By Suzanne Sparrow Watson


A Krispy Kreme Valentine

A Krispy Kreme Valentine

This week many of you will experience panic attacks as you realize that Valentine’s Day has once again occurred on February 14th.  I’m always baffled when I hear people (well, mostly my husband) say “What day is Valentine’s Day?”, as if it changes from year to year.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of the holiday.  I’ve seen too many people treat their significant other rather shabbily all year long and then think that a $9.99 bouquet of roses from Safeway will make up for it on Valentine’s Day.  But I do realize that I may be a minority in this respect, since millions of people around the world mark the occasion with cards, flowers, and it would appear, oversized teddy bears and lacy lingerie.  So I got to thinking about how we began this tradition.  Of course lots of people say it’s a “Hallmark” holiday and as you will read, the greeting card industry has certainly benefited from the day, but it turns out that Valentine’s Day has been celebrated for centuries and by some very unlikely people indeed.

There are many theories as to how Valentine’s Day got started and even who St. Valentine was.  The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different martyred saints named Valentine or Valentinus and they can’t quite decide which is the original cupid. Sounds like the old “To Tell The Truth” program to me.  In any event, the most popular legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death – on February 14.   Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote his jailor’s daughter a letter signed “From your Valentine,” thus setting up the greeting card industry for the next two thousand hundred years.  Around 498 A.D. the Pope, who was not a big fan of pagan holidays, decided to combine the remembrance day for St. Valentine with the pagan rite of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15.  Never heard of Lupercalia?  The short version is that it was a fertility festival highlighted by two sacrifices:  a goat for fertility and a dog for purification.  That sounds about right.


During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. That seems just the slightest bit odd.  Really, when was the last time you stared out the window at birds mating and thought, “That is SO romantic!”.  For that matter, who in the heck watches birds mating?  Nevertheless, as the years went on the holiday grew more popular. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized it in their work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe.  By the middle of the 18th century it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.  It is believed that Americans began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America and it’s been downhill ever since. Howland is considered the “Mother of the Valentine”.   I think in some circles she might be known as the “mother” of something else.  She made her creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.”  Or “crap”.  I forget.  Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, right after Christmas. Which brings up an interesting fact: women purchase 85% of all the Valentine’s that are exchanged.  I was stunned by that fact until I thought more about it.  Modern day traditions guilt men into buying flowers, candy, dinner and the aforementioned lingerie.  All women do is buy a card and we’re good to go.

NixonAnd since everything these days has a Presidential spin, I got to thinking about whether there were any romantics among our former Presidents.    It’s well documented that John and Abigail Adams had a wonderful 54 year marriage and were very devoted.  And the Reagans were renowned for their doe-eyed looks at one another. Harry Truman apparently wrote such torrid letters to Bess that she burned them all lest someone else read them.  Although I don’t think Harry’s love notes would even make it on to TMZ these days.  But there were also some head-scratchers among our former commanders-in-chief.  Woodrow Wilson, who was thought to be a pretty stolid guy was widowed after a 27 year marriage and was completely heartbroken.  Until six months later when he was described as a “school boy” when meeting his second wife, Edith.   Perhaps the most unlikely romantic was Dick Nixon.  We all remember him as rather stiff and sweaty, but apparently in his youth he was quite a romantic…and maybe just the slightest bit desperate.  Turns out that he was so enamored of Pat that he would offer to drive her and her suitors on their dates just so he could spend more time with her.  Kind of sad, really.  But then again, Valentine’s Day is named for a martyr so for all I know he exemplifies the holiday.  In any event, I hope you have a wonderful day regardless of how you choose to celebrate.  Just don’t go sacrificing any dogs.



By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

“Where the wind comes whistling down the plain” … Oscar Hammerstein. 


I swear this is what the wind felt like

Never let it be said that Mr. Hammerstein wasn’t the very essence of understatement.  Hays, Kansas was the next stop on our journey to Kansas City.  It is the largest city in western Kansas, boasting a population of over 20,000 hearty people and no Starbucks.  As we drove up to the hotel we made the “rookie” error of facing the car into the wind.  As it turns out, there was a tornado watch in effect.  I had to use both arms to push the car door open, and then attempt a quick exit before the door could swing back and crush me.  Welcome to Kansas.  Once in the lobby, my husband casually asked the clerk if the hotel had a storm shelter.  “Well, no,” she chirped, “everyone just crowds into the laundry room.”  My husband paled.  “So..”, he asked, “you must not have many guests staying here tonight.”  After a quick consult with her computer she looked up and said brightly, “Well, actually we’re almost full so if we do have a tornado some people will just have to take shelter under the stairwell.”  We slept with one eye open and one foot on the floor.  In the event of disaster we were going to be the first people wedged between the washer and dryer.

As we left Hays the next morning, bleary-eyed from our own “tornado watch” and no Starbucks, we were dismayed to see that the scenery had not improved overnight.  I could write about how very boring the drive was but then that would make for a pretty boring post.  Let me just leave it at this:  If ever you get the wild idea to drive through western Kansas – DON”T.

Luckily, 90 minutes down the road is the city of Salina, which not only HAS a Starbucks but is the demarkation point for where the terrain changes.  I don’t think those two things are related but you never know.  Within the space of a mile, suddenly the flat, dry plain became luscious, rolling  green hills.  As we made our way toward Kansas City the vistas became more beautiful, until we finally arrived at our destination – Leawood, Kansas – home to our newly-relocated family.

Wendy's Fountain

A typical neighborhood fountain

We set out immediately to get to know the area.  First of all, Kansas City is known as “the city of fountains”.  This picture (right) is on our daughter’s home street and is pretty typical of the neighborhood fountains.  Both my husband and I come from California and have seen some pretty fancy neighborhoods but we both agreed that we have never seen so many contiguous miles of beautiful homes.  These places were so big they would make Donald Trump happy.  There are parks everywhere and wide boulevards with medians filled with huge trees, colorful flowers and, yes, more fountains. No less a journalist than Edward R. Murrow once described Kansas City as “the Paris of the Plains”.  Alas, that was not due to its beauty or the meandering river that runs through the center of town.  He was referring to the fact that during the heyday of Prohibition, Kansas City had a  reputation for debauchery.  Thanks to its corrupt police commissioner, not a single citizen was convicted of manufacturing, transporting, selling or even possessing booze during the 13-year period when alcohol was banned nationwide.The wide-open party town attracted both the criminal and the creative, including jazz musicians who made the city one of the most exciting of the time. At the height of Kansas City’s heyday in the 1930s, there were more than 100 jazz clubs hosting performances and jam sessions that would launch the careers of musicians such as Count Basie and Charlie Parker.


The Plaza – bring your credit card


Today things are a bit more sedate.  The crown jewel of the city is Country Club Plaza, or just “The Plaza”.  It was the first shopping center in the world designed to accommodate shoppers arriving by automobile.  It was patterned architecturally after Seville, Spain, with wide streets, tiled roofs and, you guessed it, more fountains.  Even the chain stores and restaurants somehow look better here, which shows you what a good city planner can wrestle from a monolithic corporation.  For example, the outside eating area of the Cheesecake Factory is in a cobble-stoned courtyard, planted with fabulous flowers and of course, the requisite fountain.  I think the beautiful surroundings might make you forget that you’re ingesting a 2,000 calorie salad.  There is every store imaginable on The Plaza but one that is truly unique to Kansas City is Hall’s.  As in Hallmark Cards, which happens to be headquartered in Kansas City.  Hall’s is so upscale that their motto ought to be “where you care to spend the very most”.  The influence of the Hallmark corporation is everywhere and suffice it to say that every gas station and grocery store have displays of Hallmark Cards that would make one of our local Gold Crown stores weep.


2013-06-08 11.42.27
Here we are with Jack Stack’s bull

 But the real reason to visit Kansas City is to eat some of its famous barbecue.  Our kids suggested that we go to Jack Stack BBQ, which has been in business for over 50years.  “Diet” and “BBQ” do not intersect at Jack Stack.  We started with their baked onion rings.  “Baked”  means low-cal, right?  I further deluded myself into ordering the baby back ribs, on the theory there wouldn’t be as much meat on them as a half-pound burger.  Delicious doesn’t begin to cover it. Instead of the greasy, drippy ribs I’m used to, these were succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender with a smokey flavor.  I would have licked the plate if there weren’t so many people around.  Hell, I would have licked the plate with so many people around but I thought setting a good example for our grandsons was paramount.  I discovered that Jack Stack has a mail order division that ships anywhere.  I think I’m in big trouble.


We left for home the following day, still longing to see more of KC, and with what can only be described as a “rib hangover”.  We’ll have to save further exploration for our next trip.  Which – make no mistake – we will do by plane.  We were thoroughly impressed by the city and its surroundings.  Although we have both traveled to most large U.S. cities for either business or pleasure, neither of us had ever heard of Kansas City as a place to visit.  As our son-on-law so accurately said, “Kansas City isn’t just below the radar, it isn’t even on the radar.”  Whatever the reason, we were happy to discover this charming, beautiful city. As Dorothy once said, “we’re not in Kansas anymore” and we’re sorry we’re not.