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Becoming Tom's valentine

Sylvia Carter and Tom Hawkins kiss before cutting

Sylvia Carter and Tom Hawkins kiss before cutting their wedding cake. The two were married Nov. 27, 2010, in Raleigh, N.C. Carter, a former food columist for Newsday, has known Hawkins since college. Credit: Steve McCaw

In third grade, or maybe it was fourth, Rita Smith, my teacher, made me take every single valentine out of the school valentine box and correct it. I had written "form" instead of "from Sylvia." Even now, I feel the shame of that day.

Little did I know then that I was slightly dyslexic. Mortified, I learned the hard way that I had to pay special attention to "ie" and "ro" and such. I overcame the difficulty enough to have a long newspaper career, though I still had to stop and think, was it "beurre" or "buerre" as in French for butter, "iu" or "ui" in prosciutto?

Besides newspapering, life was filled with friends, lovers, travel and adventures, but I had never married.

Suddenly, in 2005, everything changed. I left my full-time job at Newsday, and the man who had been in my life for 20 years left me. Next, I had to give up the Greenwich Village apartment, with fireplace and wide-plank floors, that I had cherished since 1978.

Then, in November of 2006, I broke my foot. It wasn't a bad break, but it slowed me down a little. During many years when I was overwhelmed by undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea, growing more and more tired without knowing why, I had neglected many old friends. One I had lost contact with was Thomas Rhodes Hawkins.

I had known him since 1966. I felt especially bad about losing touch with Tom, for I'd stopped writing letters to him not long after the death of his wife, poet and teacher Anna Wooten-Hawkins, in September 2000, just when he needed friends.

Now, I slept better, and I had time. On the evening of Dec. 6, 2006, I picked up the phone and called Tom. Usually, he would not have answered at 6 p.m., the dreaded telemarketer hour, but he was picking up all calls because his father was near death in Park Ridge, the Chicago suburb where both he and Hillary Clinton grew up.

Tom and I talked for an hour, and every day after, we e-mailed. Tom was surprisingly generous and forgiving about my six-year disappearance. We both lived with cats we adored, and I remember that in that first conversation, I told him of a program about a woman and her cat that had been broadcast on NPR a day or two before. As soon as he could break in, he said, "Sylvia, Sylvia: I heard that broadcast, too."

Tom and I met when we were both at journalism school at the University of Missouri. He was reading a book beneath a tree. How could I pass up a guy reading a book beneath a tree? I stopped and asked what he was reading. It was a poetry anthology, which turned out to foreshadow a career in which Tom wrote and published many poems and a book of short stories, besides having a day job. Several of his stories are in Norton anthologies.

He was 19 then; I was 20. Tom, a romantic to the core, remembers the exact tree. It was on Ninth Street in Columbia, Mo. I refused his invitation to sit under the tree with him.

All through the years, Tom was loyal. He visited me in New York in 1969. He wrote long letters from the U.S.S. Gallant, the minesweeper he was on in the Navy. I wrote back and once sent cookies. He drew a sketch of the vessel and recommended that, for verisimilitude, I rock the paper violently. When I was in despair, he sent encouraging words.

We never quite connected romantically, though. I don't think I understood how smitten he was. In a poem, Tom, wounded by that, wrote acerbically:

"May your house plants blossom children

And sweet alfalfa mist off the river's bend,

And if things aren't fair enough, my Syl,

May you write yourself a poem."

Take that, he seemed to be saying; he knew I would write no poems.

After four years in the Navy, Tom entered the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he met his wife and earned a master's degree. He worked for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and traveled to fascinating places. He always had a talent for seeing silver linings in clouds; he still does. At Christmas, and from time to time, he and Anna kept in touch.

We rarely phoned but we posted letters - first when stamps were 6 cents. By 1979, when a first-class stamp cost 15 cents, Tom wrote to me after Newsday's Kidsday (I was its first editor) was featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, saying, "I think you're on an elevator going up."

When I knew it wasn't in the cards for me to have children, he wrote comfortingly that he and Anna had not been able to, either, but that it took many people besides parents to raise a child - aunts and uncles, friends and teachers. This has turned out to be true for me, and I have three precious grandchildren and two dear nieces from my previous relationship.

When New York Newsday was closed in 1995, Tom phoned me.

After 9/11, he wrote to console me. Did I answer? I can't recall.

A few months after that 2006 phone call, in March of 2007, I visited Tom in Raleigh. It was the first time we had seen each other in 37 years.

Afterward, he wrote a fragment of a poem about how the decades glinted off my glasses as I rode down the airport escalator.

It turned out that there was no elevator up. I was riding that down escalator into a happy future.

That summer, we flew to Paris, took a train to Chartres. For four years, we sent each other homemade Valentines. All Tom's words were Valentines to me every day.

When it was Tom's turn to visit me on Long Island the first time, I fretted that he would think ill of me because of my sketchy housekeeping.

He reassured me. "Every morning for the last 40 years I woke up thinking well of you," he said, "and I don't think that's going to change now."

How did I pass up such a guy - patient and kind and funny - the first time around? Fate handed me a second chance.

This past November, 44 years after that encounter beneath the tree, I married this good man whose heart had been so steadfast and true. My rose-gold wedding band, carved with oak leaves, is engraved, "Sylvia and Thomas, Since 1966."

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