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Honoring the True Spirit of Valentine's Day

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Tuesday February 12, 2013

By Cookie Steponaitis

There are many today who measure love in terms of items and acquisitions and the price of the bling, the carat of the ring or the luxury of the items provided for the loved one. Hollywood and the media present us with hours of coverage of the biggest winners, the largest prizes in history and courtships where the size of the engagement ring is longer than the relationship. Yet somewhere lost in all of that materialism and commercialism is the word love and the sentiment of sharing a special day with your other half or special someone.

If we look back into the archives of our own family histories there are stories of Valentine's Days past and love that continues to follow the age old definition of finding its way into your life at the right place and time. So, sit back, put away your checkbook, credit card and stop shopping.

The answer you have been looking for has been in front of your eyes all the time. It is not the dazzle of the gift but the sharing of life, laughter and maybe an adventure or two that brings to mind the true spirit of Valentine's Day.

Ada and the Horse Race

Ada Bushell stood on the porch of the Stevens House in Vergennes, Vermont. It was nigh shy of sunrise and already the workday was well underway as she paused to brush some dirt off the faces of a matched pair of Morgan Horses that pulled her wagon. Ada picked up and delivered milk from the farm to the town and carried the 75 pound milk cans herself. Her hands were calloused and worn from years of farm work. Her clothes showed their wear and her boots were already scuffed, dirty and covered in a mixture of hay, chafe and manure.  While standing at the hitching post waiting for the kitchen staff to empty the milk can Ada smiled at a private thought. It would soon be light and the fair ladies of the town would come out and daintily hold up their skirts crossing the dirt streets of the town on wooden planks. They would hold their noses and proceed to the Steven's House with disdain at the dirt they were forced to cross. “Peacocks,” Ada smirked, “they wouldn't survive a day on the farm and probably would starve to death at the stove.”

The year was 1912 and Vergennes, Vermont boasted an active main street and work center on the falls at Otter Creek. Ada was sixteen years old and had come to Vergennes from an Indian reservation in upstate New York possessing only a sixth grade education. Jobs were limited but Ada had worked on a farm and knew animals well. She could shoe a horse, milk a cow and hold her own in the hay fields. The job she had paid well and it enabled her to send some money back to her parents. Still, she had not found her place in the town or in life.

The back door of the livery snapped open and Henry Stevens stood in her field of vision. Henry who was about thirty worked both on a farm and for the Stevens family in town.  He was known for his quiet ways and lack of tolerance for the evils of drink but Ada paid him little mind until today. Henry crossed to the front of the team, stopped to reward the horses with a carrot and turned his attention to the woman behind the reins and casually said, “Heard you know your horses.” Ada’s head popped up and a quick retort left her lips.

"Better than you, that is for sure," she replied.

“Not so certain about that," replied Henry as he continued to examine the team. “Would you care to make a wager?" Ada thought briefly and came back with the line,

“I wouldn't want to take your money," she casually replied.

“I am not worried," replied Henry, “so I have a wager.  I challenge you to a race through the town, down to Adams Ferry and back.

“What are we racing for?" inquired Ada.

“Now I was thinking,” Henry stated, “that if I win I should get a kiss and a date. If you win you get the papers to my Morgan gelding."

“I can't take your horse Henry," admonished Ada, “You need him on the farm and I know I will win."

History records that the bet stood for many months before Ada finally accepted it to stop Henry's pestering her each time she delivered milk and with official starters and considerable fanfare the race was held on a cold Sunday afternoon in late fall. The leaves were just about to fall from the trees and Ada and her horse took an early lead.

As they rounded the corner on to Main Street and raced to the line at the Steven's House the two were neck and neck. Ada's horse pulled ahead ever so slightly and then just before they crossed the line Henry's gelding surged forward to the win. After taking the congratulations of the crowd that had gathered Henry called in his marker and set the meeting time and place for the date.

One month later Ada became Mrs. Henry Stevens and to the day she died in the 1960's swears that she pulled up on the reins just so he could pass her. She figured that you have got to love a man who can almost beat you in a race.

It's in the Wood

Henrik Stephenson had a huge problem. He was in love and she was leaving to go to America with her family at the end of the month. Her name was Greta and she was his ray of sunshine. He had sat next to her in primary school and had promised to marry her then. Of course no girl takes a boy of seven seriously especially when she was just six years old herself.  Henrik showed her where he had carved their initials into a tree in the yard. Greta tossed her pigtails at Henrik and went to sit with her friends, not knowing she left behind a broken heart and a man who made a promise.

Henrik was not one for words but worked with his hands and already showing skills of being a fine craftsman. He was following his grandfather in the business of cabinet making and could already carve, bevel and engrave wood with great skill and ease. He planned to study more and become a master carpenter and builder like his grandfather. But now he was faced with a choice. Time had passed and Greta and her family were leaving for America. They were not children anymore. Henrik was seventeen and Greta fifteen but no promises had been made and Henrik knew when she got on the ship to America she was taking his heart with her.

After spending time in the woods to think as he often did he went to his parents with a proposal. He would go to America with Greta's family and apprentice himself to a builder. He would save and send money home to Lithuania and would make his mark. Then he would propose to Greta. Henrik's parents were firmly against the idea and wanted no part of their son leaving to go to America. It was after all 1875 and America was still rebuilding after the devastation of the Civil War that had left the nation in shambles and the economy recovering. As the conversation continued Henrik's grandfather spoke up in support of the boy's plan. “He is skilled enough," concluded his grandfather, “he needs to make his way in the world. Let him go."

The deal was struck after much distress and Henrik made the journey to America with Greta's family who settled in the southern part of Georgia.  Henrik went to work for a cabinet maker and soon was working his way up to the position of supervisor. He worked at night in secret on a project in a rented shed at the workplace. He slept in a store room, saved what he made and sent some home to his family in Lithuania. Two years later on Greta's eighteenth birthday Henrik presented himself to Greta's father and asked permission to court his daughter bringing the family a lovely wooden bowl set.  Henrik expressed not only his love but his plan for the two to make their own life together.

Greta, who had seen little of Henrik since the Atlantic crossing was stunned by his declaration of love. She asked why he had not said anything before and he reminded her of that school conversation when he was seven and she was six. Greta promised to marry Henrik and the following June they wed. He carried his bride over the threshold of their first cottage that would be their home and Greta was stunned by the beauty of a black mahogany piece of furniture standing in the living room. Gleaming in the sunlight, it stood tall, sturdy and was detailed in its carvings and ornamentation. At the front was a door which opened to show the viewer internal shelves with a small secret panel to hide valuables.

“Open that panel," requested Henrik. Obeying his request Greta opened the door and found her initials and his carved into the wood of the door. The date beside it was that day long ago in the school yard. "Our children and their children will know our story," promised Henrik. “It is in the wood."

So, before you race out to buy the latest and greatest, look into your heart and your past for stories like these. They speak of gifts of love that are not measured in wealth but in the value placed on partnership; time and commitment, for these tales of love are true. Happy Valentine's Day and may your holiday be more about the love than bling.

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