Kerrying On

A Valentine’s Lesson for All of Us

“Take a look at this!” my mother shouted. “You won’t believe it.”

Not knowing what Mom was talking about, I put down the psychology text my neighbor Gary and I were studying (we had a midterm the next day) and the two of us got up from the kitchen table and headed straight to the family room. There we found Mom standing with a brown paper bag clutched in her right hand. Next to her stood Dad, looking two parts hangdog and three parts nervous. Something unpleasant was afoot.

As Gary and I approached my parents, Mom continued, “Do you two college boys see this bag I’m holding?”

“Yes,” we replied.

“Of course, you do!” Mom barked. “But can you tell what’s inside it?

“The bag’s opaque,” I answered, “it could contain almost anything.”

“Alright, I’ll give you guys a hint,” Mom said, “because I’m feeling generous.”

Mom (who usually looked as if she were about to give you a batch of cookies) didn’t look like she was feeling generous. She looked like she was searching for revenge. And Dad looked like he was about to eat a dish served cold.

Not wanting to get caught up in what appeared to be an escalating marital tiff, I directed the conversation away from the brown paper bag by making the following pronouncement: “Speaking of trying to guess what’s inside of something, were you aware that researchers now know exactly what’s inside the human brain and how it works? Not to get too complicated, but scientists poke wires into a cranium and then pump in electricity until a body part flops around. It’s fascinating.”

“Well, look at you!” Dad exclaimed as he patted me on the back. “I knew sending you to the local community college was the right thing to do. Not to say that I told you so, but I told you so.”

It turns out that Dad was also interested in dodging Mom’s brown-bag guessing game and was now diverting the discussion to an argument our family I had engaged in earlier that month. The quarrel had been a real heart breaker. Due to an unexpected decline in our family’s income, my folks let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I would not be attending the ivy-clad, sorority-rich university of my dreams. Instead, I would be enrolling in the sad little community college located across town—a school comprised mostly of Quonset huts.

I know I shouldn’t have been humiliated by this change in schools, but I was. Enough so that when people asked me the meaning of the “GCC” printed on the back of a school sweatshirt I had purchased at the bookstore/cafetorium, I ducked. Instead of answering Grandview Community College, I replied: Grandview Ca-College. It was the best I could come up with.

Realizing that Dad and I were directing the conversation away from the contents of the brown paper sack, Mom exclaimed, “Let’s get back to the gift bag!”

Ah-ha! Now I knew the mystery object Mom was clutching was something small enough to fit into a bag, and that it was some sort of gift.

“I’ll give you two college whizzes a hint,” Mom offered, “What day is it today?”

“That didn’t feel like a hint,” Gary replied. “It felt like a question.”

“It’s February 14th. Do you know what happens every February 14th?”

“Oh yeah,” I responded. “I forgot about the holiday. I’m sort of between girlfriends.” (Of course, I was “between girlfriends.” I lived with my parents and studied psychology in a Quonset hut.)

“Alright,” I answered. “Does the bag contain a Valentine’s Day gift that Dad gave you?”

“Exactly!” Mom shouted as she yanked a heart-shaped box out of the bag and shook it in my face as if it were evidence in a murder trial and not a box of candy.

“This pathetic offering is what your father gave me.”

“It looks nice,” I said. “And who doesn’t like assorted chocolates?”

“Ask your father where he got the box,” Mom insisted. I remained silent.

“Go ahead, Son, ask ‘moneybags’ where he got it.”

“Okay,” I acquiesced. “So, Dad, where did the yummy chocolates come from?”

“He got it for free!” Mom interrupted. “At the convenience store he manages. He ordered 50 cases of beer to augment the store’s inventory, and as a reward for such an unusually large purchase, the vendor gave him a free box of chocolates—which your father then crammed into a brown paper bag and gave to me. So, this box of candy isn’t whispering ‘Happy Valentine’s Day! I love you!’ It’s saying, ‘I didn’t get around to buying you a gift, but I did manage to place an order for 50 cases of beer.’”

No wonder Dad didn’t want to open the bag. Mom had grilled him about the chocolates until he had admitted to the beer deal, and now he was going to have to face the music.

“So, let this be a lesson to the two of you,” Mom added as she turned her attention to Gary and me. “One day, each of you is going to find a life-mate and you’ll want to give her something special for Valentine’s Day—something that says, ‘I lay awake nights trying to find a way to express my undying affection for you.’ Giving your sweetheart a gift that you obtained (for free) from a beer-truck driver isn’t likely to send that message.”

“You’re absolutely right!” Gary shouted as he eased his way out the front door, thoroughly befuddled and bolting for home.

Of course, Mom was right. A gift needs to be the product of careful thought—particularly when it’s a Valentine’s offering. Surely everyone understands this point and, if not, Dad’s choice of gifts serves as a helpful reminder.

However, there was another lesson I learned that day, and it wasn’t contained in Mom’s lecture. It was displayed in the way she had treated Dad. She mocked him in public and this was a violation of the loyalty pledge the two of them made when they first got married. In fact, when any couple ties the knot, both parties pledge to speak respectfully about each other in the presence of others. They may not say this pledge aloud, or sign an official document, but they feel it in their hearts. When it comes to the love of your life, how could you do otherwise? And when it comes to Valentine’s Day, how could you not renew this pledge every year?

Naturally, even within the healthiest of relationships, couples disappoint, annoy, and offend each other and arguments ensue. Happily, seasoned professionals know not to go public with their grievances. They resolve them in private. They most certainly don’t transform the contents of their marital spats into back-fence gossip, water-cooler banter, or condescending punch lines.

So, here’s a Valentine’s message for everyone. Never trade a colossal beer order for, say, a box of chocolates, and then pass it off as a special gift. Equally important, should you be the recipient of such a “gift,” don’t badmouth your mate to a neighbor, or worse still, to one of your children. After all, you and your partner made a promise to steer clear of such thoughtless acts of disloyalty. And as we grads from Grandview Ca-College are wont to point out: a promise is a promise.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

4 thoughts on “A Valentine’s Lesson for All of Us”

  1. Kerry, the way you instill your sense of humor into your stories is truly an amazing gift! Thank you for providing us with such an important reminder, not only for the way we treat or interact with our spouses but with everyone, family and outside of family. It can change your life and isn’t that what crucial conversations is all about!

  2. First, let me say that I am a woman. So, my comment is not to be misconstrued as “Female Bashing”. Two, I agree that spouses should be respectful of each other. Three, (main point of this response) is that this time I think the Mom missed the point of the gesture altogether. At the beginning of the story; it was revealed that money was tight; hence the son was going to a community college vs. an ivy league college. I think the Dad’s gesture of at least giving the Mom something for Valentine’s Day instead of nothing and he didn’t spend money that might have been needed for something else. In this case, he was at least thinking of her; regardless of her perception of his gesture.

  3. Great content and reminders
    but I am left to wonder just what token of love & affection gift did Mom give Dad or did she think it was a one way street?

  4. Perhaps this was an opportunity for patience under current circumstances & gratitude on the part of Mom. Even if the chocolates were obtained in that manner (honestly, who doesn’t like ‘free’), the box could have instead been shared with Dad’s mom or a generous vendor/customer/etc. Financial circumstances are very difficult and Mom was likely frustrated with that on a number of different fronts. Humbly, she could have said ‘thank you and I love you,’ planted a loving kiss on him, enjoyed one piece in front of him with a smile and a ‘yum!’ and left with a wink.

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