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Lots Of Chocolate

Ask most people to name their favorite holiday, and I’m sure the word Christmas would fly out of their mouths before the question was even complete. In more recent years, Halloween has surged in popularity, so those more inclined to spookiness would probably pick that one. (Not me.) A close third would likely be Thanksgiving, a day most often associated with food and family. (And football, for those other than me.) While all of those are lovely choices, my favorite holiday is a far more low-key day; a day that honors all the things I adore the most—love, grand romantic gestures, all things red, pink, and frilly, and, of course, chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

I can already hear the voices of nay-sayers who say that Valentine’s Day isn’t a “real” holiday, and I won’t argue with that. We cannot compare the significance Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day with a day synonymous with pastel-colored candy hearts, but that doesn’t mean February 14th isn’t worthy of appreciation. I’ve always adored Valentine’s Day. In grade school, I relished the opportunity to create handmade cards for my classmates. I’m sure my mother would have been much happier if I agreed to surrender my creativity and allow her to buy me a box of mass-produced cards at our local Woolworths, but that wasn’t my vibe. (Still isn’t.) My mother patiently ignored the pile of art supplies that appeared at the end of the dining room table on February 1st. She turned an equally blind eye to the dusting of glitter on the rug, the sideboard, and a multitude of other places. When my ink-stained hands dropped those cards into the makeshift mailbox at the edge of our teacher’s desk, my heart swelled with pride.

My affection for Valentine’s Day never waned. In fact, it took on a deeper meaning with each new experience life afforded me. When I got my first real job after college, I delighted my co-workers with platters of home-made cookies and brownies I’d leave in the staff kitchen. Even our stodgiest accountant couldn’t resist cracking a smile as he bit into one of my lovingly decorated sugar cookies. Valentine’s Day was my free pass to show appreciation for the things in my life I was grateful for. And if they were heart-shaped, even better.

Over the years, those closest to me got used to the fact that I wait for Valentine’s Day the way a child waits for Christmas. If they made advent calendars for my holiday, I’d have one in every room of the house. I’m not ashamed to declare my love for this cavity-inducing day and all that comes along with it—the sentiment, sappy movies, fancy greeting cards, and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with me doesn’t have to wonder why I’m such a fan of February 14th. It seems natural, expected. Yet, if you were to look at a snapshot of my childhood, you’d likely be puzzled how I came out this way. For a while, I was too. But when I broke it down into its simplest form, the answer was crystal clear.

My grandfather looked like he stepped out of an old Hollywood movie—debonair, well dressed, and brutally handsome with sparkling green eyes. All of my memories of him are with snow-white hair, but a peek at his official Navy portrait shows him when it was the perfect blend of blonde and brown. When I think about my grandfather, lots of things immediately come to mind, but I can’t remember him without thinking of the person he loved the most.

Every year on Valentine’s Day, my grandfather would present my grandmother with a box of chocolates. I know sounds like a reliable, simple gesture that might lean a little towards boring, but my grandfather had his own way of doing things and the words simple and boring were not in his vocabulary. This was no run-of-the-mill box of candy picked up at the drugstore on a whim while purchasing a tube of toothpaste. This was a work of art procured from a very special place. Tucked away in a corner of our Bronx neighborhood underneath the train line stood a quaint little candy shop that had served our family for decades. It was an unassuming store likely now forgotten by most, but the impression it left on me was so great I can still recall every detail from the sparkling glass cases, polished subway tile floors and the candy matron standing in attention behind the counter in her perfectly starched uniform. It was the place that sadly, doesn’t exist anymore. Chocolates of every variety filled the cases; the scent dancing in the air, pure heaven. The offerings behind those glass cases were a sight to behold on the other 364 days of the year. On Valentine’s Day, it turned into a wonderland.

While my grandfather made his Valentine’s Day trek solo, I can easily picture him standing in the store looking handsome as ever in his sport coat, unlit pipe in his mouth as he paced the floor, scanning the selections. No one got to witness the maestro at work as he handpicked the chocolates, box, and ribbon, but we all enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

Each year, you could count on the boxes of chocolates gifted to my grandmother being two things—huge and gorgeous. The rest remained to be seen. My grandfather never gifted the same box twice and tweaked his selections to keep things interesting. There were sumptuous red satin heart-shaped boxes adorned with bows, other years they edged the boxes in delicate white lace or other attractive trim. And some years the boxes they embellished the boxes with elegant pink silk roses, other times they boasted satin sashes stamped with sentiments as sweet as the confections inside.

I couldn’t wait to go to my grandparents’ house on Valentine’s Day to see what my grandmother received. From the moment I woke up on February 14th, my heart pounded with excitement trying to picture what he’d chosen. I’d spend a good portion of my day waiting for the big revelation. Even more exciting was the fact that my grandmother always let us share in her bounty. When I got to their house, I made a direct line to the living room. I’d hold my breath in nervous anticipation as I walked up to the coffee table and set my eyes upon the work of art in front of me. It enamored me with its beauty, as well as what the gift symbolized. This was the grandest of grand gestures; a screaming declaration of a romance that still burned as brightly as it had when they met as teenagers. How wonderful to be surrounded by such love. Would I ever get so lucky to have a romance like theirs? (Luckily, I did.) I have no doubt that my affection for this holiday was born right there in that living room.

The moment I longed for had arrived, and I’d carefully lift the lid, enjoying the fluttering in my youthful heart. As I removed the paper honeycomb layer covering the treasure trove inside, the intoxicating scent of chocolate enveloped me. They lined the candies up in the box like little soldiers wearing their brown paper cups, each one holding a sweet secret inside. Which one to choose? I adored the smooth, round creams scattered around the box. Would the fluffy whipped filling taste like strawberry, orange, raspberry, or vanilla? I was eager to find out, but I couldn’t rush this decision and had some browsing to do first. There were plenty of other options to consider: odd-shaped crunchy nut clusters, tropical coconut bites, buttery, stretchy caramels, and gold-foil wrapped chocolates with squishy cherry centers. After scanning the landscape, sometimes I would find the rarest gems——those that wore a covering of soft pink, pale green or butter yellow, white chocolate/fondant deliciousness. Why don’t they make those anymore?

I’ve told this story at many cocktail parties and some people just don’t get it. To them, it might have been a simple box of candy, but not to me—and not to my grandfather. He did everything with class and effortless style. Like those handmade stunning silk candy boxes and my grandfather, they don’t make them like that anymore. They had a love story fit for a Hallmark movie; perhaps it will be the subject of my next novel. Until then, every night as I pass through my dining room to turn off the light on the sideboard, I say goodnight to them as I gaze at a black-and-white photo from their wedding. My grandmother is beaming in her dress and my grandfather is as handsome as ever in his Navy uniform. He’s twirling her on the dance floor like there wasn’t another person in the whole world but her. Yes, that’s definitely where I got it from.

Here’s to love and Valentine’s Day.

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