My first post is a tribute to a great friend and mentor of mine who passed away this year. Merle was my Dad’s cousin but, as you will see, he was a great deal more than that to us.
When Robin Williams died last year more than one fan expressed his grief with the simple phrase “I can’t imagine the world without him in it.” Why that sentiment rings true when applied to Williams but would not necessarily do so for another actor is a question which is difficult to pin down. I suspect it has to do with personality; that undefinable glimmer of something; we don’t quite know what. Williams obviously had an outsized personality. You might say, indeed you would say, that Williams was a personality. He was bigger than life.
I have known a few “personalities.” These are the folks who make us the gift of a larger life. They pour into us a kind of energy or warmth or happiness or something. They are a kind of exothermic chemical reaction in human form in which heat and light are transferred from one to another without appreciably dimming or cooling the giver. I have known a few of these people in my life and I have treasured each interaction with them. My friend Gregg’s mother was one of these people. One day, after her passing, I tried to explain to him what I meant when I talked about this strange phenomenon. After grasping about and stammering for an explanation I said, “whenever I saw her or even thought about her, an involuntary smile came to my face.”
This has been a long way to go to tell you simply that Merle Joy brought an involuntary smile to my face whether I saw him or even thought about him. He was never on TV that I know of but he also had what Robin Williams had. He had an outsized personality. Indeed he was a personality.
I was about to say that if there was a person in this world who didn’t like Merle Joy I would like to meet him. That would be incorrect. If there existed in this world someone who didn’t like Merle Joy I would emphatically not want to meet him because there would be something very wrong with that person indeed.
Merle was a friendly guy. He was a smart guy. He was clever and witty and generous and gregarious. Many people have some of these qualities. Some people you know have several of them. But Merle was more than the sum of his parts.
He was friendly, sure. Everyone who ever met him knew that instinctively.
Clever and witty? Merle had both in spades. To me the sign of a great mind is revealed by a clever pun and no one ever turned loose a great pun on the world like Merle. Gregarious? Obviously! The man loved to talk. But he didn’t love to talk to hear his own voice, like some people do. This is where we find the unique spark of personality that was Merle. He was, and I think I may be getting to the point now, a “generous talker.” What I mean to say is that he loved to talk and he loved to listen. He wanted to hear what you had to say. He had a brilliant mind and in his three score and twenty (which is of course how Merle would have said it) he had acquired an amazing treasure trove of knowledge. Yet, when he spoke with you or me or even a child Merle did not want to tell you something so much as he wanted you to tell him something.
I have always thought that the measure of a person’s kindness could be taken by listening to him talk to children. It is easy to disregard what children say or discount their thoughts as unimportant. When Merle met my daughter Chloe for the first time she was just a little girl and he was a seventy plus year old man with a world of experience. But when they spoke Merle became a six or seven year old child himself and showed his genuine interest in her world. He talked about music with her and school and maybe her pets but he was not struggling to seem interested. He was interested. That genuineness is something you cannot fake. Kids are not fooled. They are better detectors of bullshit than you or I. And each year when we made our annual 15 hour round trip pilgrimage to Falls City to visit the “other” Joys Chloe always wanted to go along. Merle was a magnet that drew you in and no one who knew him could ever stay away for long.
Autodidact is a ten dollar word which means “self-taught.” Merle loved to learn words like that. Most of my heroes have been autodidacts in one way or another. Merle was certainly one of these. I would be very surprised indeed if he didn’t learn something new on the last day of his life. I hope he did. I hope we all can.
A favorite game that Merle played with relish was called “I know something you don’t know.” If you ever played this game with him you know that his delight in playing it in no way contradicts the generosity of spirit I described above. The game was for him simply an exercise in his lifelong quest for knowledge and he played it every day. Merle loved to play it. And, here is the best part; I always thought he was happier to lose the game than win it because then he got hold of a new, fresh piece of information. He was hungry to know about the world and he was hungry to know about you.
I did not get to know Merle as well as I would have liked. The ever present barrier of Iowa, which we both cursed mildly, prevented it. But I knew him well enough to realize that he was something special. He was certainly a special part of my life.
I am not a religious person and I concede that I don’t know what happens to us when we leave this world. It is a satisfying thought, though, to picture Merle reclining on a big cloud looking down through the mists at us scurrying around down here and chuckling to himself and saying with a grin “I know something you don’t know.” And I, and many, many others will be standing down here saying “I cannot imagine this world without him in it.”