He was the boy who got the courtesy cupcake, the one who sympathetic teachers made sure to keep an extra Valentine’s Day card on hand for just in case his classmates shunned him.
“Other kids had friends,” said Lonnie Anderson, who recalls that his home life was just as loveless. “I didn’t have a ton of friends. I got that one cupcake. I remember it. I remember feeling bad, like what’s wrong with me?”
A Valentine’s Day wasteland was also the norm for his grandmother, a waitress who every Feb. 14 had her heart quietly broken as flowers and trinkets arrived at the diner for all her coworkers, but none came for her.
“My grandfather never bought anything for my grandmother,” he said. “He didn’t believe in gifts. He never spent money on things like flowers or Valentine’s. He thought that was silly.”
Because of those lonely, loveless childhood years, Anderson vowed that his future wife would never doubt his love for her, that Valentine’s Day would be special and that she would never feel the same pain he had seen reflected in his grandmother’s eyes.
Boy, has he made good on that vow.
For the past 20 years – he and wife Anne Bolger-Witherspoon have been married for 17 of them – Anderson has dreamed up fantastical feats of affection that go far afield from the typical bouquet of roses, chocolates or dinners out. Valentine’s, he said, should be creative and heartfelt and grand – and not cost a grand.
And so it has been for the lucky Anne. Over the years, Anderson’s annual amor oeuvre have included crafting 30-feet-tall flowers out of butcher paper and creating a 15th-century throne with accompanying crown and scepter fit for a queen.
One year, he installed a working carousel in their yard for a night. Another year, he spelled out an e.e. cummings poem in pebbles across a dirt lot.
He has organized a high school prom, created a giant box of candies, and painted a giant Sweetheart candy imprinted with Anne’s name on a building at Tapia and Goff SW near their South Valley home. One of his most poignant efforts was asking people from around the world – including war-torn Syria – to hold up “I Love Anne” signs and send the photos to her.
Last year, he organized a private poetry reading featuring Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Carnegie Medal winner Sherman Alexie and Albuquerque poet laureate Manuel González, among others.
But what to do this year? How does one top all that?
Anderson – along with daughters Cheyenne, 10, and Hawthorn, 14 – puzzled through ideas. Digging up their front yard to create a river with a bridge was discarded. Ditto a condensed performance by the Santa Fe Opera or the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.
The owner of the long-abandoned Sunset drive-in theater on Arenal SW turned down an idea to project a message of love on its tattered screen, and projecting the message on a billboard seemed a legally tenuous proposition.
One by one, the ideas fell by the wayside. But Anderson wasn’t worried.
“I always tell my daughters, I swear to God, if you put something out into the universe, something will come back,” he said.
And it did. Projecting a message, a vision of love, became the project.
Anderson asked friends to send photos depicting tokens of love for Anne – everything from a hand-sewn heart to a personalized cookie to a pencil sketch of Anne – and spliced them with videos and photos of his own. He found a company willing to lend him two industrial-strength projectors.
And he found the perfect space on which to project the montage – part of the east side of a brick Downtown three-story, two-acre building owned by the bigbyte.cc data center at First and Central NW.
Co-owner Nerissa Whittington said she was happy to oblige.
“We are excited to participate in this love story,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”
It works like that every year. Anderson puts out an idea and it comes together because people come together to make it happen.
“I may look like I do this all myself, but that’s not how it is,” he said. “It’s with the help of people who yearn to be creative, to be a part of something bigger, something that is a love story. I truly believe that good overcomes evil and love is the most powerful emotion. Nothing can compete with love.”
The images will be projected for about an hour just after sunset tonight, Anderson said. The public is welcome to enjoy the view.
Doing this, he said, is not just something he does to make his wife happy or his community happy. It makes him happy, he said. It heals that lonely little boy with the courtesy cupcake. It reminds him that there is nothing wrong with him that a little love can’t fix.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.