Thelma Merker - Unusual Friendship, An Anchor, Plus Tea

by Geri Chaffee
(Sarasota, FL)

Back in the mid-80's, when my then boyfriend and I used to visit his grandmother on Casey Key, I got to know Thelma Merker, an incredible woman whose character strength, intellect and determination quickly overcame any ideas you may have forged from her frail looking physique.

I would be fiddling in Grandma Ruth Marshall's kitchen and see Thelma arrive daily on an old model bike which seemed to have grown wise with her. Her routine was perfectly timed - she would dismount, lean her bike against the north fence of the property, and quietly walk along that side to the stairs leading to the beach.

On her lucky days, she would go unnoticed. Her beach walks were such an important part of her life. But if perchance I timed it correctly, I could rush out to steal a few minutes to speak to her as she swiftly maneuvered her way to the shore. Polite as ever, she chatted, never losing her pace. Silly young me was not going to slow her determined spirit or deter her date with nature in any way.

You see, Thelma had created her own personal easement. She had befriended Joyce, my soon to be mother-in-law, Ruth Marshall's daughter, and had in turn gotten permission to park her bike along the fence so she could avoid accessing the beach on the busy public side, where her wheels would have to be locked, and gulf birds compete with snowbirds for space and attention.

The Marshalls had bought their Casey Key lot back in the early 1900's for $6,000. Grandpa Marshall wanted one of the highest points on the key. Grandpa Marshall was a very wise man. He built a single story white rectangular box for himself and his wife and retired from the clock business he had helped build. At least, that's what I was told. Every room in the house faced the gulf.

Later on when Grandma Ruth died, daughter Joyce asked Thelma to pay for the privilege of accessing the beach from the private property. Thelma was to water the little plant that survived her mother, which sat on the kitchen table during the long absences where the house now sat empty. Thelma was to keep a written tally of the dates when this was done. I think there were other tasks, but that's the one I do remember. I recall visiting with my now fiance and finding Thelma's handwritten record on the art deco table.

Being very Latin, we hug and kiss when we meet friends. Whenever I would see Thelma I would leap out of the house and hug and kiss her effusively, which I must admit made her coil a little at first but she got used to it eventually. I was even allowed to go on some walks with her. She seemed to know every house and pebble on the key, and could name every creature that would grace us with their presence. But mostly, she just listened. I remember talking, and talking and talking.

For many years, she was my only friend in Florida. Soon I would come to realize, she was more than that. She was also my only friend within my new American family, consisting of my mother-in-law, now boss, and her only child, my husband.

After our majestic wedding in the historic mansion on Chicago's prestigious North Shore, and my spouse's crowning as a newly minted member of that most honorable class of Doctor of Medicine, we relocated to the quasi-abandoned Casey Key home of his ancestors. He was working all the time, and I worked from home for his mom's marketing firm. In addition to doctoring, his extra-curricular fun kept him away most days and nights, and my only human contact for over a year was when Thelma would park her bike and walk our beach.

One day, a windy, stormy, dark day back in January 1995, I came across a whole bevy of letters tucked away inside a big book on the shelf. That was the beginning of the end. The letters were penned by the only one of the mistresses who apparently had a penchant for writing. Actually, more like record keeping. Way too many details. Explicit details. Leave no doubt in your mind details.

I drove off in panic to get a chance to read them all before anything could happen to them. I drove off to one of the little motels dotting the south end of our key. I drove off for fear of being weak, being caught, or unknowingly at the time, continuing to be self-deceived. When there was nothing else to read, I drove off to Thelma's home and collapsed in her living room.

This was to be the only time I was in her house. Through my labile status and the torrent of tears I remember trying to take her life in - her home became my sanctuary that day.

She gave me tea, watched me cry for hours. And most importantly, she kept all the letters for me.

Weeks later when I left Casey Key for good, my last stop was Thelma's driveway, where I once again hugged and kissed her, thanked her, and gave her my Opal ring, my only valuable piece of jewelry at the time - which she did not want to accept - but I told her I loved it and wanted her to have it. I am not sure why, but then again, at the time all my actions seemed convicted in many ways. I was certain of what I had to do. It was just what I had to do.

Thelma and I continued our friendship beyond that day. We wrote to each other frequently for many years. She typed all her letters, most of which I have saved, on an old original typewriter. Reading her correspondence was just like hearing her speak. One could almost hear her accent between the lines.

As my parents retired to Lido Key, I would always make it a point to go see Thelma when I visited them. We would meet for lunch somewhere. She got to meet my husband, my boys. She still walked the beach often.

Life got busy. Kids grew up. And our letters slowed down to a trickle. For years I have avoided the inevitable, fearing the worse. Today, I decided to face the fact and looked her up, expecting what I found, that she had passed, yet not wanting to know.

I never knew the tennis side of Thelma. I knew she was perhaps the best player in her age group for many years, but we did not connect that way.

Thelma was there for me when I had no one. Her stoic presence, her strength, her pragmatism, and her confidence saved me from myself during the darkest time in my life.

Thank you my friend. May you rest in peace.

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