I’ll call him Bobby, which might have actually been his name. I can’t use the old cliché to say his family was poor as church mice since I think the mice had several steps advantage up the financial ladder. His parents were tenants on a small farm where even the landowner struggled to make ends meet with unpredictable cotton crops.
Bobby and I were in third grade together, and it was Valentine’s Day. We distributed our valentines to our classmates at the end of the day and gathered them in our sacks to take home.
Mama and I spread my stash on the table, and I went through them looking for the message that each of my classmates had chosen especially for me from their purchased sack of generic cards. I knew that was how they were selected because that was what I had done for them. I took little note of Bobby’s homemade card. At seven years old, I knew he was poor, even poorer than the rest of us who had worked a package of unremarkable cards into our family budgets while he had just done the best he could. I had accepted his card with no special thought and waited for last to show it to Mama, as though it was insignificant.
She looked at it with a different eye, pointing out details to me. She noted the lace, probably left over from one of his mother’s sewing projects; the cutout flowers, most likely from a magazine passed along from the landlord’s wife; and the beautiful handwriting as Bobby had carefully lettered his message. She wondered aloud at the time and effort he had put into making the card, and I began to see it differently with a sense that she was teaching me a lesson that I couldn’t quite put into words.
I’ve long sense forgotten the generic cards so carefully selected from their packages with me in mind, if indeed that was what happened, and most of the children who gave them. But I can take a memory trip and see lace and flowers and “Be my valentine” on a carefully handmade card. I can also see the smile on the face of a boy, who might have been named Bobby, when I thanked him the next day for the care he took in creating a special valentine for me.