Tommy, can you hear me?

 Tom Bennewise was one of the wittiest, funniest and most brilliant people I ever knew. It’s no wonder I fell head over heels for him the summer after the ninth grade, shortly after meeting him at the Indian Hills pool.

Luckily for me, he fell just as hard. We were inseparable, or as inseparable as we could be with my parents’ rules on how much time we could spend together the two summers of our romance (we only lived two blocks apart, so that was a hard rule to enforce).

Attending different schools determined how much we could see each other during the school year. He was at Catholic High. I was at North Little Rock Northeast.

But we were always thinking of each other. I’d love to still have the voluminous correspondence we wrote – every day, at least for a while, we’d document the activities of our school days, our thoughts and feelings, whatever came to mind, in notes to each other.

Sometimes he’d address them to “Missy Laura Lea Cartwright.”

He’d either come by to make the exchange or Pam and I would walk to Don’s grocery store in Sherwood, where Tom worked as a stock and bag boy.

His young manager, also named Tom, came to my Tom’s funeral in February. It was good to see him again.

It’s possible I tossed those notes in a fit of pique after we broke up, but I suspect they were tossed by my ex-husband, who destroyed many things from my teen years. Fortunately my photo album was safely at Mother’s.

I found this card from Tom just this morning!

Tom and I played wicked games of Scrabble – sometimes he’d win, sometimes I would. We were a pretty even match, but he liked that I was competitive and would cheer for me when I won. Same thing at ping-pong.

Though I’d always been interested in photography (got my first little blue camera at 7 or 8), Tom taught me the ins and outs of 35-mm film photography. I was his favorite subject to shoot for a while.

Photography became his career – he was young Gov. Bill Clinton’s photographer for a while, then ran CameraMart until its demise. When it came time to buy my son’s first Minolta, I took him to Tom. We remained friends throughout adulthood because we also really, really liked each other.

Quick Tom memories:

• Once he brought me a giant bouquet of tiny tea rosebuds in a giant Campbell’s Tomato Soup can. I don’t know whose yard he took them from – sorry, whoever you are – but they were delightful, and ever so Andy Warholish.

• Another time he took care of our dachshund, Katie, and my cat, Ben, when we went to my cousin’s in Ft. Worth for Easter. When we returned, he’d decorated the house with a “Welcome Back/Happy Easter” banner he’d made and other touches. He’d left me an Easter basket, too.

• I used to make these yummy oatmeal-raisin bars called “Raisin Mumbles.” Tom always joked about them by mumbling the whole time I was mixing them. Sounds cheesy, but it was funny when he did it.

There are so many more. He was thoughtful. We thought we’d spend our lives together, even though we knew we were very young, and spent lots of time talking about what we’d do in the future. We spent lots of time listening to the great music of 1969-1971. He gave me my “Aqualung” album.  (Not too romantic, but I dug it.) And a book of Ogden Nash poetry.  And his heart.

But just as school was starting for my 11th grade and his senior year, he came over with some news. His mother had decided he could only continue seeing me, a Presbyterian-raised pseudo-protestant, if he dated Catholic girls from the Mount as well. She didn’t want his senior year to be eaten up with Laura.

I cried hysterically. He cried almost as hard. I told him no way, no how would I agree to that. It was me and me alone or no me at all. His tears convinced me he agreed and I won the battle, but thinking back, I’m not sure he ever fully conceded.

We had that conversation in the dark sitting on the end of Pam’s driveway, I remember.

Things continued the same for a while, I thought, with a few adjustments. He said he had to go to ballgames with “the boys,” and we could see each other on Saturday nights. I was oblivious until my good friend Gina McDonald heard a girl gushing over “Tommy” at the state fair, turned around, and was shocked to see Tom with another girl – a Mount girl.

Gina told me at school, of course, and I let him have it with both barrels. The note I wrote probably singed his fingers or self-combusted after he read it. He didn’t even know he’d been caught until then. He tried to reason with me, but I wouldn’t back down. We were through. Brokenhearted, but through.

A few months later, on April 22, he turned 18, and within days showed up at my house. Whether he’d reasoned with his mother or just taken a stand I don’t know, because I’d already moved on. It was too late.

I’d met the redhead (well, strawberry blond) of my dreams, the one I thought was THE great love of my life, until I met my husband, John, who is not jealous in the least. (Our wedding song was “In My Life,” because our relationship doesn’t negate what came before. Listen to the lyrics, if you don’t understand.)

As I said, Tom and I remained friends, but we didn’t see each other very often – just the random running into each other after CameraMart was gone, though his sister, Charlotte, and I manage to run into each other fairly frequently. So the news of his death surprised me. I can’t say shocked, because the last time we’d visited, he was rather a mess.

I got the news from my old friend Linda Lowe Apple, who grew up near Tom on Osage and introduced us that first summer. She came down from Springdale, and we sat together at the funeral.

In my mind, he’s the brilliant, creative boy whose Boys’ State T-shirt I wore with pride. The one who shared and kept so many of my secret thoughts and plans. I miss him being alive, even in the distance.

I wish he could have found a way to carry on.

Just before the Catholic High Christmas party/dance at Riverdale Country Club, which is now a soccer field, I think. It was torn down years ago. Mother made my outfit. She had a green one from the same pattern.

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7 thoughts on “Tommy, can you hear me?

  1. This is so interesting. I knew Tom at UALR somehow. I think we took a journalism class together. I’m sorry he is gone at such a young age.

  2. I can see the flowers in the tomato soup can to this day! I know this story is about Tom, but its also about your ability to love people in different ways over many years. I am a person who benefits from that love!
    Pam

  3. I knew Tom for several months before he died and I was at his funeral, too. Small world. I love your blogs!! Miss you 🙂

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