When they were courting in the 1920s, my maternal grandparents often passed the time by walking to the depot to see the trains arrive. It seems, by modern standards, about as interesting as watching paint dry — not the sort of itinerary, in other words, that many lovers would embrace this Valentine’s Day.
But my grandparents were so charmed by each other that a couple of hours in the company of a locomotive was, oddly enough, a grand old time. They had mastered the art of the cheap date, a useful skill for any couple getting married at the dawn of the Great Depression.
The virtues of the cheap date aren’t likely to get much attention this weekend, as a holiday devoted to lovers encourages those of us with a special someone in our lives to think big.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, as my grandparents would surely point out if they were still around. Later in their marriage, they opened a floral shop that got much of its traffic from customers buying bouquets to express their love. Florists, restaurants, chocolatiers and newspapers profit from Valentine’s Day business. In a world touched by so much anger and hatred, there are worse things than the prospect of two people in love sharing a nice dinner, roses, some candy.
Restaurants, roses and candy played a big part in the early courtship of my wife more than two decades ago. But as our love grew, each of us quietly started to think of the money we’d need to build a future together. Dates became more modest, yet more committed. We knew the dollars we were saving might be used someday for a wedding, a house, even children. It was time to reconnect with the art of the cheap date.
At the start of our marriage, my wife returned to college for a graduate degree, and our income shrank. Friday night dates consisted of corn dogs and Tater Tots in front of the TV. We lived in a rental house with a drafty front door, which meant mandatory snuggling to stay warm. We were poor newlyweds who had each other, and felt, somehow, rich beyond measure.
Other evenings stand out in my Cheap Date Hall of Fame. We’ve observed Valentine’s Day some years by making a Greek pasta salad at home, the recipe so involved that it requires two people to create. Making it reminds my wife and me of the hundreds of other ways that we need each other. We’ve passed several New Year’s Eves with Chinese takeout, ushering in the stroke of midnight from our own bed. It is, by my reckoning, a grand way to start the year.
We splurge when we can, but there’s comfort in knowing that the price tag of a date has less to do with its success than the partner you’ve chosen. Or so my grandparents learned, sitting at a train station and waiting for their future to arrive.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.