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My Childhood Bouquet of Florences

Overwhelmed by love's sweetest sadness, I report that Valentine's Day is not the same any more. Not that it ever was, naturally, but don't change the subject. We moved lately, leaving a home with plenty of room for a comparable hovel. Holding symbolic guns on me at six paces, the family made me throw away keepsakes and souvenirs of a misspent life so they got me down to one handbasket to take to the new digs and 123 bushels to go to the dump.

I have all my valentines, accordingly, and wait nervously to see what happens next. Since 1914, my first year in school, I have kept my valentines faithfully, until all my lady friends became misty in my drowsy memory, and I could no longer tell Virginia from Millicent, or Mabel from Janice. Although, for that matter, I was fortunately surrounded by Florences, and my earliest romantic memory was which Florence was which.

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There was Florence Mantiens, who was Belgian; Florence McDonnigal, who was Irish; Florence Bociardiccio, who was Ulpian; Florence Muskrat, who was Algonguin; Florence Magoni, who was West Medford (Mass.); Florence Swensen, who always called me "Yonny"; Florence Desrosier, who was from Tatamangouche, Nova Scotia; Florence Maceachern the redhead, who was Scottish; Florence Dutil from Canada who could wiggle her ears; Florence Wannareither, who was a German Pole; Florence Baumgartner, who was Bavarian; and then Lizzie Pooler, who was from Bangor but her middle name was Florence. Of the 964 valentines I got from these lovely ladies over the years - all signed Florence except Lizzie's - I had kept and treasured each. Out they went, all.

The best proof of my loyal affection is not that I kept their valentines, but that today I can remember which Florence was which. I guess my favorite Florence is the Magoni girl, who lived next door and sat at the desk ahead of me in school. Her father was a sculptor, and her uncle was Armbrucha Faldetti, the barber, who would come on a Wednesday p.m. as needed to cut my hair. He lived upstairs, above the Magoni flat. The only socializing, other than a haircut, that I did with our Italian neighbors was on stormy mornings in winter when Florence would come over to ask if the no-school signal had been sounded. But faithful to the core, Florence always put a valentine in the box for me, and I for her.

We made our valentines, mostly. You didn't see too many kids around here with enough coin to buy the passionate ones with factory-built lace and store-bought sentiment. Forward-looking young people, smitten by Cupid, would find a wallpaper sample book. We'd get one at the paint and paper store, asking the man to save us the old one when the new patterns came in. The rest was scissors and paste, writing the endearing words, and trying to remember everybody you loved.

Even now, I still love all my boyhood Florences, even Florence McArthur, who used to chase her brother Mike down the street with a cleaver. When I made my adieus in the neighborhood to tell all the boys and girls that we were moving to Maine, Florence McArthur expressed her feelings with emotion. She said, "Good riddance!" That was in May, yet in February her wallpaper valentine said she loved only me and our hearts were entwined thus and so forever. Florence, that Florence, was a kick-the-can artist.

In Maine, we didn't play kick the can, but specialized in Duck on the Rock with real rocks, so our opportunities for romance were different. But I was glad to notice the young folks kept the custom of valentines. Since I no longer had any Florences to love me, I put my 694 valentines, all signed Florence, in a box and began giving attention to Alice, Helen, Isobel, Doris, Mabel, and cherished others who would say, "Ayeh, guess so, some," when asked if they were fond of me. The first thing I made in school was a necktie rack, then I made bookends, and then I made a bigger box for my valentines. Soon my Florence collection at the bottom was under my Maine valentines, and my mother said there was no question about it, Maine people use prettier wallpaper.

THE teachers always distributed school valentines at our exchange party until I moved to Maine, and now we used pupils the teachers selected because they had been kind, or quiet, or smart, or something. One would dip a valentine from the big red box with a slot, now open at the top, read off the name, and hand it to a messenger dressed like Cupid (somewhat) to be delivered. That was fun, and it was also fun when a valentine I had made was delivered and one Florence or another looked up to smile at me, wave, and lip-talk her thanks from across the schoolroom.

Love was not abiding. It remained fragile and unreliable because of the paste we used. It was just flour and water, mixed in a cup and spread with a forefinger. Before long, a wallpaper valentine would fall apart. All my Florence ones did, except for those from Florence Muskrat, whose mother knew an Indian secret about pine pitch. Truth is, I'm heartbroken to say, my collection of schoolboy valentines had pretty much disintegrated with time, and while I remembered each Florence distinctly, I couldn't be sure whose valentine was whose. It's sad to reflect what a bottle of Elmer's Glue might have done for the pernancy of young love. And don't tell me we should have cared enough to send the very best.

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