I first met Merrell Fort Gregory in 1969 sitting at a desk across a tiny newsroom. It was my first newspaper job out of college. The Maryland Gazette - calling itself "the oldest continuously published paper in America" - was a weekly. We were two of a staff of six. I was twenty-two; Merrell was a year older with twelve months experience. On the strength of that experience, I thought she was the epitome of a seasoned reporter.
But in truth, Merrell was born to the work; she was a natural and brilliant editor. Let me say this: a natural editor is not a blue-pencil, comma chaser or spelling fixer. Merrell's gift was profound. She found her way to the soul of the story, the vision of the writer - and lent her wisdom to nudging the writer to fulfill that vision.
So first, I must tell you that Grandmothers Whisper is the book it is because Merrell Fort Gregory agreed (without a cent of compensation) to spend four or five months of her life reading, re-reading, and nudging this intransigent author to a degree of near-perfection.
Next, I must tell you that Merrell Fort Gregory of Asheville, North Carolina was a quintessential Southern Lady, so her nudges went like this (and I am unable to replicate the soft vowels and kindness of the speech rhythms). "Inette...this is your book, and you know that I'm just a simple, very literal reader, with a short attention span - your other readers will undoubtedly not need the changes I'm asking you to consider...but I really do need shorter chapters...and I need to know what the chapter is going to be about in the first sentence..." Like that: she gently pressed, dismissed her own knowing, accentuated mine. And without exception, she got her way.
When she was diagnosed with advanced colon and liver cancer, out-of -the-blue some months later - Merrell had the grace (and this word occurs repeated in any reference to Merrell) to tell me: "When I think of my life, I will always be grateful for working with you on Grandmothers Whisper."
So that is why the reader of this page or of the book, Grandmother Whisper, might care about this uncommon woman who today is being memorialized by others in Asheville, North Carolina. But I need more. I need to speak about what Merrell, her husband Hamilton, and their three children have been to me for over 43 years.
I will attempt to briefly chronicle why the Gregory household nestled in the mountains of North Carolina - more than any other geographical spot on earth - welcomed me home, though I'd never lived anywhere nearby. Neither Merrell (nor her husband Hamilton) had a judgmental bone in their attractive bodies. But do not mistake either of them for door-mats. They have both always been sharp-witted, bright as the Hawaiian sun, and funny.
Allow me to reminisce.
Still in their Asheville dining room sits the brass birdcage (without bird) that Merrell scored at a Goodwill Thrift shop back in 1969. I was by her side scratching my head at her enthusiasm for this odd artifact. Still, sitting in my mother's bookcase is the photo album from my first wedding in 1970. Standing up for us in what then passed for a mini-skirt was Merrell (and Hamilton, not in skirt) surrounded by a tiny collection of family members. Still I look at photographs of our respective infants: June and Sam, naked as jaybirds (decidedly not in birdcage). We plotted a marriage for them that was not to be, and considered threatening them into submission with their naked photos on any number of occasions.
Merrell and Hamilton were there when I got married, when I was a young correspondent heading into the war in Vietnam from whence Hamilton had just returned, and when I returned unscathed. They were there sixteen years later when my marriage ended.
I was there in their first house in El Paso, Texas. I was there in those first days after they adopted daughter Jess, and then son Jimmy (who terrified us with his disappearance on a crowded Chesapeake Bay Beach), and in our shared months of pregnancy too.
But the heart and soul of our friendship, I often think, was walking together for hours, days, and years on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I remember the walks that preceded any existence of official "Walking Shoes" - and I remember Merrell lecturing me about the necessity of buying a pair so that I would not ruin legs, knees and back. She was always careful. I was not.
When I told a sister-in-law about "my best friend's" death, she responded. "Best friends are the women who are exactly like us." But that was not true for Merrell and for me. My best friend embodied so many of the qualities that I admire, treasure, and envy. But we were very different. Merrell was cool and steady - again, Southern grace embodied. Inette, well, is something quite other.
We shared penetrating honesty with one another. It was effortless. I remember her typically straightforward observation when I presented her with my just-ended relationship with a man whom I extolled for his "sense of humor." We were walking the trails when she stopped abruptly, looked me in the face and said: "Inette, it is not funny when a man makes fun of his partner." She was right of course.
My favorite Merrell and Hamilton story (breaching her confidence only now) was this: A family therapist who told them: "In all my years of practice, I've never met a couple with no control issues. You two have none."
In sum Merrell is my oldest and dearest girlfriend. Hamilton and Merrell together are the couple I admire most on earth for their unflagging kindness, mutual intelligence, intense curiosity, and selflessness. (And I refuse to use the past tense here.) I am practicing being grateful - but I am struggling today to imagine a life diminished, without Merrell in it.