Opinion

A Valentine's day lesson for a down economy

Two kids rally around their jobless father in a down economy – and shine a light on true love and create a Valentine's day lesson.

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I know a father who wants to come up with some kind of Valentine gift for his two children – a daughter and a son. Not as a bribe, not as an opportunistic stimulus for more affection, but as a heartfelt thank-you for his kids' concern and thoughtfulness.

With no job and a lot of financial anxiety, this dad had a rough year. But his children rallied around him, showing their old man the sustaining power of self-sacrificing love – illustrating the authentic gratitude that should lie at the heart of Valentine's Day.

The dad I have in mind has not made his kids painfully aware of his financial predicament. But they picked up on his challenges: Quietly, conspiratorially, they became aware of his struggles – and his efforts to keep difficulties from taking up lodging at home.

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On his own, the son canceled the cable-TV package, explaining that the really juicy cable stuff didn't show well on their pint-sized low-def TV screen.

To save even more money, the son also adjusted the family's cellphone package. He and his sister avoid using the daytime minutes that could be crucial to their father, who holds out hope for job calls and needs "peak" minutes to make phone inquiries about work prospects. The kids don't text. They e-mail from school computers. They phone at hours when their minutes are free.

The daughter, away at college, is frugal. While most students fly home or drive their own cars, she looks for rides on the school's ride board. Her father worries: Is it safe to ride with a stranger?

At Christmastime, his daughter reported that a sorority type endowed with a late-model convertible (upholstered in leather, and sporting mag wheels and a knockout sound system) had suggested that she pay for gas and tolls in return for a ride.

Taken aback, the daughter summoned a reply that went something like, "Frankly, my dear, I'd rather take a Greyhound."

While he feels so very grateful for the ways his kids have found to reduce expenses and relieve financial pressure, this father also feels remorsefully indebted. He feels he has let his children down by obliging them to economize.

As if she sensed the need to rescue her father from a dad's despair, the daughter speaks of the small worlds she observed from bus stop to bus stop, a ground-level view of the economic and social landscape.

She tells him with palpable genuineness, "It's an education, Daddy. And besides, there are no delays at security checks as in the airports. I don't have to take off my boots."

Her wardrobe is an accumulation of hand-me-downs from the wife of the professor who runs the lab where she works. The couple has also given her the flannel shirts, gloves, and boots their son abandoned to pursue his PhD in a warmer climate. Her dad worries: Is there a catch?

She provides assurance: "There's some good out there, Daddy, for real."

And that observation is more than wishful thinking. The father can recall an array of consequential gestures: from his son's coaches and the small-business man who hired the boy for part-time work, from the bookstore manager who alerts the daughter to used-book "finds," and from the professor who has managed to increase the daughter's financial aid by extending her lab hours.

Could it be that there are opportunities for those of us who are already well valentined to make a consequential gesture or two?

According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 190 million Valentine's Day cards are exchanged every year, not counting those exchanged in grade-school classrooms. Maybe, at this greeting-card time of year, we might find a way to "greet" someone in a way that makes their family's prospects for economic recovery seem a little less daunting.

Up in your attic, is there a carton stuffed with helmets, pads, gloves, and other sports paraphernalia that meet the needs of a few kids in your neighborhood? Is there something that would relieve a parent of some sadness or stress? Or something that would make a family smile again?

Up in the attic, are there cartons of books, notebooks, binders, and lab equipment that could spare a few students the expenses they can ill afford? Something that would relieve some of the financial pressure absorbed by their parents?

Down in the basement, who knows what might be recycled into a kind of expense relief: Auto parts? Plumbing parts? Heating and cooling works? Appliances that still work or could be made to work?

Just a thought. Yet the seemingly small gestures from a teacher, a coach, a librarian, a bookstore manager, a small-business man, and others can make an immense difference.

From what I can tell, an assortment of consequential gestures have provided one family a kind of plan that no phone company can offer. They create a warmth no thermostat can measure.

Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996. He teaches ethics courses and media law at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. His one-act plays have been performed at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Conn.

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