Back in February, I wrote a column about one of the most sincere Valentine's Day gestures I'd ever witnessed. At the time, I received a few "Sweet story" and "Thanks for sharing" comments from readers. But I also received this one:
"Oh, Jennifer, so sad that you missed the real meaning in this husband's gesture. Such gestures of caring and kindness are evidence of a lifetime of mutual behavior between loving partners, and your lack of insight demonstrated a real failure to understand the love that God ordained in the sacrament of marriage. But, don't fret too much, you still have time to learn. Joanne Murray"
Whenever this kind of mail comes in to the P-B offices, managing editor Jay Furst loves to add it to his blog. You know, stir the pot a bit. Which he did with Ms. Murray's letter, with this kind preface:
"Some readers are harder to understand than others...here's a very strange and caustic note directed to columnist Jennifer Koski regarding her column Wednesday (not yet posted) -- Jen's beautifully crafted column could hardly have been more to this point, that the man's gesture was one of intimate kindness toward his wife, though I suspect this letter writer's comment is purely religious."
Okay, so that's a lot of back story to get to the point of today's post: Most column-related mail comes in within a week of the story's printing. But sometimes I get mail on a column I've long forgotten about. That happened this morning, when a reader sent the Post-Bulletin this message, about that February 2010 column--and Ms. Murray's catty letter:
"Jay Furst 'read Joanne Murray right' in his response to her remarks on Jennifer Koski's beautiful column regarding the older gentleman's loving and kind gesture to protect his sleeping wife from the glaring sun. If Joanne is incapable of recognizing that Jennifer truly did comprehend that his gesture perfectly expressed 'understanding the love that God ordained in the sacrament of marriage', Joanne is obviously the one who lacks 'insight' and really missed the mark in her caustic comments. Perhaps Joanne still "has time to learn" what love truly is."
It may be eight months after the fact, but wow -- I love that this anonymous reader came to my defense! And now, here's the column that started it all...
* * *
Valentine's Day last year found me at O'Hare International Airport.
I'd been at a conference in Chicago and was waiting for my return flight to Rochester in front of a gate marked “LaCrosse/Winona.” Close enough.
The gate is surprisingly empty for a Saturday afternoon. I have an entire row to myself, as do the people sitting across from me and to the left a few seats.
They’re a couple in their mid-60s. He’s in brown loafers and ankle-high sweat socks. Below his chocolate-covered shorts, the hair on his legs is thin and worn along the shinbone. His calves are mildly sunburned. These are legs, I decide, that are used to hiding behind long pants in February — not exposed in a golf cart. He wears a short-sleeved, button-up shirt and a mustache. He’s balding and wearing glasses that are more rectangular than oval. Trendier than one might expect based on his footwear.
Below him sits a black gym bag and next to him a roll-on bag with a wide-brimmed straw hat on it. They’re returning from Arizona, I think. Or maybe Florida. Definitely south.
His wife wears peach pants — leisure pants, you might call them — and a pink-and-blue flowered short-sleeved shirt. Her gray hair, pulled back in a barrette, curls along the back of her neck. On her feet are blue slip-ons and white socks.
Both of them wear watches (his leather; hers gold) and have rings set so deeply on their fingers that I know theirs is a marriage that has weathered years.
They’re in adjoining seats, sharing the same armrest. And, it must be said, she’s sleeping. Her head rests on his shoulder. His left arm rests around her. Every once in awhile his fingers squeeze her arm.
In his other hand is a phone, and he leans forward playing with it. Maybe sending a text. Maybe just checking his messages.
I settle in. I thought I was going to be late for my flight, but I'm early. There are still 30 minutes until my plane boards. I'm drinking a bottle of water and eating from a small bag of Bugles that, together, cost me $5.77 at the Hudson News stand, and this annoys me a little, but I was hungry, and the combination was cheaper than the bottle of Sprite and $4.99 bag of Raisinettes I was eyeing.
I balance the chips on my black roll-on suitcase and set my water on the floor. My mind wanders over the things minds wander over when there is nothing pressing to do. I wonder if I'll need a cab when I return to Rochester. I wish I had bought my husband something for Valentine's Day while I was gone, but figure I can make a card on the flight. I become suddenly worried that I've lost my boarding pass and riffle urgently through my bag.
I look around for a clock, and that’s when I see it.
The man's left arm is still around the woman’s shoulder. But now, instead of his phone, he's holding the straw hat in his right hand, over his wife’s face. At first I think he's trying to talk to her privately. Then I think perhaps they're attempting a discreet kiss.
But I'm wrong. It's far sweeter than that. He's holding the hat to block the sun from her face, which is turned to the window where the sun has begun its descent on this Chicago afternoon so she can sleep undisturbed.
I think about all the grand Valentine's Day gestures people make. The proposals and vacations and jewelry. The flowers and chocolates. The professions of love and forever.
And I realize that the man across from me is demonstrating the most romantic thing I've seen in years. And his wife doesn't have a clue.