By Gretchen Wehmhoff

Carly Simon’s “My Romance” softly fills the air in my downtown apartment. Four-year-old Briannan, my future stepdaughter, and I are coating heart-shaped sugar cookies with canned frosting and colorful candies. We talk quietly, mostly to ask for the pink or the white decorations. The song ends and Simon’s gentle voice sings “My Funny Valentine.”

“I like this song,” Bri says.

We smile at each other.

A few minutes later she looks up.

“Thank you for doing this with me.” 

“Of course,” I say, “This is nice. Thanks for coming over.”

That, to this day, will always be my most cherished Valentine’s Day.

Our relationship started when I met her father on a “kinda” blind date. The first thing he said after our greeting was, “Do you want to see my daughter?”

He pulled two well-loved photos out of his inside jacket pocket. I could tell they were always with him.

Bri, like her dad, loved quiet and peace. The bus rides were too loud, so Joe drove her to school every day. She would spend hours cutting up magazines and pasting the photos in a collage on numerous shoe boxes where she kept her treasures. She created order.

As Joe worked, either I or his mother, Suzan, would pick up Briannan from her mom and spend time doing arts and crafts. My mother always did crafty things with us. Our moms were from a generation that didn’t need fancy new things, just a little bit of creativity and a dash of fun. 

Suzan was a talented artist. Drawing with ink, her favorite medium, she created one-of-a-kind greeting cards and stationary notes, neatly wrapping each one and its envelope with plastic wrap. At times, she dabbled in water color, painting images of children, often her own, in happy places such as hiking with each other or dancing in Alaska Native parkas. 

Ask any of her many children and grandchildren and they will tell you her favorite talent was making paper dolls. Not the kind that string together, but individual dolls with individual outfits.  

Sue quickly sketched a doll on card stock. While Bri or later, Bri’s daughter, Alivia, cut out the form, she skillfully drew clothes for each doll. The clothes could be colored with crayons or pencils, but they always fit and they always brought joy to whichever child was with her.

Bri shared the love of making gifts and valentines with her daughter. Like Suzan, Bri wasn’t flush with extra money. She was a single mother of two children in an unsteady world where young fathers became overwhelmed and disappeared or took a break. 

Bri gathered supplies from family or found paper and pencils in thrift stores to help her kids create their own valentines. 

Joe once told me there were days his mom quietly wished she could buy the store bought valentines, but with 11 children over the years, it was the homemade valentines that came to classmates and teachers.  

Homemade valentines are the best.

We lost our valentine this past December – a few days after Christmas. One never really expects a child’s life to end so early. She was 30. We are devastated. 

Briannan left her two beautiful children with poignant memories such as the love of hiking, being outdoors and creative family time. Her youngest child, Doug, can build thoughtful and functional creations with Legos or Tinker Toys. He also loves art. His gifts to us are usually “made by Doug with love.”

Alivia has become a painter and a detailed artist, using the long pandemic hours to teach herself new drawing skills with YouTube videos.  She loves to dance and spends more time than I can clock dancing in our living room, asking Alexa to repeat a song until her routine is just right.

Suzan, eventually, with the onset of dementia, lost the ability to draw or write in her signature calligraphy style. She still smiled at stories of children or lit up when she heard a child enter the room. In January she started to get tired. Her body began to fail and she spent the last two weeks under palliative care in the hospital.

I liked to think that Briannan kept her company in the room, reminding her she was loved.  

Alivia’s birthday was this weekend and I’m sure that Bri was saying, “one more day, Grandma, one more day.”

Suzan made it to her 83rd birthday on Feb. 4, and Alivia, who had just lost her mom a month ago, celebrated her 12th birthday on Sunday.  

On Monday, Suzan left us.

She left us with visions of helping those in need and her ability to remember every child’s birthday. She gave of herself humbly and with strong faith in God. 

She left us with memories of spending time with the children she loved, enjoying peaceful moments, picking peas from her garden, hiking to the creek or sitting quietly in the living room making art. 

I like to think Sue and Briannan are in a place filled with peace and quiet as they make endless paper dolls and valentines. Maybe my mom has joined them at the craft table. We miss you all.