• Posted by Califia Suntree on February 7th, 2009, 12:26 PM

    The weather in February is as fickle as new love. In the mountains of North Carolina, the wind can howl through the ridges like a scorned lover or the day can be as soft and gentle as a kiss. I’ve seen snow fall nonstop for a week in February and I’ve seen daffodils and crocus pop up through the snow with fresh, optimistic faces turned toward the dazzling sun.

    The Februarys of my youth are bleak in my memory. The days were short; the evenings chilly; the days raw—and all without the benefit of television or telephone to break the monotony. The longest month of the year, I thought, despite the shortest number of days.  Yet it was in this dreary month when I was 14 that I first experienced what seemed like love, or at least a serious crush.

    I met the boy at a forbidden Halloween dance (I had told my fundamental Baptist parents that it was a Fall church social). He hailed from the big town of Canton and I lived in the backwoods of Bethel. He held my hand and my heart leapt. He called me at my cousin Vicky Lynn’s house, for her family had a phone, and I would stammer hopelessly. He sent love letters via a friend, as we went to different schools, and I read and reread them and hid them under my mattress. Despite the fact that this was the first boy to take a liking to me, I was sure this would be the love of my life, my future husband. I was smitten.

    Our romance lasted through Christmas and New Year’s Day. I attended Bible study and went to the youth outings at both my church and my cousin’s church, as it was at my cousin’s more liberal church that I would meet up with my—dare I say—boyfriend. My parents thought I might be headed for sainthood with all of the church activities that I was attending, but I was actually making out with The Boy of My Dreams in the back of the church van and holding hands in the back pew. Though I quietly worried that this could be my ticket to Hell, I was helpless to stop the allure of first love.

    When Valentine’s Day rolled around, it never occurred to me that my young suitor would present a gift. Being a town boy, he evidently did not know the ways of mountain men like my father, who thought little of their young daughters having a suitor and even less of young men who had the nerve to show up in the yard with a store-bought box of Valentine candy. The poor boy never made it to the door. My father met him on the porch, shotgun in hand, and told him to hit the road. He did.

    I was crushed. Embarrassed beyond words and mad as an old wet hen, I burst into tears and stomped through our small frame house with an indignation that shook the rafters. I resolved to stay angry forever and vowed that I would never forgive my father. My mother gathered me in her arms, patted my back and suggested that we make a big pot of vegetable soup. It was a raw day and the weather matched my mood but I reckoned as how the chopping of raw vegetables might provide a substitute for further provoking my father.

    As I chopped onions, carrots, and potatoes, I sobbed hot tears of anger and humiliation. I would never have a boyfriend. I could never face my cousin or my friends. I was surely doomed. As I cried, my tears mixed with the chopped vegetables and I began to fear that the soup would be too salty. My mother chatted on, ignoring my tears and angry chopping. She talked about her own adolescence and teenage humiliations, lost loves, and disappointing unions of the heart. At one point, she looked up soberly and said, “No boy worth his salt runs away. I reckon as how they have to face up to your father or they won’t be worth a plug nickel.”

    As it came to pass, my mother was right. Despite the boy’s future efforts to woo me, his cowardice in the presence of my father was unfortunately etched in my mind in a most unflattering way. Also etched in my mind was the warmth and flavor of that Valentine’s Day soup. The healing power of soup is immediate. The warm steam from the tomato and beef broth and the chunks of meat and vegetables dried my tears and eventually melted my frozen heart. I forgave my father. Much later in life, another young man would bravely walk up those steps, stand up to my father, and ultimately earn his respect. That young man became my husband and would years later help me bury my father on another cold February day.

    I still cook soup on Valentine’s Day, accompanied by a loaf of bread or cake of cornbread. Because I’m still somewhat of a romantic, I also open a bottle of wine and slice a wedge of good cheese with a salad of mixed greens. I also make a dessert that is both sweet and tart—much like love I’ve experienced over the years. My meal this year will be lentil soup with ham, sour cream cornbread, and for dessert, a blackberry upside down cake. Lentil soup is strong, sturdy fare and it symbolizes the kind of love that I share with Tom. And because hopefully no tears will flavor the broth, I will throw in an extra pinch of salt for the memories.

    Karen Dill lives in Webster, North Carolina, which is located in the Smoky Mountains near the town of Sylva.

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