Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 13, 2013

Ode to a man named Merlyn

Kokomo Tribune

---- — He crept up to the curb in his maroon Oldsmobile – an angel with wheels instead of wings.

The slight 90-year-old parked and shuffled over to me. Up close, I could see the tufts of white, wiry hair on his head and the big grin on his face.

“Did they tell you who I am?” he asked. “I’m Merlyn Raikes who makes no mistakes.”

He immediately started laughing, tickled by his own tagline.

Of course, I knew who he was. He was my boyfriend’s grandfather, and he happened to live near the newspaper I had just interviewed with.

He declared that I couldn’t leave town until I had dined at Happy Burger, one of his favorite spots. So he took me there.

We ate, and he talked. He alternated between telling stories and telling jokes.

“What’s the difference between unlawful and illegal?” he asked.

One’s something you do wrong. The other is a sick bird.

Again, he laughed at his own joke. It was a hearty guffaw, a sweet melody.

We parted ways after dinner, and the following day I made the four-hour trek back to Southern Indiana where I lived. Before I got home, though, I got a call from the bosses at the Pharos Tribune. The job was mine if I wanted it.

I was suddenly torn. I needed a job, but I was a broke college grad then, and I didn’t know if I even had enough money to move out on my own.

While I worried and fretted, the angel in the Oldsmobile showed up again. Merlyn opened up his home for me – a gesture I’ll never feel I deserved.

He cleared out a bedroom and told me I could stay, rent free, as long as I needed.

So in August 2010, I moved into his old farmhouse, and he quickly became like a third grandpa to me.

Some evenings we sat in the living room where he married his precious wife Ruby in May 1941.

He’d tell me stories about her, like the one about their first date. He took her to a carnival in Walton, and they rode the Tilt-A-Whirl. He’d been tilted ever since, he would say, with his trademark laugh.

He would walk around the house showing me all the awards she won for her delicious pies. He’d pick up photos to point out how good lookin’ she was and how lucky he’d been.

And he’d end every conversation about her with the same words.

“Ruby…what a gal,” he’d say, shaking his head.

She died four years before I moved in. He never forgot about her – a lesson in true love for me.

Merlyn was like that. He’d teach you about life just by living his.

I watched as age took its toll on his body and his steps became labored and slow.

Even when he couldn’t do much, he’d still try to do something for others. While we shared a home, he always seemed to buy too many groceries, so there was enough to share with me.

He even offered me some of his Honey Nut Cheerios, which became his dinner of choice many nights.

Then the tables turned, and I got to do something for him.

He fell on his porch one day and spent months in hospitals and nursing homes. I jumped at the chance to go in on my days off and feed him lunch when he wasn’t strong enough to feed himself.

But even then, it was him who was teaching me. I watched for hours as nurses paraded in and out of his room poking him with needles, causing him discomfort. Instead of complaining, he comforted them with his endless string of jokes.

That’s why people loved him. And they did love him.

The Lewis Cass cheerleaders loved him enough to perform a special cheer for him every time he was at a game.

“Feed ‘em hay. Feed ‘em oats,” they would chant. “Make ‘em look like billy goats.”

If you haven’t noticed yet, Merlyn was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of man. Once you met him, no amount of time with him ever seemed enough.

I’m sure so many of us wish we could see him now, just one more time, but he died Nov. 24.

He lived a full life, I know. He was 94, but it doesn’t make losing him any easier.

When I’m sad, though, I like to picture him up in heaven embracing his wife after years apart and whispering, “Ruby…What a gal.”

-Lindsey Ziliak

[friday] editor/ grieving gal