I think my love for Valentine’s Day began in 1991.  I was a senior– the typical silly, self-absorbed 17-year-old with over-permed hair and over-rated expectations of finding romance in the halls of my high school.  I’m not saying it hasn’t happened for some, but I’d lived through my share of crushes and I knew deep down I wasn’t going to find true love there.  There was no surprise teddy bear holding a heart balloon in my locker that day, but I learned that wasn’t real romance anyway.  Real romance was waiting for me when I got home from school.

When my brother and sister and I walked in the house, there was Dad, smile on his face, excited to tell us that he was taking Mom out for Valentine’s Day.  But the real surprise was that we were going, too!  And not only that.  We were to get dressed in our best clothes because we were going to Regas, which we knew was one of the fanciest restaurants in Knoxville.  It was all too exciting for words.  My mom, who had been in on the plan, had recently found a purple taffeta suit for 90% off on clearance at a shop in town, so she was dressed and ready, and looking fabulous, and yet a tad uneasy that the price of the upcoming meal was sure to be more than the grocery budget for the entire week, and there were no coupons for a place like this.

Dad led us out to the car, anxious to start the 45-minute drive down the road.  My brother and sister and I filled our places in the back seat, not sure what to expect on this exciting night ahead.  And then, before Dad even backed out of the driveway,  he shocked us once again by pushing play on the cassette player, and gazing at Mom, announced that he had found the perfect song that day to describe how he felt about her.

It was a scene straight out of a romantic movie.  Amy and David and I were riveted.  And as we realized the voice coming from the speakers was none other than Neil Diamond, the preacher’s kids were even more astounded, since Dad’s regular playlist would’ve been much more Baptist in nature.  Mom sat in silence, smiling at Dad as Neil sang, “The Story of My Life,” her tears streaming along with the lyrics, which caused a chain reaction of tears for those of us in the audience as well.

 

My dad soon explained that he had heard the song that morning in a store (probably while buying Mom’s Valentine card), and that he had spent much of the day calling around town searching for the cassette so he could buy it and play it for her.  He had driven all the way to Knoxville that morning to find it.  The thought behind it, the effort, the time he had spent out of his extremely busy day… it was one of the most romantic things I’d ever heard.

For it being one of the most memorable nights of my life, I have no idea what I actually ate at the restaurant.  My brother says he remembers eating a ton of cheese from the tray in the lounge area while we waited for a table, and that the restaurant smelled a little like a funeral home to him.  As preacher’s kids, we definitely had more experience with funeral homes than fancy restaurants.  And Amy says she remembers the round table and the cloth napkins, and eating Hawaiian Chicken and rice pilaf, and that it tasted wonderful.  My mom remembers Dad’s excitement about finding the song and treating us to a meal that he really couldn’t afford, but did, because he knew some things are even more valuable than the price you have to pay for them.

And I remember we played Neil Diamond’s version of my parents’ love story all the way home that night.  My dad said the words were exactly what he would’ve written had he thought of them first…

The story of my life
Is very plain to read
It starts the day you came
And ends the day you leave

The story of my life
Begins and ends with you
The names are still the same
And the story’s still the truth

I was alone
You found me waiting
And made me your own
I was afraid
That somehow I never could be
The man that you wanted of me

You’re the story of my life,
And every word is true
Each chapter sings your name
Each page begins with you

It’s the story of our times
And never letting go
And if I die today,
I wanted you to know

Stay with me here
Share with me, care with me
Stay and be near
And when it began
I’d lie awake every night
Just knowing somewhere deep inside
That our affair just might write

The story of my life
Is very plain to read
It starts the day you came
It ends the day you leave

 

So interesting, the analogy of a story because we now talk so often of how my dad’s life was so much about words.  He was so good with them.  He wrote them well, spoke them deliberately, and used them to pour out grace.

It was the most romantic Valentine’s Day I had ever experienced at that point.  I have no idea why we didn’t take a picture that night (this one was taken just a couple months before), but after dinner, as Dad drove us down the highway toward home in that brown Chevy Impala, snow flurrying across the night sky, I took a mental picture and filed it away under “What True Love Looks Like.”

 

 

I’ve held onto that, as well as the many other images I’ve captured along the way.  And when I met Dave exactly a year later, I recognized what I had been waiting to find.  And now, I find myself 26 years, 4 kids, and numerous life experiences later, celebrating Valentine’s Day each year with my favorite people as a big family event.  This is our second one without Dad, and we miss his surprises and comments, and smiling face, but we will never stop remembering the moments we had with him and the words he gifted us with through the years.  He and Mom have given us a great picture of what true love is.  And now Dave and I are living the picture for our kids.

 

So that is the story of my first favorite Valentine’s Day and how Dad and Neil Diamond taught me about true love on a common Thursday.  And as a surprise twist to this story, it was 3 years and 3 months later, in that same restaurant that Dave asked me to marry him.  And now we live happily ever after.

You can hear the famous song here🙂