Amber Ireland prepares for Valentine's Day the way other people prepare for Christmas.
She decorates the walls of her home with hundreds of handmade cards from years past. Stocking supplies is a year-round process. She hoards fabric scraps, matchboxes, gum wrappers and old calendars and stores them in boxes until a few weeks before Valentine's Day, when her holiday parties begin.
There, dozens of friends spend hours gathered around Ireland's dining room table — wielding scissors, markers and glue sticks to create their own handmade valentines.
Though she's been hosting the card-making parties at her Venice cottage for almost 40 years, Ireland said she didn't set out to create a tradition. "It just grew organically."
"I'd always made Valentine's Day cards as a child," said Ireland, who is one month away from her 70th birthday. Among those hanging on her living room wall this year was one she made as a first-grader for her father.
Ireland moved to Los Angeles from Berkeley in the 1960s to study dance at UCLA. When she hurt her leg and switched to nursing, making valentines for friends became an artistic outlet.
"I started doing it by myself, then with a friend, then with [daughter] Nell," she said.
Wendy Jordan, a childhood friend from Oakland, began flying down every year to join them. Her neighbors got word, her son and daughter brought buddies, and her co-workers began showing up on the weekends before every Valentine's Day.
"You're not waiting for the invitation anymore," said Erin Clark, who worked with Ireland years ago at Planned Parenthood. "You just know. We're going to Amber's."
When I visited Ireland's home on the Sunday before Valentine's Day, folks were hunched over — cutting, pasting and coloring.
At one end of the dining room table were two mother-daughter teams. Along one side was a trio who, as preschool teachers, had worked with Ireland over the years. Jordan was gently guiding one of them, who suffers from
Then came Nell, whose last name now is Copilow, making dozens of heart-shaped collages for the staff at her son's preschool. She was seated next to her former boyfriend, who was making a card to take home to his wife.
"Some people associate Valentine's Day with all this pressure to go on the perfect date or buy the right thing," said Kent Familton, the ex-beau, now an art teacher, who has been making cards at Ireland's for 15 years. "Here, there's no pressure, just a beautiful day and interesting people. It's a chance to take your time and really create something."
For the children, the day was a chance to be messy without getting scolded. The floor was covered with so many scraps, crawling around under the table was part of the artistic process.
For the grown-ups, the draw was more complex.
"There are no rules and no judgment," Carla Weber said. "You get to do what you want to do." She came for the first time a year ago, after meeting Ireland at a flea market. Last year, she dragged along her 16-year-old daughter. On Sunday, that daughter came back — and brought two teenage friends.
Some came for the conversation and the eclectic mix of friends and strangers. The art table chatter veered from rapid transit woes to boarding school stories to the intrigue surrounding a movie-set shooting in Compton.
There are no iPads, no selfies, no cellphones, no Instagramming of art projects. "It's a chance to sit and talk and feel connected," Ireland said. "How often, as adults, do we really do that?"
Ireland insists she knows the creator of every card on her walls.
Most were made at her dining room table, and they chronicle the twists and turns of her life. Her ex-husband's efforts, for example, are in a spot with her ex-boyfriend's.
There are cards that commemorate happy milestones: her daughter's pregnancy, her son's college graduation. Others testify to a loss.
She led me to a giant creation with a simple drawing: an arrow, pointing upward, linking three hearts. "To the Terrible Trio," the inscription read. "Happy Valentine's Day." The middle heart was her son, Shaw. The others were his two best friends. It was made by a neighbor who loved Shaw, a teenager then, like a little brother.
Shaw died 14 years ago of an aggressive cancer. He was 27. For years afterward, his friends showed up around Valentine's Day. Ireland points out their cards as we survey her walls — each one a tiny intimacy, writ large.
I realize this isn't really about making cards, but about bonds of affection and respect that outlast circumstance and endure over time.
It may have begun with hearts and flowers. Now it's that rare Valentine's Day ritual that doesn't rely on passion or romance, but honors the many ways we love one another.