I celebrate my family on Valentine’s Day.
I take this itty-bitty heart-shaped cookie cutter that I have and I go mad with it. I stamp hearts out of watermelon and hearts out of their sandwiches. I heart stamp their toast in the morning, and I heart out their afternoon snack before I pack them in their backpacks.
I heart the entire house with red and white crepe paper streamers and heart notes taped to their bathroom mirror.
I celebrate them and heart them because before them I thought that I had to be what people wanted me to be. Before them, if I sensed an eyebrow begin to raise, or heard a mouth-escaping gasp from someone while I told a story from my life, without missing a beat, I’d change it up so it would become a harmless, less serious tale – one that would lessen the risk of disapproval.
I learned from the reaction of others that opinions are formed quickly. Assumptions are made, and blame is doled out. I’d see the whispers and nods of others, so I’d walk away from their small circle. And I learned to tell better, “safer” stories, ones that would keep away the silent judging and labels that don’t tell who I really am.
I learned to not share details of what wasn’t pretty, to keep things light and fluffy, and play to what people preferred to hear. I told stories that people liked. Stories that when repeated would bring people over, wanting to meet me.
People like to hear what is happy, funny, and especially what is not different, life-lite.
But do you know what happens when you safeguard your real stories? You will have 20 friends who like the “safe” you but the “real you” has not a single friend.
That’s what my life was like before my family.
The world had come to like the woman who was an instant show, who made them laugh. Someone once said to me, “I tell everyone, when you feel down, call Alexandra. She’s always up.”
The pretend me was always up. The real me was hiding inside, waking up to the mental chant, Just make it through today. I kept things hidden because I had seen how people don’t like the messiness of truth sometimes.
When you are known only to yourself, everything you see and hear and participate in, feels pretend. It’s not the real you with these people, it’s the acceptable you that’s with them.
But not after my family.
The first time I told a story about my life, about never being a part of things, about being the kid who dressed weird and whose family didn’t speak English, the kid whose father died when she was in first grade, the kid with the strange lunches at the cafeteria table, my kids fell into me. “We’re sorry, mom!” “That was your life, mom?” “Mom, you have so many stories!” My husband and children gifted me with their love and their lack of judgement so that I have – for the first time in my life – spoken, out loud, of who I am, to them.
With a tale here and there, sticking my toes in first to check the water, my children listened, and no one turned away. It’s okay to them that I am not a perfect upbeat sunny package.
I used to think that I had to always provide the diversion, a clever anecdote, a memory that would make people laugh. I was the one with charming snippets of life in the flesh, entertainment for all!
But my family has seen my baggage, looked through it and shuffled it around. There is nothing to keep secret anymore. And now, through their acceptance and love, it’s just me here – no longer hiding behind words that I think others will like. My children know who talks to them.
I celebrate my children on Valentine’s Day, and they love the me back, the woman who didn’t come from a sparkly clean beginning, who isn’t always up, who is in love with them.
I don’t need to offer anything other than what I am anymore. I’ve been made to feel safe, by them.
I stand tall now. I look in their eyes and see love shining back. I am confident in their esteem for me, because I know it’s based fully on knowing who I am.
The night before Valentine’s Day this year, just like the night before Valentine’s Day last year, I’ll hum and float through the house with anticipation, because I can’t wait to show all four of them, the ones that live here with me, just how many things can be cut into and stamped into hearts.
I will have a heart strewn about the house for each prayer I prayed, that I would someday have someone to tell my stories to.
And I can never thank my family enough. But I try, with 50,000 hearts, I try.