So, there he was, outside on a cold winter day in the South Valley, crafting a giant likeness of his wife’s lips out of tree branches, when he wondered to himself:
Am I crazy?
Some thought so, Lonnie Anderson knew, given all the wild and whimsical Valentine’s Day ideas he’s come up with these past 27 years to show how much he loves his wife, his South Valley neighborhood and the world.
Write out an e.e. cummings poem with 6,500 pebbles in the sand? Set up an amusement park carousel in the yard? Build a bouquet of flowers taller than a house? Solicit a love poem from author Rudolfo Anaya and a painting from artist Shepard Fairey?
Been there, done that.
But even his oldest daughter, Hawthorn, 18, was beginning to think he might be crazy. Maybe, she had suggested, you could just take Mom out to dinner this year.
Like normal people.
“That kind of surprised me,” Anderson said. “Hawthorn has been a part of these Valentine projects since she was a baby and I dressed her as a Cupid.”
But this year felt different. Joyless. Chaotic. Crazy. All his grand ideas for Anne Bolger Witherspoon, his wife of 21 years, were sputtering. Maybe it was the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that had made people weary.
Or maybe his daughter was right.
“This year has been a struggle,” he said.
He thought of launching 200 lighted drones to form a giant, glowing heart in the skies above Albuquerque. At a discounted cost of $10,000, far exceeding Anderson’s rule of not spending more on his Valentine’s projects than the price of a fancy dinner and a dozen roses, this was a failure to launch.
He thought of having Anne’s name projected on the side of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, just like the images that had been projected there in the early days of the pandemic.
The Zermatt Tourism folks let him down gently. The projection was a one-time project, an email from the Swiss agency read. “I hope you’ll find another great Valentine’s Day project for 2022.”
That lightened Anderson’s spirits, he said. “I’m grateful for anyone who returns my emails.”
Another idea was having a symphony orchestra dedicate a song to his wife. He sent out requests to numerous orchestras, including New Mexico’s. Most turned him down.
But the London Philharmonic Orchestra was charmed with the idea and began discussing how to pull it off.
“We even talked about Anne and I going to London for the performance,” Anderson said.
Then the plan hit a sour note: “The lawyers and union got involved at the last minute. It was heartbreaking.”
His next idea was to obtain a personal letter from President Biden and the first lady. An Interior Department official told Anderson he would walk over the request to the White House.
So far, nothing. But he remains hopeful.
“You get 10 nos, but then you get one yes, and it’s beautiful,” he said. “Deep breath! So it’s a messy, chaotic, high-anxiety, beautiful process.”
Anderson’s love of spreading love began as a vow that his wife would never feel unloved, unappreciated or insecure like he had during his turbulent childhood.
A short documentary of his life and love titled “Love in the Valley” by filmmaker Kel Cruz and produced by the city’s One Albuquerque Media explains that he was abandoned and sent to an orphanage as a baby, and later adopted by a family torn by violence.
“That abandonment sticks with you,” Anderson said. “It brings a loneliness and insecurity that you are not loved.”
No one, he said, should feel that way.
And so came the grand gestures, the private prom, the royal throne fit for a queen, the giant candies, the giant heart piñata, the images of love projected on the side of a building Downtown, and the planetarium stars spelling out Anne’s name at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
One year, he asked random folks around the globe to send photos of themselves holding “I Love Anne” signs. Hundreds of them from more than 65 countries did.
But it’s not a love for Anne that inspired these strangers around the world and all the others over the years who have made Anderson’s crazy Valentine’s projects happen. It’s that they love love.
He loves that.
“The Valentine’s thing has evolved,” he said. “It’s got a life of its own. I’m like the curator now, not in charge of it.”
Last year, his Valentine’s Day offering literally was a curated art exhibit titled “Love,” which featured items from past years combined with the works of nationally famous artists.
It was held at the South Broadway Cultural Center under COVID-19 restrictions. Even so, one visitor who braved the pandemic was an elderly woman who told Anderson that every year she reads about his Valentine’s Day projects and wanted to see a few for herself.
“This sweet woman risked her health just to see the exhibit,” Anderson said. “People like that make me not care about the people who think I’m crazy.”
So Anderson forged ahead with yet another idea, this one involving the re-creation of Anne’s face high in the elm trees outside the family home.
He traced the projected likeness of her face on a large tarp, then used the tracing as a template, finding twigs, leaves and branches shaped like a nose, an eyebrow, lips, gluing them together with environmentally safe glue.
On Thursday, he hoisted the face into the trees, the glow from the sunset through the gossamer of branches lighting up the features of his wife’s knowing gaze.
He hopes she’ll light up when she sees it.
“So maybe I don’t get the symphony. Maybe I don’t get the drones or the Matterhorn,” he said. “It’s spreading love in whatever way you can that is beautiful.”
That’s not so crazy.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.