The best gift my father ever gave me

My father, Gilbert Merritt, was buried on the last day of summer, September 22, 1990. The last week of his life, I had felt a strong urge to visit him every night at the facility where he found. life, I decided to spend the night with him.

He had been diagnosed with pneumonia and every hour or so a nurse came to see him. I sat down at his bedside. He was sleeping peacefully, it seemed. I called my brother to tell him that I had to go to work at eight o’clock. Could he come and be with dad until I get off work?

That morning, I was taking a roomful of fifth graders to visit Ariel Haebler’s 64-acre woodlot. When we arrived for lunch, I called the facility where Dad lived. The receptionist said, “Your father died at 10 o’clock this morning.” I hung up the phone and started crying. One of the fifth graders asked his teacher why I was crying. She said, “Her father is dead.”

My father was the second son of Earl Jay and Nina Merritt in Paradise Township, Summit City, Grand Traverse County. His name was Gilbert Delos, after his grandfather. Summit City consisted of a grocery store and half a dozen houses.

My grandfather, Earl Jay, was a hard-working farmer, moving from farm to farm. Manton. Kingley. Summit City. World War I broke out in 1914 and the Merritt family moved to Midland, where Grandfather got a job with the Dow Chemical Company. Life hasn’t improved much, even with a regular salary. Earl Jay bought a two-story house in the First Ward.

When Dad was 16, he dropped out of high school and moved to Detroit, where he lived with his Aunt Tillie and Uncle Bert and got a job at an auto factory. Life was better, for some reason. Aunt Tillie belonged to a church and there were camp meetings in the summer. Apparently Dad attended because he met a young woman named Delores Chambers. They fell in love and got engaged. She wrote a letter to dad after meeting him, telling him that she had bought the sheet music for the song “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and would play it for him the next time they got together.


But the early love affair did not last, and in the summer of 1927, when dad visited his parents for the celebration of July 4, he met a young girl named Glatise, and in eight months , they got married.

When my parents briefly moved to Detroit, Mom got so homesick that Dad quit his job and they moved back to Midland. At that time, mom was pregnant with their first child, me. The story goes that Dad got his job at The Dow Chemical Company the day I was born.

Within a year, Dad, his brother-in-law (my mother’s brother) and his stepfather pooled their money and bought land on Sturgeon Road. At the age of 27, dad had four children.

Fathers change as we grow. Because we change too. I remember standing in front of my father, who had just come home from work. And he said to me, “How many bushels do you love me?” And I said, “One.” And he said, “Oh, that’s not enough.” Why do we remember such trivialities?

My father was a complex man, which never occurred to me when I was younger. A man who left high school after 10th grade was nonetheless a voracious reader. Our house was overflowing with books, magazines, newspapers. He read William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Leo Tolstoi. For birthdays, he gave me books by Robert Frost, “The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam”, “A Shropshire Lad” by AE Housman. A paperback of “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis shared shelf space with “The Short Stories of Leo Tolstoi”.

He loved being a father. In November 1944, Mom went to help her Dad take care of her mother, who was dying. From November to February 15, 1945, when Grandmother died, Dad had to take care of the four of us. I was 15 years old. My sister Jean was 13 years old. The twins were 10 years old.

Mom came home for Christmas and New Years, but basically it was the four of us with dad taking care of us. Oddly enough, it was a quiet time in our lives and we got to know our father. It was a cold winter and I remember at night we all sat around the dining room table. Dad was reading the newspaper. Jean and I did school work. Delores was sorting through her paper dolls. I don’t remember what Bud. did. Was he reading fat little books about cowboys and Indians? Then mom came home and things went back to how they were.

Living in Averill back then meant I went to school on Rodd Street with Dad every morning and he picked me up every night. One morning before I got out of the car at high school, Dad said, “Baby, meet me downtown near Newberry tonight.” That night, I walked downtown to stand on the corner of Newberry and Kaye’s clothing store to wait for Dad. I see him now, the car turning around the corner. Stopping where I was standing. Dad leaned over to the passenger side of the car, the window rolled down and he said, “Here, baby. Get that sweater you want. And he gave me money. I didn’t even know he overheard me talking to mom about buying a new sweater.

When I was eight years old, I went through a long recovery and almost died. I failed the last half of third year at Carpenter Street School that year. And for weeks my dad drove downtown after work and brought me something like a surprise. I remember books cut out of paper dolls. Coloring books. New pencils. Small bags of chocolates. After a while, as I was recovering, he got me a library card from the little Andrew Carnegie Library on Townsend Street. He would stop at night to pick up a new book. Sometimes several books. In retrospect, it wasn’t the “surprise” of every night. It was his concern. His love. Spending his time brightening my day as I lay in bed for weeks.

When I left for college, I was given a navy blue wool bathrobe and a table radio. That same Christmas, I was given a portable phonograph. Where does the money come from? I had a brother and two sisters younger than me. Still, I got gifts that must have meant stretching dad’s paycheck.

When we lived in Sturgeon Road, I stayed up on Saturday nights to listen to the Grand Ole Opry with Dad. I always fell asleep, my head on his knees, and he carried me to the room I shared with my sister Jean.

We often went to the movies at the Frolic Theater on Main Street. Jean and I were small enough to sit on our parents’ lap so we could see over the people sitting in the row in front of us. As for his reading, Dad had a wide variety of movies that he liked. We saw “The Life of Emile Zola” and we saw “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. We saw “They died with their boots” and we saw “Alexander Graham Bell”. When “Gone with the Wind” hit Midland, I was 11 and had a choice: buy a new dress for Easter or get $1.10 for a movie ticket. Jean has chosen a new dress. I chose the movie ticket.

Time shrinks and stretches at the same time. Sometimes my father seems near and sometimes far in my memories. But I always remember how I loved him and how he loved me. The greatest gift he ever gave me was to love me.