To Loveville, they came. In envelopes big and small, in boxes and bags, as varied and variant as the sentiments they carried. An estimated 30,000 valentines were sent to the tiny Maryland community of Loveville this year.
They came from states as near as Pennsylvania and as far as Wisconsin, Florida and Louisiana. They came from towns as small as the neighboring crossroads of California and Hollywood to cities the size of Baltimore and Washington. Most came south down the western shore to St. Mary's County through the mail, addressed only to "Postmaster, Loveville, Md." Some - 97, to be exact - were delivered by hand all the way from Pikesville.
Who would drive 88 miles from the Baltimore Beltway down Interstate 97, down U.S. 301, down Route 5, just to mail valentines from a town with romantic connotations in its name?
Who, in this day of e-mail and instant messages, would go to such trouble for what the post office calls "a pictorial cancellation?" For a red-inked, curly-haired cupid with a quiver of arrows hanging on his bare backside?
After all - like love itself - getting to Loveville takes time. You have to slow down for Mennonites clomping along the shoulders in their horse-drawn wagons. You have to SHARE THE ROAD, as the yellow signs say, with tractors. To get to Loveville, you have to go through Helen and Morganza, then you have to watch for "Brewski's" tavern on the right, and then you have to pass Stauffer's Feed Mill, Zimmerman's Greenhouse and Loveville Leather, the harness and tack shop, before you get to the post office on the left. The tavern intersection is home to one of Loveville's two stop signs. It's also where the post office once stood, back in 1790 when Kingsley Love was the first postmaster. That was two centuries before Postmaster Eva Hall designed a postmark in 1987 and really put the village on the map.
So who would come so far in the name of love?
It was Tuesday around lunchtime when Gloria Buccini steered over the potholes and pulled into the Loveville post office parking lot, where the cars and trucks were already two deep. For five years, since the post office moved from the Citgo convenience store down the road, it has been housed here in a single-wide trailer that was once a brighter white. The trailer sits just outside the shadow of a billboard advertising McDonald's, on a side road that dead ends at a lawn mower repair shop. Hall is not joking when she warns people who call for directions not to blink.
Buccini climbs out of a gray-and-silver conversion van with the words "Tasmanian Devil" stickered to the windshield and a frame around the license plate that says, "I Brake for Teddy Bears." She carries a clear bag of valentines, including some she picked up from friends in the coat room at the Lyric Opera House where she's an usher. She wears a "LOVE" stamp T-shirt she bought at Rite Aid in 1992, the second year she came to Loveville, when stamps were 29 cents.
She shows off her T-shirt and says, "I'm a character, huh?"
Inside the post office, a line unusually long - three people deep - has just scattered. Any other week of the year, Hall would be alone behind the counter, filling up the one tray of mail she processes in a single day. This week she will do up to nine trays a day, and the U. S. Postal Service knows it. The P.O. understands all too well the lines that form this week in Bliss, N.Y.; Loveland, Colo.; Romance, Ark.; Romeo, Mich.; Juliette, Ga.; Loving, N.M.; and towns named Valentine in Virginia, Nebraska and Texas.
For the week of Feb. 14, administrators allow the Helen postmaster, Karen Guy, to come down to Loveville and help. Guy covers the counter while Hall stamps valentines until her hands start to hurt - she's had carpal tunnel surgeries in both - and then they trade places. Some years they get more cards than others. Country Woman magazine featured Loveville in 1990, and the post office received 50,000 valentines that year, an amount that nearly killed Hall. She worked weekends, dragged in her son and daughter, even drafted neighbors. "It was more than I could handle," she says, "to be honest."
Buccini has been coming to Loveville 10 years, long enough to know it's a labor of love. Last year she crocheted Hall a heart pin. This year, she brought an angel pin made of macaroni noodles glued together and spray-painted gold. The valentine that Buccini's sister Patricia Packard has brought for Hall will be taped beside others to the metal safe in the corner. This year, a man from Pennsylvania even sent Hall a bag of Reese's Pieces.
Every year Buccini comes, she brings a crew, and they crowd the counter. This year, she's brought her sister Patricia, her friend Harding McCubbin, her friend Fran Hummel and her brother-in-law Francis Packard, who sits in the van. He comes for the lunch and side trips they take to Calvert Cliffs, Solomons, Leonardtown, St. Mary's City, St. Clements Island, and one year to Point Lookout.
Other people come while Buccini, who signs all her 40 valentines with a heart over the "i", ties up the line. She takes her cards to the lobby and hangs her coat on the back of the one chair there. She claps her hands together and says, "I better get lickin'."
Her friends, none of whom brought half as many valentines as Buccini, make conversation while they wait. They look at the muddy footprints on the linoleum, they wonder aloud about a sign on the bulletin board advertising an "oyster scald and card game," and they admire the red hearts on the ruffled valances and the heart-shaped wreath that Guy, the Helen postmaster, made. There's a poster behind them of things not to mail, a notice about recycling in St. Mary's County and a sign that says wedding invitations mailed to Loveville will be sent out with a special, two-cupid pictorial cancellation.
Buccini's friends talk about going to Bethlehem, Pa., where they take their Christmas cards, and how you stamp your own cancellations there. They talk about going to Rising Sun, on the state's northern border, with their Easter greetings. They talk about the one time they went to Dublin in Harford County in search of a special cancellation for their St. Patrick's Day cards but left there disappointed.
And when Buccini is finally done, they walk out the door talking about who wants to go somewhere for lunch and who isn't hungry because they stopped at McDonald's on the way here and who else besides Buccini wants to go to a Harley-Davidson dealership she spotted somewhere back up the road in New Market or Charlotte Hall.
When they're gone, Hall says it's the people who come to Loveville that make her Valentine's Day interesting. "They're out to please somebody else and they're nice to meet. They wouldn't go to all that trouble if they weren't."
Buccini and her friends leave a mound of greeting cards on the counter, a heap of valentines headed to family and friends in Washington state, New Hampshire and as far away as Bermuda. And then they leave the lobby as empty as you'd find it any other week of the year, empty and quiet.