A Valentine: No Boxes or Ribbons Required

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

Skip the expensive dinner, the jewelry, and the chick flicks, flowers, and chocolates. Read on for a story about a surprisingly romantic gift you may choose to share this Valentine’s Day.

Ten years ago, I had the privilege of attending the National Book Awards when Stephen King accepted the medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters. You may not recall or be aware of the controversy this selection created among the literary elite, but bestowing this award on King caused quite the publishing uproar in 2003. At the ceremony, some people still looked distressed and dismissive as he accepted it. In fact, at my table of 10, I was the only person who had ever read anything written by Stephen King.

The more he spoke, the more obvious it became that the speech was—at its essence—a valentine to his wife, Tabitha. But before you chalk this up as a “Wind Beneath My Wings” schmaltzy tribute, here’s a line or two to give you a sense of its tone and their relationship. On “Tabby’s” rescuing his abandoned Carrie manuscript from the trash: “There were no inspiring speeches. Tabby does sarcasm, Tabby doesn’t do inspiration, never has. It was just ‘This is pretty good; you ought to keep it going.’ That was all I needed, and she knew it.”

Sure, he talked about his body of work, his philosophy of “telling the truth” when he writes, contemporary writers he admires, and what the award meant to him. But he also told us that without Tabby—her keen sense as a reader and a critic and her unwavering belief that writing was a very real part of him—he would have led a different life and would perhaps have given up on his passion completely. He explained it this way: “My wife might have been expected to say, ‘Why don’t you quit spending three hours a night in the laundry room, Steve, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer we can’t afford? Why don’t you get an actual job?’… Tabby has told me since that it never crossed her mind to have such a conversation. You had a second job, she said—in the laundry room with my typewriter.”

My favorite moment came when the audience began applauding after he shared the above anecdote about his wife and her belief in his largely non-lucrative writing career. He stopped his speech and said, “I hope you know, Tabby, they are clapping for you and not me.” I had tears in my eyes.

Valentine’s Day and everything that surrounds it serves mostly to help us overlook what we crave in relationships by dangling something shiny, expensive, and/or useless in front of us. I can’t think of one person on the planet who wouldn’t forgo a token gift—or even a very costly one—in exchange for a hug of support on a daily basis, or a knowing look that says, “I’m here. Can I help?” Or “Tell me. I’ll try to understand.” Or “I believe in you.”

But after a while, many of us forget about doing that. We’re distracted or unhappy or just plain worn out, so we let it slide. And then, when the calendar tells us we should celebrate our love in a special way on February 14, we panic.

As part of your Valentine’s celebration, read King’s acceptance speech on the National Book Foundation’s website, or parts of it, to each other. So much of his story feels so real; so much of it feels like the challenges everyday couples face together. Such as how do we hold onto our dreams when life seems to be telling us to let go?  How do we support each other to do that?

I suspect Stephen and Tabitha King don’t rely on a calendar—or an audience, a podium, or an award—to celebrate their relationship. I suspect they’ve quietly applauded each other for something like 40 years. Maybe that’s all the rest of us really need to do, too.


Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning Op-Ed column for The Morning Call, in Allentown, PA for almost ten years.  Her essays have been part of two humor anthologies: 101 Damnations; A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells andMirth of a Nation Volume 3, and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It’s Not Me, It’s You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.



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10 Responses to A Valentine: No Boxes or Ribbons Required

  1. Barbara February 9, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    Thank you Renee, for reminding us of what is really valuable in life, our relationships with others, especially those we love.

  2. Donna in Delaware February 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    My husband and I, for the last I don’t know how many years, give each other nothing but each other. I don’t feel the need for “things” the older I get. He also want’s nothing tangible. I’d rather have a nice meal at home by the fire, and a calm, simple, thoughtful relationship with him and my surroundings. We give each other all year, one day isn’t going to make it any more special than it already is. Thanks Renee.

  3. Patricia February 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    I’m so happy that my husband Steven and I are such good friends.
    He has been on disability for a long time, and I have been retired for a while. Friendship, compassion, and true love have kept us bonded for 43 years, no gifts were required.

  4. renee February 14, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    I love these notes that tell stories about real life romance. I wonder if we “age” into this as the years tick by or if some couples are just more low key about the “celebration” each year. No judgement – just wondering. Thanks all – and enjoy the day!

  5. Caroline February 15, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    Thank you, Renae. That was beautiful. And although I read your blog after the Hallmark holiday, it does inspire me to try, try , try to be more giving.

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