In fourth grade I was infatuated with a little girl who had straight brown hair parted in the middle. That girl is responsible for my lifetime obsession with the Land-O-Lakes maiden in the fringed buckskin: My mother never figured out why I blushed whenever she asked me to put the butter away.

On a sunny afternoon in mid-March, with snow melting all around, I biked past my little inamorata’s house, giving the usual sideways-eye when she appeared at the gate and beckoned me into the backyard. I had never been in her backyard, or even dared imagine what the dirt in her backyard was like.

“Let’s play,” she said. I was still wearing my white school shirt, with a sharp No. 2 pencil in the pocket. All I could think of to do to impress her was to stand in the middle of the yard, throw the pencil as far into the air as I could and catch it just before it impaled my face. I was really shocked at how fast she tired of this.

Her mother took one look at me and ordered me away. I biked numbly to the corner drugstore. You recall that it was mid-March. By now, the Valentine’s Day candy was 75 percent off, and some of it was marked even cheaper, with a yellow sticker. I discovered that for $1.30 I could buy the biggest heart-shaped box of bon-bons I had ever seen.

I had to put the box under my bed because none of my drawers were big enough. The solid chocolates were the first to go, followed by the nuts and creams, the nougats and the fruity creams, and the caramels. I stacked the brown pleated under-papers as they emptied until the stack leaned and fell over. One bon-bon was full of green stuff that had become gristly and inedible. I left that one in the box, with tooth marks.

Two days later, I stepped on the empty box and bent it into four layers, sweating, so it could fit into our kitchen garbage can, covered by a magazine.

— Lawrence Cosentino

For years, I thought of valentines as nothing more than sweet, trivial cards that you sent out once a year in the hopes of brightening someone’s day. Sometimes they were pretty, sometimes funny, sometimes romantic. I never imagined them as having the power to save someone.

Many years ago, one of my closest friends had left Michigan to attend school on the East Coast. It was a terrific opportunity, but after she settled in at her new college, the initial excitement gave way to uncertainty. She felt surrounded by people who seemed dauntingly smart, sophisticated, uninhibited and unshakably self-confident.

I could only glean hints of this from the letters she sent and our few long-distance calls (that was how you were forced to stay in touch in the pre-Facebook, pre-e-mail era). While she was not as humorous and lively as usual, I chalked it up to a busy schedule and the challenges of living on her own for the first time.

With Valentine’s Day on the way, I picked out what I thought was a cute little card, showing a fluffy little gray cat holding a big red heart: “Valentine, you stole my heart,” it read. I wrote a note inside, mailed it off and thought no more about it.

For the next three months, I did not hear a word from my friend. Calls were not returned. Letters were not answered. I was sure something must be horribly wrong, but she was almost 900 miles away; the car I had would never have made that journey, and I didn’t have the money for a plane ticket.

I kept wondering: Did that valentine have something to do with this?

Yes, it did. My friend, I would later learn, had been in enormous pain. She had fallen in love and been rejected. Some supposed friends had turned out to be backstabbers. The workload for her classes was punishing. She felt there was no one she could trust or talk to.

Although I think everyone who goes to college has times when they feel isolated or under attack, there is a great difference between having a few bad days and plunging into the depths of severe depression. My friend told me she had actually stood in the bathroom, counting out pills one night.

Then, she got that valentine. “It completely devastated me,” she said, when we met up again in May. “It made me realize there really were still people who cared about me, and that I needed to get some help.”

She found a therapist and, soon afterward, some real friends — as well as a boyfriend who would eventually become her husband. Of course, the valentine did not cure her overnight, but it helped her confront an illness she had tried to deny for months.

I probably didn’t spend more than $2 on that card. But I will always be grateful that I sent that particular valentine.

— James Sanford