It was just a harmless prank, that's all it was.
And it wasn't as if Old Lady Hayes didn't deserve it. The way she
used to scream at us for "borrowing" a few of her precious raspberries
each summer, like we were stealing gold out of Fort Knox... well, she had
At least, that's the way we saw it as George finished tying the
string to the red, heart-shaped box. We giggled as Ron added the final
two plastic red roses, glued to the lid. "I wonder what will surprise her
most," I asked as George practiced jerking the box out of reach by
yanking on the string. "Seeing a box of candy on her step, or watching it
away when she tries to pick it up?"
We laughed as we watched George make Albert chase the box around
the garage. For a chubby 10-year-old, Albert did a good imitation of Mrs.
Hayes's hunched hobble and her seemingly permanent scowl. And we howled
when he picked up a broom and pretended to ride it through the midwinter
air while shouting, "I'm Old Lady Hayes, the driedest-up old prune in
Ron was first to notice my dad in the doorway. Within seconds,
Ron's anxiety was shared by all but Albert, who continued to swoop around
garage until he came face-to-belt-buckle with our silent observer. For
a moment the only movement in the room came from the little puffs of steam
escaping our mouths. Dad broke the stillness by walking slowly to the
empty candy box lying on the floor. He picked it up and dangled it by
the string, watching it swing back and forth. Then he looked into the eyes
of the frightened boys. And, as was his custom, he looked into their
hearts as well.
"It doesn't seem so long ago that I was pulling Valentine's Day
pranks," he said as he laid the box on a workbench. "One year my
cousins and I decided to pull one on our Grandma Walker even though we
her -- she was the sweetest grandma a boy could have. We were just feeling
devilish and decided to have some fun at her expense.
"Early in the evening we snuck up to her doorstep with a can of red
paint. Grandma was hard of hearing, so we didn't have to worry about
being very quiet. Which was a good thing, because every time we thought
how funny it was going to be to see Grandma try to pick up a valentine
that was just painted on her doorstep, we couldn't keep from laughing.
"It didn't take long, and it wasn't very artistic. But for an old
woman with bad eyes, it would do. We kicked the door and hid behind
bushes. When Grandma finally appeared she stood in the doorway, her
gray hair pulled back tightly into her usual bun, wiping her hands on her
usual apron. She must have heard the commotion in the bushes because she
looked in our direction and spoke loudly enough for us to hear: 'Who could
knocking at my door?' Then she looked down. Even from 15 feet away we
could see the joy in her eyes when she spotted a splash of red at her
"'A valentine for Grandma!' she exclaimed. 'And I thought I'd be
forgotten again this year!'
"She tried to retrieve her prize. This was the moment we had been
waiting for, but somehow it wasn't as much fun as we expected. Grandma
groped at the fresh paint for a moment. Slowly, she figured out our
prank. She tried to smile. Then, with as much dignity as she could muster,
turned and walked back into her house, absently wiping red paint on her
clean, white apron."
Dad paused, and for the first time I noticed that his eyes were
moist. He took a deep breath. "Grandma died later that year," he said. "I
never had another chance to give her a real valentine."
He took the box from the bench and handed it to me. Then he turned
and left the garage.
Later that night a red, heart-shaped box with two plastic roses on
it was placed on Mrs. Hayes's front doorstep by six giggling boys. We hid
behind snow-covered bushes to see how she would react to receiving a
full pound of candy and nuts.
With no strings attached.