My belated 'funny' Valentine
How is it the calendar has rushed along already, leaving Valentine’s Day behind us? I hardly have a chance to sketch out a lopsided greeting to prop against your coffee cup, let alone reflect on V-Days we have known and loved. (You tell me it’s entirely my knowing and loving; you’ve never understood the whole thing about hearts and flowers — or so you say.)
I have to admit that I have found myself perplexed by the timing of the public day given over to love — why does it come along in February while the pop love songs we grew up with all seemed to swoon about the moon in June? (I get it about Groundhog’s Day: Where could it fit more appropriately, especially on the island?)
One day last week, I woke pondering this profound question and also with the lyrics to “My Funny Valentine” running round in my head. In fact, even a week later I found myself wandering the aisles of the BIG still humming them. How do I translate that hum into words on a page?
The answer to “Why February?” seems born out of opposites and dreams. Here we are subsumed in the icy repetitions of winter, yearning for spring and flowers and affection. And just when the blahs can’t have dug in more deeply, around the corner and just in time comes Valentine’s Day! (Don’t say “Bah! Humbug,” for I know you don’t mean it.)
Perhaps my confusion about spring and love is simply a search for warmth in all its machinations. With outdoor temps running in the single digits and ice packing down the carpets of snow draping our landscape, what takes the edge off the winter doldrums more than a bouquet of Technicolor tulips, a mouthwatering assortment of chocolates or a special love song delivered by someone you dote on and who dotes on you? (Did you just say, “But you can’t even carry a tune!”?)
No Aphrodite, no rocket scientist
My response is to invite you to listen (via YouTube) to the lyrics of “My Funny Valentine” turned out by a familiar artist – one that even you approve of – Frank Sinatra. He seems to sing to one valentine, but addresses all lovers, asking: “Is your figure less than Greek? / Is your mouth a little weak? / When you open it to speak, are you smart?”
Now wait a minute! What’s Old Blue Eyes telling me? That I’m no Aphrodite! And no rocket scientist! I’ve got that! But what’s he doing — now he’s trying to soften it. He croons that even if my “looks are laughable, unphotograph-able,” it’s all OK because I’m still his “favorite work of art.”
Whew! He finally gets round to acceptance: It’s to be OK: with all of my physical idiosyncrasies and intellectual quirks, somebody loves me as I am (in spite of the shortcomings he has laid out so clearly). Someone wants me not to “change a hair for” him. It’s obvious: I have no other chance at all — except this one — my last chance: just accept him, for who else would want me? (“I would,” you whisper.)
A protagonist named Valentine
What was Lorenz Hart thinking of? Actually, he and Richard Rodgers had written the song shortly before they included it in the libretto of the show “Babe in Arms,” which features a protagonist they name Valentine. He calls his girlfriend an “opportunist,” a word she doesn’t understand, and she calls him a “dope,” and then launches into “My Funny Valentine.”
From biographical sources, Hart’s lyrics have been described as “conveying a heart-stopping sadness that reflected his convictions that he was physically too unattractive to be loveable.” Not what might be called “your typical love song,” this Rodgers and Hart classic is considered autobiographical.
Elsewhere, dozens of Hart’s lyrics are depicted as “playful, funny and filled with clever word play.” Yet there is often “rueful vulnerability beneath their surface that lends them their singular poignancy.” And it is here that Hart’s lyrical if playful artistry joins with Rodgers’ wistful melody to create a kind of bridge, from one’s susceptibility to another’s, a love song that dissolves my own defenselessness and wraps me sweetly in the safety of being loved. (I did hear you, you know.)
As to music whirring round in the interstices of my thoughts, tunes float in and out, and they are usually spliced to romantic memories. Remember, we would go out to Rhodes on the Pawtuxet. (By the way, it’s still there on the banks of the Pawtuxet River in Cranston.)
I wore red pumps with spiked heels to make me taller and a white and red-dotted Swiss dress with thin, red shoulder straps and a full skirt that twirled as we danced. I recall they sat us at a table “reserved for Mr. Quinn,” and I drank a “sloe gin fizz,” and we danced to Vaughn Monroe singing “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” and “Dream.”(“When you’re feeling blue/ it’s the thing to do …”— Remember?)
And everywhere we traveled, lyrics followed us: Ella singing Cole Porter to us: “Night and Day/ Only you beneath the moon and the sun…” All through those early days of getting to know each other. You were stationed at Fort Dix and would come home on leave to Providence, where we both grew up on opposite sides of the city. You wore a bulky khaki army coat that sometimes you would enfold me in when we would sit in the car listening to Ella or Frankie. (“How do you remember so many details?” you ask.)
Melodies dissolve into memory, which shimmers with the bright promise of that summer’s day you took me to see your favorite fishing spot in Narragansett. While we drove, Al Hibbler sang “Unchained Melody,” and we stopped for a picnic in a secluded park — the day stretching idly for us as we tentatively stood on the precipice of falling in love. We later decided that was “our song.” (You do recall that, I see you nodding.)
Before we met, there were the long periods between boyfriends, which were for me strangely introspective. To my mother’s dismay, I would curl up on our living room sofa to read the Russian writers. During one such episode, I fell into Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and listened obsessively to Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto.”
Dissolving into the fictional world of Anna’s deep, illicit love of Vronsky, I would spend hours in the thrall of her predicament, overcome by the pounding chords of the Concerto. I was mesmerized to find women and men who sacrificed everything for love. And even more so that there was an emotion to call up such sacrifice.
My mom was convinced I was doomed to spinsterhood on a sofa crowded with books, that is, until you came along. A friend introduced us and you started showing up in your Studebaker on a regular basis. (Who knew how love would arrive?) We would have planned a date for the movies perhaps, but first you had to sit down “just for a while” to chat with my folks. The conversations never ended. In fact, we missed many a film in just that way.
So it was that they fell in love with you before I did. And you didn’t step out of a Russian novel. Instead, you talked with me about everything and anything, taking everything I said seriously and looking at me as though I was the most important person in the world. (“You were and you are,” you whisper.)
Not out of a Russian novel, but you danced me out onto a terrace under a star-drenched sky and introduced me to “the music of the night.” And a short while later, we loaded our stuff into your Studebaker and headed off into the sunset — for the mountains of Colorado and for the adventure that was to become our future.
(Happy Valentine’s Day, Love! Not late after all as the lyrics remind us: “Each day is Valentine’s Day!”)