My Family’s Decline into Valentine …

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“Did you put your cards in your backpack?”
“Yes, mama!”
“Okay, then you’re ready to go! Have fun!!!”

Today is the last school day before St-Valentine’s day. Our fifth Valentine in the USA. By now we know this is a BIG deal in American elementary schools.

The first year I was rather clueless.
Luckily there had been Ruth, a kind American mom I’d met during a writer’s workshop. Ruth had lived in Europe for a while, where she had discovered that Europeans consider St-Valentine’s day to be a holiday celebrated by lovers – and only by them.
That’s the way we Europeans sometimes tend to be. When we have something others haven’t, we do on occasions tend to rub it in. No ‘Let’s-make-this-a-party-for-all!’-empathy to be discovered where I come from. Ours is much more a kind of a ‘You-don’t-have-a-lover?-Well-too-bad-for-you!’-attitude.

Having heard about many of my gaffes against American customs, Ruth had taken the time to send me an email, detailing St-Valentine’s celebrations in my adoptive country.
“Valentine has become a children’s holiday in the USA,” she explained. “And so as not to exclude anyone from the festivities, children are asked to write Valentine cards for all their classmates. Those cards will be exchanged during a Valentine celebration. And,” she had added, “since it’s an American children’s celebration, expect your children to come home on a sugar high, their backpacks loaded with enough candy to carry them through the year.”

Sweet Ruth. I was so grateful for her advise. At least this would be one event we’d celebrate the right way. Or so I thought.

I immediately drove to the pharmacy, annex mini-supermarket with a huge holiday cards collection, where I sent off my 11-year-old daughter in search of Valentine cards while I looked for some household essentials.
“Got them!” Eloise stated some fifteen minutes later. “Look at this one,” She flipped open a card, sending electronic giggling and ‘happy valentine’-screams through the ‘personal care’-isle.
“Don’t you love it?” she asked when the green and pink alien-looking creatures had stopped screaming. I could imagine pre-teens having fun with that card, but the $5.99 price tag somewhat put me off, however. Okay, there were only 14 children in her class, but still … Valentine promised to be an expensive celebration at this rate.

I dropped a tube of shower gel in my basket and walked with Eloise to the cards rack, helping her to locate some cheaper cards. At last we settled on two packages containing ten nondescript ‘notecards’ with envelopes. They didn’t boast any corky Valentine texts or red hearts, but at $6.99 per package they looked perfect to me.
Once home, my daughter immediately set to work, thinking hard to come up with a kind and personalized message for each of her class mates.
On D-day, Eloise left for school all excited about what her class mates would think about her cards and wondering what she would get in return.

That afternoon, when she came home after school, she was running, clearly on a sugar high, as predicted by Ruth.
“Valentine is the best!” she declared.
Really? Had this event at last opened the doors to some much-needed peer kindness for my daughter? Eloise had been struggling since September to make friends. Maybe her kind cards had opened their eyes at last and had made them discover that she was in fact a very sweet girl?
“So your friends were happy with your cards?” I inquired.
“Oh no!” Eloise replied, “I mean, I don’t know. They didn’t even look at them. I guess they’ll read them tonight … maybe…,” she seemed to ponder that, then added, “In fact I don’t think they will read them at all. You know mama, my cards kind of sucked.”
They did? Did those other kids buy those expensive cards then? And why was Eloise so happy if her cards ‘sucked’?
“Oh, so did you get nice cards from your friends?” I asked.
“Yessss!!” my daughter exclaimed, opening her back pack and retrieving a white paper bag on which she had drawn hearts and glued small foam shapes. Not bothering about her decorations, she tore it apart and shook out its contents.
“Look!” she said.
Out fell tiny cards, not larger than a clothes’ price tag, each showing a design of football or basketball players, glittery hearts or pop artists. Being so little, there was absolutely no room for some nice personalized message on them. Barely legible names had been scribbled on the lines labeled ‘to’ and ‘from’. ‘Nice’ was definitely not the word that came to my mind upon seeing those sorry excuses for cards. My card expectations in ‘Hallmark-country’ had clearly been too high.
What made the cards ‘nice’ in my daughter’s view however, were of course not the football players or pop artists. It was what was taped to the cards. For each card came with some pink or red candy.
Eloise greedily tore off all the candy, not even pausing to decipher the name of the child who had offered it to her.
“Too bad there are not more children in my class,” she concluded, looking at the small red-and-pink pile, while she stuffed a Twizzler in her mouth.
I had to agreed with her. Her class mates would probably think her cards ‘sucked’ …

A few years later, in a knee-jerk-reflex to be creative, I decided my son’s first grade Valentine cards would be home-made. The project turned out to be largely mine; given my son’s lack of motivation for crafting. Instead of candy, I opted for a healthy – and pedagogically correct – alternative, taping a pencil to each card. Thibaut couldn’t care less about the whole thing and was – just like his sister had been – only interested in the candy that came with his classmates’ cards.

Given my son’s lack of involvement the year before and my own limited enthusiasm for crafting, second grade Valentine saw me buying a cheap box of tiny Star Wars cards. Thibaut hurried to write his name on all cards, then disappeared as I taped pencils to them, which made the flimsy cards look ridiculously small.

Then came this year …
At the supermarket last week, I told Thibaut to check if he could find some nice Valentine cards. He came back with a ‘32-pack for $1.99’ of tiny ‘Skylanders’ cards.
“I didn’t know you were into ‘Skylanders’?” I asked.
“I’m not, but all the other cards are really too childish.”
“Do you want to go to another store to find something cooler?”
“No mama, I don’t care. Nobody looks at the cards anyway. Now, we need to find good candy. Not too large so we can easily tape it on the cards, but not too small, because then I’ll be the uncool kid who hands out tiny pieces of candy.”
“What about pencils?” I tried.
My son stared at me. “Not again, Mama! Nobody likes pencils. And besides, the class party planners usually give us some.”
Oh … okay.

Tonight, Thibaut’s friends might frown at the ‘Skylanders’ design for just a second. They will not notice his scribbling, hardly legible because of my son’s haste to get the card-writing out of the way. But they will probably be happy with the M&M-like, red-pink-and-white sugarcoated chocolates taped to the card.
“This is the best treat, mama!” Thibaut had declared upon purchase. “Chocolate and Belgians go together and everybody knows it!”
After giving in to the American Valentine routine, I wonder though how Belgian we can still claim to be?

I herewith declare our American Valentine integration to be complete!

Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on :


Cinnamon buns

“You need new lunch money? Again? That’s just not possible. I sent a thirty dollar check to school only three weeks ago and you hardly had school lunch since.”
My seven year old son just nods, the paper slip requesting fresh funds clutched in his outstretched hand.
“Listen, I’ll call the lunch lady tomorrow and I’ll talk to her,” I say, refusing to take the slip from him, “There must be a mistake. Some other child probably uses your pin number to buy food. But no worries. I’ll set it straight.”
“Oh,” Thibaut says, blushing, “are you really going to call her?” He suddenly looks somewhat alarmed.
“Of course,” I say resolutely, “I’m not going to sponsor lunch for the whole school. This has got to stop.” I turn to face the stove, marking the end of this conversation.

Thibaut doesn’t move however. I feel his eyes burning into my back while I stir vegetables in the wok.
“What is it?” I ask without turning around.
“Well, mama,” my son whispers, “it might be the cinnamon buns.”
What? I turn to face him.
“What might be the cinnamon buns?” I ask.
“Well, the lunch money,” Thibaut explains, staring at his shoes. “Maybe my money’s gone because of the cinnamon buns.”
“What do you mean? I’ve never seen cinnamon buns on the monthly menu.” And, between you and me, I am grateful for that. Pancakes, French toast, pizza, hotdogs and chicken tenders relaying each other on a ‘healthy’ school menu sounds bad enough to me. No need to add cinnamon buns to the mix, is there? Empty calorie bombs like that would probably be about the worst thing a school cafeteria could offer to young children. Surely the county’s menu planners are smarter than that.

“No mama,” Thibaut breaks my line of thought, “they’re not on the menu. They are just there, at the cafeteria. And I sometimes buy them.”
They are just there? On offer at the school cafeteria? And my son ‘sometimes’ buys them? That explains why all those healthy lunches I lovingly prepare each morning come back home, seemingly untouched. Turns out that “I was not that hungry” or “I didn’t have enough time to finish my lunch” really means “I stuffed my face with a cinnamon bun that looked a thousand times more appealing than my cheese sandwich and carrots. After ingesting that sugar bomb, my appetite was gone.”

“How often is sometimes?” I wonder, “every day?”
“No no! Not every day, mama!” my son exclaims, adding, “Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”
“So what about Tuesdays and Thursdays? Are you sure you don’t buy cinnamon buns those days too?” He must do so. Tuesday and Thursday lunch boxes are hardly more emptied than the other days’.
“No, honestly!” Thibaut replies, “I don’t! They don’t even sell cinnamon buns those days.”
“Then why don’t you ever finish your home-packed lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays?” I wonder.
“Well,” Thibaut’s gaze drifts back to his shoes, “that might be because of the Doritos.”

Doritos? Okay, I guess school cafeteria offerings can be worse than just cinnamon buns!


Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon :

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