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Opinion: My father's Valentine's Day cufflinks

Scott Simon's cufflinks, gifted from his mother to his father one Valentine's Day, after they had divorced.
Scott Simon
Scott Simon's cufflinks, gifted from his mother to his father one Valentine's Day, after they had divorced.

I came across an old Valentine's Day gift this week. A pair of cufflinks, showing white plastic elephants in red shawls, now slightly scuffed.

My mother bought the cufflinks for my father when she saw them in a case on the ground floor of the department store where she worked in Ladies Fine Apparel, 4th floor. She had been divorced from him for about six years, but wrote on the card that Valentine's Day: "Irish elephants never forget."

My father would die in just a few years, at the age of 48. He had a drinking problem. But in the four years after my mother's gift, he wore those elephant cufflinks to school meetings, my 8th grade graduation and at holiday dinners in our small apartment, to which my mother would insist he come. He always held up his cuffs and said, "Jewish elephants remember, too."

My mother would smile and laugh, and I would see once more that while my father's drinking made it impossible for them be together, they still broke into special, fragile bubbles of laughter with each other.

I was 16 when my father died. My mother told me as we packed up a few handkerchiefs and threw out bottles he had stashed under socks in the small room where he lived, that she'd hoped the shock of losing her, and us, might jolt him into stopping drinking to save his life.

"I loved him," she told me. "But I couldn't let him drag our son down with him."

We both laughed and cried to find the elephant cufflinks in the case in which my father stored his cigarettes. He must have looked at those cufflinks 20 times a day.

Years later, when I was married, happy and had children, my mother told me—maybe she felt it was the first time I might understand—that she also had to leave my father because she knew that as I got older, I began to grasp why he couldn't hold a job, missed appointments and told lies to disguise drinking. She worried that I wouldn't be able to respect and love my father.

"And in his heart of hearts," my mother said, "I think your father knew that too. And knew it was best to let us go."

I have not had much occasion to wear cufflinks these past two years. But I'm going to put on the elephants my mother gave my father this Valentine's Day, even if I'm in blue jeans. They tell another kind of love story: two people, talented, and troubled, who couldn't stay together. But they managed to show their son the heart of love.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.