February 14, 2021
This little memoir piece below was published in the International Women's Group Contact (IWC) magazine here in Amsterdam yesterday.
For those of my blog followers who went to boarding school, and especially those of you who boarded with me in Rosscarbery, you may relate..or not!
Valentine’s Day in an all-girls’ boarding school was difficult. At fourteen, you had to pretend to love the thought of it coming and to discuss the possibilities of secret crushes and loves with your friends. I suspect most of us dreaded it.
The method of the distribution of letters and parcels received by the boarders at the school didn’t help the annual ritual. From Monday to Friday we lined up outside the door of the ‘servery’ when the bell went for morning break-time. The servery was a smaller kitchen area off the main dining room. It contained presses for the cups, large industrial teapots, catering boxes of tea bags, coffee and sugar, a fridge for the milk, a sink for washing up and a number of electric kettles. When the door was opened at 11am, the parcels and letters for that day were arranged on the counter just inside the door in alphabetical order. If you were lucky enough to receive a letter, you picked it up, then you came to the cups, then you moved along to the teapots and poured a cup of tea before adding the milk and sugar. You went and sat down at one of the tables in the dining room to drink your tea, read your letter or, best of all, open your parcel in front of your friends.
During my first two years, there was no card for me among the pink, purple and yellow envelopes of all sizes. I made sure to tell my friends that I hadn’t sent any either, so I hadn’t expected to get one. And I pretended to be happy for them if they had received one. I joined in the guessing games of wondering who could have sent it. Because lots of us were from different towns and villages around the county and further afield, we generally didn’t know many of the supposed suitors that the other girls described and we could only imagine their good looks, their daring, their anguish at unrequited love, their perseverance in the face of the physical absence of their paramour.
At Christmas break, during my third year there, I remember talking to my mother about the humiliation of the process. I told her I thought Valentine’s Day was a stupid tradition, popularised by Hallmark to increase their sales at a slow time of year. I declared that I would never send a Valentine card to any boy I fancied, I’d just let him know by other means. I might even try talking to him. I said I’d be mortified if I got a Valentine card at school and had to open it in front of my friends. All lies. She listened and nodded and made reassuring noises at all the right pauses.
When the 14th February 1976 arrived, I went in trepidation down to the servery at breaktime. I was stunned to find a medium-sized pink envelope for me, postmarked in my home town of Killarney. When I opened it, there were flowers on the front, and inside, written in block capitals, TO KATHRYN FROM YOUR SECRET ADMIRER. The girls oohed and aahed and teased me as to his identity. I knew no boy in Killarney at the time who had even hinted that he might have the remotest spark of interest in getting to know me better, but I played along and described and even named a few possibilities, both from my imagination and from one or two real protagonists!
The strange thing was that I received a similar card with the exact same message for my next two remaining years in school. Was my mother shielding me from the taunts of the other girls who got cards? She always vehemently denied sending them and joined me in speculating who might have posted them. I wasn’t wholly convinced. Then again, maybe I really did have a secret admirer who never revealed himself? What an interesting thought to ponder forty-three years later…..