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Valentine's tidbits to stimulate the mind

There are 11 federal holidays in a given year. I will not array them for you here, because trying to list them in quick order could be an interesting spousal exchange over dinner tonight — a slightly competitive exercise to stimulate the aging brain.

Attempting it might call up memorable celebratory events you had not recently reflected upon and give rise to feelings of recalled happiness. When those moments occur, stories typically result. Stories are good.

Before you begin that little exercise — I should offer that Valentine’s Day is not a federal holiday, in case you wondered. Some people may argue it is not a holiday of any kind — it’s just a designated day in February that makes eating chocolate more permissible. People may be more inclined to hug and kiss on Valentine’s Day. Flowers, roses usually, are purchased in large quantity. Gushy cards might be exchanged.

On a typical Valentine’s Day, one website reports, 6 million people get engaged. Another site says it’s 9 million. In 2019, according to the National Retail Association, Americans will spend an average of $161.96 on gifting loved ones. But only 51 percent of people will celebrate in that way — or at all. Apparently about half of America completely embraces the day, and the other half may eat more chocolate but without the purchase of a dozen roses or a hearts-and-flowers card.

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is a particularly big deal. It reportedly is only women who give the gifts, and the gifts can include such edibles as the women’s face embedded with pieces of chocolate. I am assuming that would be gifted to a man who was considered a “true Love.” Japan also has something called “obligation chocolate,” which women can give to male acquaintances as a friendly gesture without any romance involved. Japanese men who do not have gift-giving women in their lives can take out an insurance policy that guarantees they will receive boxes of chocolate and face-saving cards from anonymous sources, so they do not feel (or appear to be) lonely on that particular “holiday.”

And that illustration gives rise to my favorite story about Valentine’s Day — American-based. It’s taken from something called the TBC Time Capsule, and the year is 1942. On Valentine’s Day that year, a 76-year-old man wed an 88-year-old woman because, as he put it, being married would “foil the loneliness pervading their single lives,” adding that “she was by herself, and I was by myself, and there was no need in occupying two houses when one would do as well.” He also reported that his wife was an adept pie maker. Opportunity seized. No obligations reported.

A few weeks later, the man’s son married his wife’s daughter. In my personal effort to keep your cognitive juices engaged, I offer you that this means the younger man’s father becomes his stepfather. His mother-in-law becomes his stepmother. His wife, of course, also becomes his stepsister, and as his father-in-law’s son, he is his own brother-in-law.

Talk about interesting dinner table conversations. On Valentine’s Day — or any day. Pie for dessert? Make mine chocolate.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.