Valentine’s Day 2010

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Having recently survived New Year’s Eve, I knew that Valentine’s Day was also going to be a rough day to deal with.

Just like the initial year after the loss of a love one, going through the divorce process also brings with it the traumatic reality of first times without

For weeks I’d been preparing myself for how to deal with the deluge of memories and unmet dreams that I expected would come flooding back to depress me on this special day set aside to commemorate love.

To force myself from organizing, hosting and welcoming myself as the guest of honor to the world’s largest Pity Party For One featuring a mouth-watering spread of spectacular, never-ending amounts of chocolate delicacies, guaranteed to temporarily obliterate all pain, I knew I needed to find a positive, special and heartwarming way to still find joy in a holiday that I always looked forward to celebrating (without making myself sick to my stomach and putting myself into a self-induced diabetic coma in the process).

So I put Plan B into effect.

Ashley needed to do some community service work for a high school project. Of course she informed me of this two days before Christmas and wanted to participate during the holiday break. After making several phone calls to all of the local food pantries, churches, synagogues and shelters in our area, I was surprised to discover that no one needed help during the season of giving and good cheer. However, I did find an organization that provided meals to the homeless and needy in a low-income area of Chicago, who could use some volunteers on Valentine’s Day.

Actually this was something I’ve wanted to do for years so I signed Ashley and me up. At the time I didn’t realize how perfect it would be for us to serve on this particular day.

As I am not a lover of operating a motor vehicle in wintry, snowy conditions, I was grateful that as we drove to the Uptown neighborhood on Valentine’s Day, the sun was shining, the temps were mild and the ground was dry. So far, so good. However, around that time, the city of Chicago put in new parking meters all over town. Being a suburbanite who was used to pulling into free parking spaces wherever I went, I wasn’t familiar with the new system.

Fortunately I found a parking spot just up the street from the building we were going to. This made me extremely pleased, as this wasn’t the safest of neighborhoods and I wanted us both to live through this experience.

After checking the area for suspicious characters, I got out of my car and started putting quarter after quarter in what should have been my meter. It kept flashing and blinking, but didn’t register the amount I deposited. One of the area’s residents came up to me and informed me that I wasn’t supposed to put money in the meter. He then pointed out a large pay station across the street that covered all the spaces for the entire vicinity

As I was thanking him profusely, I was simultaneously becoming totally pissed off because the city was misleading unsuspecting people with these meters and making additional revenue from this venture. These curbside “piggy banks” had no information posted on them alerting drivers not to use them for their cars.

Trying to keep things in perspective and stay focused on why we were in the city, I regained my composure.

Ashley and I walked over to the neighborhood collection box to figure out how to pay for my right to park on the street. After successfully receiving a confirmation ticket, we then ventured back to my car to affix the paper inside my front windshield so I could legally occupy my parking spot for the time we would be doing our good deed for the day.

Thankfully we made our way over to the building without getting assaulted, raped, robbed or murdered.

After checking in with security and locking up our personal belongings, we were taken to the room where we would be serving. Set up like a restaurant, this facility was designed to make the guests feel special and appreciated. I have to say that I was really impressed with the layout and the system.

Because it was Sunday morning, we would be serving brunch. The menu options included omelets, potatoes, pancakes with strawberry topping, veggie sausages, bagels and cream cheese and assorted hot and cold beverages.

After being quickly briefed on our morning’s responsibilities, we were handed our serving aprons, an order pad and a pen and immediately got busy putting out place mats, napkins, plastic ware and condiments on the tables.

Since it was Valentine’s Day, two of the regulars—a father and his grown daughter who have been volunteering together on Sunday mornings for years, brought Hershey Kisses and put them in small plastic bowls for the guests to enjoy. I was touched by their generosity of spirit and admired the commitment the two of them made to each other and to those in need.

When we finished our pre-meal chores, we claimed and stood by the table that would be ours to service. We were told that after we brought out the food we should sit and talk with our guests. As important as it was for them to eat, they also hungered for the nourishment of conversation and good will.

At 11:00 am, the visitors started arriving and picking the spots they wanted to dine at. Three individuals took seats at my table. I glanced over to where Ashley was. She was serving four middle-aged African-American women who quickly engaged her in conversation. Before I knew it, there was laughter coming from their direction. It appeared that Ashley was not only comfortable, she seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. I was elated and pleasantly surprised to see this.

After I served my guests, I pulled up a chair and joined them for a bite to eat. Among our diners were two African-American men who were as different as night and day and a middle-aged, mentally challenged white woman. In their own unique ways, they were quite entertaining and engaging conversationalists. One of the males was a very pleasant, soft-spoken factory worker in his late 50’s. The other was a former bank security guard who was fired from his job and spent his evenings in prison for selling drugs. This was more information than I needed to know and coyly steered the conversation to Valentine’s Day. I asked what they would be doing later in the day to celebrate this sentimental occasion.

The employed gentleman told me he was looking forward to watching the basketball game on television. He shared that he was currently single but he was looking for the right woman and when he would find her, he would treat her with respect and support her both emotionally and financially. My drug dealer table mate said he was going home to sleep because that was all he cared to do. He was also looking for a woman but one who would cater to his every demand. I teased him by asking where his mom was, because it sounded like that was who he was really looking for. The four of us cracked up at that comment. The laughter created an immediate bond between us. From that moment on, the conversation flowed effortlessly and naturally.

Feeling completely comfortable with them, I then divulged that I was going through a divorce, but being with them brightened up my day and made it very special. They made me smile and giggle. During the time we spent socializing, I was very upbeat and lighthearted.

I knew that if I stayed home, I would have been wallowing in well-deserved self-pity. As we chatted, the time flew by very quickly. Before I knew it, our guests were packing up to leave and it was time for us to clean and put everything away.

On the drive home, Ashley and I discussed our experiences. We realized that even though on the surface these people were obviously quite different from us, we shared a lot of similarities.

We all wanted to feel loved, accepted and appreciated. It didn’t matter where we lived, how old we were, the color of our skin, the religion we practiced or didn’t, our backgrounds and circumstances in life, we found many things to converse about.

Ashley and I both understood that it was merely fate or luck that allowed us to live a comfortable existence (at least up till that point) and how quickly life could change.

We discussed the diversity of the clientele that came in for a free meal that day. Some were the stereotype of what we expected. Others caught us completely off-guard. They looked like they could have been our neighbors and friends. It was sobering to accept that many of these people were not only highly educated, they were earning respectable incomes until they lost their jobs due to the recession.

Serving a simple meal that morning taught us that by stepping out of our neighborhood and individual comfort zones, we were able to gain a whole new perspective and appreciation for not only our own lives but for those whom we most likely would never stop to talk to or get to know under any other circumstances.

Valentine’s Day, 2010 will always be special to Ashley and me.

Instead of exchanging the usual sentimental cards, flowers and candy, we gave our time, energy and love to those who so desperately needed it. In return, we received warmth, affection, attention and gratitude.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this holiday.

Not even Hallmark could top this!

 

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