On Valentine’s Day, I think of my Grandmother

Monday, February 10, 2020 - 11:28pm

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Courtesy of Eli Rallo

Over Winter Break, my mother and I drove 90 minutes to visit the gravesite of my paternal grandmother Gail, a place neither of us had seen. We drove around the cemetery in dizzy circles and traversed plots of well-kept grass to find it, searching the site with only a rough draft of a map found online. I’d always wanted to visit the site and finally my mother decided she would be the one to take me, driven by her desire to share this moment with me and her personal curiosity. My father politely declined our invitation to join us, smiling at us with an air of vulnerability, as his mother is a sensitive topic that pains him to bridge. He lost her when he was young. My mother and I never had the chance to meet her. 

When we’d finally made it, I stood over the dark slate and fixed my watery eyes on the birth date: February 14. The day my grandmother’s mother brought her into this earth was a day filled with love letters, hand holding and chocolate hearts. This was a day she celebrated with birthday cake, friends and family. A day that marked another year. A day she eventually spent with my father. A day full of love — not just to and from her, but everywhere.

“This is closest I’ve ever been to her,” my mother muttered to the ground through scattered tears. “And the closest I’ll ever be.” I gripped her hand, my other hand curled around my grandmother’s gold coin necklace dangling from my neck, my eyes fixated on the “2/14” deeply engraved into the glossy stone. 

Back on my 13th Valentine’s Day, my mother pulled me aside at the breakfast table. “Valentine’s Day was your father’s mother’s birthday. Make sure you give him a hug today and tell him you love him,” she said, cutting into the pink pancakes my father had made us for breakfast. I had to pause. I noticed the way she didn’t say “your grandmother,” because I would immediately think of her mother, a woman I knew, and not my father’s mother, a woman I never had the chance to meet, who died before I was born. Perhaps my parents mutually thought the information of her birthday to be trivial, but I weighed on every word. My paternal grandmother Gail was an Aquarius. That was something I now knew. 

My 13th Valentine’s Day was also my freshman year of high school. The boy who stole my first kiss the previous summer surreptitiously got my locker combination from my friends and unlocked it on a clandestine mission before school. His goal? To be my valentine. Right before the first bell rang, I bounded through a hallway of lively, hormonal 13-year-olds to my locker to switch out my books. Instead, out of my locker tumbled a teddy bear, chocolates, pink balloons, heart shaped decor and a deck of cards, which in sloppy handwriting read: 52 things I <3 about you. 

My face burned as I struggled to push the over-the-top gifts back into my locker, forfeiting the idea I’d find my science binder under all of the pink glitter and heart-shaped chocolate boxes. I couldn’t pinpoint the embarrassment; perhaps it was because this boy wasn’t my boyfriend, or because I was at an age when embarrassment is common and blending in is much preferred to attention. As I finally slammed my locker shut, its rusted door bursting with pink streamers, I turned around and ran directly into him. Our eye contact was momentary, and I opened my mouth as though I was going to say something, but instead took off in the other direction, leaving him standing there, valentine rejected and alone. 

The Valentine's Days to follow were similarly unsuccessful. During my junior year of high school, my then-boyfriend dropped a teddy bear off at my house but asked me if it would be OK if he “please went to hang out with his friends.” My senior year of high school, my then- “kind of” boyfriend gave me an assortment of things (a single half-wilted rose, a mini box of chocolates) he’d just purchased from a drug store. For both freshman and sophomore year of college I wore a heart-shaped sweater and ate sushi with my best friend at 4 p.m., long before any lovebirds would fill the two top tables at the restaurants. I’m not ashamed to say we followed the sushi by watching the Fifty Shades of Grey saga and eating heart shaped Reese’s peanut butter cups. We laughed until our stomachs hurt, and then both cried in the darkened theatre during the previews, lamenting over recent ex-boyfriends. Those were my best Valentine’s Days yet. 

Regardless, I have always had a strange affinity for the holiday. Normally I’d reserve “fans of Valentine’s Day” for those in happy, committed or new honeymoon-phase relationships with plans to drink fizzy cocktails and hold hands — not the singles who are without sappy memorabilia or someone to buy them valentine peanut M&Ms. But there’s something about Valentine’s Day that I love, even as I am happily single and enjoying my final semester on campus boyfriend-less. Maybe it’s the Cancer sun or Cancer moon in me. Maybe it’s my love for poetry and the wonderfully dizzying idea of romance. Or maybe it’s because I have a strong affinity for the color pink and any excuse to eat chocolate. The truth is, though, I love Valentine’s Day because the whole world is somehow celebrating my grandmother’s birthday through their sappy love notes and flower arrangements, even if they don’t know it. 

When I was growing up, my father and his brother would say they thought I looked like “Grammy Gail.” I was compared to the childhood pictures we had from her yearbooks, and it irked me that I’d never know the woman everyone who knew her so strongly linked me to. Maybe it’s the namesake — Eli Gail — but after a childhood of being told I don’t really look like anyone in the family, I was relieved to have someone I took after, even if it was someone I didn’t know. 

I spent my young adulthood wondering my way in and out of Gail’s life, creating a caricature of her in my mind. I imagine her charismatic and flirtatious yet loyal and true. The inkling to know her is inexplicable and frustrating. In my journal I write lists of the things I know about Gail. It’s always a short list. Sometimes, next to the lists, I write out the things I know of myself.

When I was growing up, my father never spoke of Gail. All stories and memories were padlocked behind my father’s averted gaze whenever her name was mentioned. In my 21 years, I’ve collected facts about her and held them close: She was a Jewish woman who died of breast cancer, with a spitfire personality and a heart too big for this world, and she left behind a collection of gold coins of various sizes that hang in my mother’s closet and around my neck.  I’m not sure where the rest of her things are. My father was never willing to tell me or my family any details about his mother’s life and we never asked. I always assumed this was because it was too painful to dredge the emotional past to speak of the days when she was around. 

I’ve always been infatuated by Gail in a clandestine way, worrying that it’s inappropriate to have such nostalgia for a woman I’ve never met, who everyone speaks of scarcely yet with vulnerability and affection. On a few separate occasions I convinced my father to speak of her. Once, I was eating breakfast with my dad and I mentioned I wanted to see Greece before I died. He stopped what he was doing, a forkful of egg suspended in the air and said, “My mother loved Greece.” I was so caught off guard by the casual nature of his comment that I didn’t respond. He commenced eating his eggs and said nothing else. Perhaps if I’d followed up with another question about Greece or his mother, we could’ve had some riveting, life-affirming conversation about her. I didn’t, because that wasn’t my relationship with my dad — it isn’t my relationship with my dad. We don’t dredge emotional vats of our pasts in search of answers. And I wasn’t used to him ever saying the words “my mother.” 

I will never know my grandmother. I’ll never hold her hands. I’ll never learn about my Jewish heritage from her or hear her voice. She’ll never attend my graduation or one day, my wedding. But Valentine's Day is her day. Despite my romantic mishaps, being single or feeling alone on the Valentine’s Days of my past, Feb. 14 has always been more than the acknowledgement of romance. Valentine’s Day manifests itself as a different kind of celebration for me — a love for my mother, a woman committed to bridging the gap between myself and my heritage; my father, who has been my best friend since birth; and my grandmother, a woman I know watches over me, though we’ve never met face to face. 

But a part of her will always be here: in my father, in the gold coin necklaces, in the stories we barely tell, in me. With the onset of the February sun and the days edging toward Valentine’s Day — a day a single person would typically loathe — I think about my grandmother, my sweet, uncommon Valentine, a woman whose life began on a day filled with affection and infatuation. 

As I approach this Valentine’s Day, writing from the last bedroom I will ever have in Ann Arbor, before my life supposedly begins, I’ve recognized that my singleness and lack of a valentine isn’t so lonely. It is in the span of the past year that my grandmother and I have somehow grown closer. She is my valentine, on a skinny chain around my neck — all the way from wherever the best people go — somewhere near the sun.