From a Secret Admirer.”

For years, even though she denied it, I knew the secret admirer was my grandmother. When I was little, she’d sneak the Kiss into my house and stash it with my mother to give me on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes she’d call on February 14 and ask me to go check the porch to see if she’d left her umbrella there.

As I got older and moved away from home, the Kiss would arrive in a brown-paper wrapped parcel with no return address — at the dorm mailroom, at my first apartment, across the country in graduate school, at the house where I was raising my own children. Despite my secret admirer’s consistency, her touch was so subtle that each year I’d forget about the tradition and each year I’d be surprised, and delighted, when the package arrived, the shaky block-printing in blue ballpoint a familiar reminder of my grandmother’s not-so-hidden love for me.

The Kiss was just one way my grandmother, otherwise not a particularly expressive woman, showed her affection. Growing up, she spent every Wednesday night at my house when my parents worked late. She helped put me through college and when I graduated she let me live with her until I found a place of my own. She took me to ballets and operas and political protests. She modeled the part of a committed and compassionate New Yorker. Though her death ten years ago at age 92 was not unexpected, it didn’t diminish my grief at the loss of a remarkable woman, a close confidante, and the quiet mischief-maker I knew as my secret admirer.

But even though my grandmother was no longer alive, her Kisses continued to arrive. Even now, each Valentine’s Day I can count on the parcel appearing at my door, always without a return address and always signed “From a Secret Admirer.” Like the packaging and the weight of the chocolate, the handwriting on the card has changed. Who is my new admirer? I have no idea. The handwriting isn’t either of my parent’s and the new admirer pre-dated my husband. I’ve asked my sister, my children, even my ex. They’ve all denied it. So I’ve stopped asking.

After 47 years, two marriages and five children, I wish I could say I’ve mastered love’s mysteries, that I understand where it comes from and how it lasts. Yet I’m as clueless now as I was when I tried to make sense of the faded words stamped on powdery candy hearts. Still, every February 14th I receive a magical reminder that love is out there in many incarnations, many shapes and forms. It has the power not only to surprise and delight, but also to endure, even against extraordinary odds.

This article is also published in Good Housekeeping.

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