“You’re going to have a boy, and he will be born on President’s Day,” the doctor told my Grandmother after he listened to her wobbling moon-belly with a stethoscope.
She was big with baby — her first — and her skin bloomed.
“No. I’m going to have a girl, and she will be born on Valentine’s Day.”
My Grandmother was a quiet woman — but not a meek one, oh hell no. And she knew what she wanted.
She wanted a girl born on Valentine’s Day.
And she got it.
My mother tumbled out of her on February 14, 1942 when snowdrifts silenced the streets, buffering the first cry of a new mother and a new baby, the agony and ecstasy of love on that Valentine’s night.
A Valentine Baby, my mother — with her pursed ruby red lips and shock of black hair. A tiny child who would get lost in her winter clothes, who never grew much bigger than a minute, who they called Thumbelina.
But that Thumbelina child had a heart too big to be contained, a heart that spilled over into the spaces all around her.
And love floats.
She gave: She built a school and a library on the Iwahig Penal Colony in the Philippines. She taught kids at Center for Law and Poverty. She marched with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and thousands of migrant farmers to protest their poor working conditions.
The world was better with her in it.
And each year on Valentine’s Day, we would drive over to 845 20th Street, to the apartment building where my aunt and grandparents lived across the hall from one another, to celebrate her birthday.
Pink and red and white balloons would bob in the hallway, tied to the staircase banister, and I would smell the mushroom pizza or Kung Pao chicken, or Lamb Tika Masala that we’d order in.
This was the heart of my family — this apartment where we would gather for latkes on Hanukkah, for the retelling of our Exodus out of slavery from Egypt on Passover, where we would bring down the walls with Uncle Robert on guitar and Aunt Caren on the tambourine, where Aunt Judy would hiss “shh, it’s 11 at night and you all sound like a bunch of loud mouth Jews,” and where we would celebrate the day my mother was born.
This is where I did my first cartwheel and knocked over the pico de gallo salsa where it spilled all over Aunt Judy’s brand new baby blue carpet — where I learned families forgive and love lasts longer than a permanent stain.
This is where my mother and I would sneak outside through the gilded shadows between dinner and dessert — a sacred space where we got along even during those teenage years, where we would actually talk and listen and laugh. She would smoke her GPC 100 ultra lights — long after everyone else in the family had quit — and then douse herself with GAP Dream perfume, her fingers, her hair, even her mouth, and we’d slip back inside for birthday cake with hearts on it.
And this is where we would sit around the table like a scene in a Woody Allen movie and talk about whether God exists, the meaning of life, whether we are still ‘slaves in Egypt.’
“Yes…” my mother would say, with an ellipsis… “but we are also like Moses, with the power to redeem others who are in bondage as well.”
And this is where my maturity could be measured in the answers I would give — but where my family would listen and nod and support and love no matter what.
This is the safe space I remember when I think about love — and it was my mother’s space.
So Valentine’s Day is hers, too: These memories of my mother and family, tied together with pink string and satin ribbons where they float before me, and will never fly away.
And I’m telling you this, all of this — and I’ll you more about her, too. Because I need you to know that the world was a better place with her in it.