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A Valentine's Fiasco: Her Heart Was Full - His Stomach Empty

... There is a family legend about St. Valentine's Day - an echo still reverberating down the generations from the life and times of my great-grandfather. My ancestor was a master cooper. He used to make those wooden beer barrels encircled with gleaming brass hoops. Every day he walked several miles across the fields to work, and in the prime of life was accompanied by his grown sons, all carrying big sticks in one hand and lunch-baskets in the other.

These baskets were made of wicker, with a loop and hasp for fastening, a handle for carrying and for safety a strap went round the lot. I've seen his basket, or one said to be his, it's a family keepsake handed down, and now in the possession of old Auntie Emmy. (I suspect there are still a good many of these still in use in the hop-growing country Of Kent where he lived.) Auntie also still treasures her ancient relative's photograph. It's rather faded but I can easily visualize the old boy, walking to work that particular Valentine's Day.

Great-Grandma was apparently a romantic old dear and she cottoned on to the idea of exchanging Valentine cards as they had during their courtship - though by now they had been married a good many years and most of their large family had grown up.

"We shouldn't let the custom die out," she pleaded.

However, Great-Grandpa, no doubt slightly disillusioned by the struggle to share round his 6s weekly wage, wouldn't hear of any money being spent on "such rubbish". The old lady only smiled. She didn't, she told her eldest daughter when they were industriously sewing away at the red flannel that evening, intend to spend any money. Amos could do as he pleased, she said. She didn't require a card from him, romance was ripe enough in her heart. She wanted to surprise him and warm his hard-boiled heart a little.

Well, the family kept the secret, the old lady stitched at ribbon and lace topped up with a real rose from the garden artfully introduced so that, when the card was opened, the living rose was revealed to the beholder's (loving, she hoped) eyes.


The day dawned - and it was dawn when she got up, necessarily so, there was so much to do and she managed without gas, electricity or water taps. In due course she hastily sliced yesterday's home-baked bread, and made the jam sandwiches, and packed the boys' and papa's lunch-baskets. All day she smiled and sang to herself, re-living their first romantic meeting and the few happy days they had before the babies began arriving.

Alas, it all went wrong. For years poor Valentine was a forbidden word in my Great-Gran's household. Papa and the boys stalked out of the shack they called a barrel factory and lowered themselves on to the grassy banks of the Medway, to enjoy their lunch in the sunshine of a fresh February day. They opened their baskets, each one seizing a thick doorstep* in one hand and a flask of cold tea in the other - all except Great-Grandpa. He let out such a yell that the boys - three great bearded Kentish sturdies** - got up ready to run, remembering their tenderer years, no doubt, and nearly dropped their own sustenance in the river in their fear and amazement.

* (doorstep - (coll.) a thick piece of bread and butter.)

** (sturdy - (adj.) strong, vigorous, strongly built; here used as a noun.)

Their father threw out an old card and a rose, not noticing their nostalgic significance and failing, of course, to read the words carefully inscribed with loving hand and pregnant with meaning Amos - my everything - Nellie. "My grub!" he roared in anguish. "Where's my dinner?" - and in case of apoplexy the boys had reluctantly to hand over some of theirs.

Poor Great-Grandmama. With love in her heart, her mind had been miles away from her work. She had forgotten the maxim on which all good Victorian misses were reared. "First - feed the brute."*

* (feed the brute - probably, a quotation from Punch (1886):

- Oh yes! I'm sure he's not so fond of me as at first. He's away so much, neglects me dreadfully, and he's so cross when he comes home. What shall I do?

- Feed the brute!)

(Morning Star)

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