My father was what you might call a carpetbagger. Born in the frozen tundra of upstate New York he was selling ads for a newspaper in Oswego when he caught a train south.
Saying the only things to do in Oswego were drink whisky, freeze to death and figure out how to get out of Oswego, he took his boss’s train ticket to Raleigh, North Carolina when the boss decided not to go.
He worked for the Raleigh Times selling ads and began doing the artwork on the side. When the paper told him that would be part of his job he realized he could make more doing the ads than selling them and quit.
He started the first advertising agency in Raleigh, which is still flourishing as Howard Merrell & Partners.
He was witty with a love of laughter but was known as a man of dignity. His classmates in high school wrote beside his senior photograph: “Riding the whirlwind and directing the storm” and bequeathed his dignity to a member of the upcoming senior class who apparently lacked some.
Living in a boarding house he met my mother when she started eating dinners there. She was working across town at the School for the Blind and had broken up with the director’s son, making dinners at the school awkward. She heard of a rooming house with eligible bachelors across town and would take the bus after work. She was a woman of action.
My mother grew up on a farm, poor but not knowing it. She graduated from Meredith College with a degree in math in 1934 when women with degrees were unique. She was an accountant when numbers actually added up, traveled the world and took English classes into her 70’s, devoted to a love of language and learning.
My mother and father were engaged in less than a month and married in less than four. On their tenth anniversary my father wrote her a poem, one of many, which asked her after ten years to try for 64. On being congratulated after their 62nd anniversary, mother said: “I know it, 62 years and never a big fuss!” Shortly after their 64th anniversary my father died and not long after that my mother joined him.
In all those years I never saw either of them disrespect or raise their voice to the other and they could often be found holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes.
Say what you will about Yankees coming south, my father embraced the south and the woman he found there. My love of life, language, people and the south came from what I learned from this carpetbagger and his southern belle. I also have a fondness for trains, a locomotion without which I may not be writing this.