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Remembering the Merritts of Merritt’s Store

If you mention Merritt’s Store anywhere around Chapel Hill, most often you will hear something like, “Oh yes. Best BLTs I’ve ever tasted.”

And it is true. A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich at Merritt’s Store, together with sweet iced tea flavored with the fresh mint growing in a box beside the store, is one of the great taste treats in my world, right up there with the peach cobbler at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro or a small chopped barbecue plate at Lexington #1.

But when you mention Merritt’s Store to me, I think of the first night I spent in Chapel Hill in a red brick house that once stood across the street. It was Thanksgiving 1958 and Wyndell Merritt, my fellow freshman at Davidson College, invited me to spend the weekend with his family in Chapel Hill.

There were no BLTs at Merritt’s Store back then. But Wyndell’s mom, Ruby, made us a wonderful breakfast every morning with scrambled eggs and some very good bacon, maybe as good as that in the BLTs at Merritt’s Store today. His dad, Eben, was the owner of the “filling station” and convenience store that was the Merritt’s Store of the day. Mr. Merritt spent most of his time at work at the store or running a small business hauling sand and gravel and excavating construction sites.

One of Eben Merritt’s passions was hunting, especially turkeys. That weekend he let Wyndell bring me along with a small hunting party of Mr. Merritt’s friends. I learned that Mr. Merritt could call, sight, and bring down a turkey before I could blink.

His love for hunting led him to buy many acres of old farm and forest land that sold cheap around Chapel Hill back then because it was no longer good for farming. Later on, that land made Mr. Merritt and his family financially secure.

My memories came rushing back last week when I learned that Ruby Hunt Merritt died, just a few days before her 105th birthday on May 18.

A few years ago, right after her 102nd birthday, I had a long conversation with Mrs. Merritt. She was alert and cheerful, telling me about growing up in Chatham County, where her father operated a sawmill. She met Eben Merritt when she was 18, and they were soon married, or as she said, “He gave me an ‘M.R.S.’ degree.” Eben Merritt bought the store, and they struggled through the depression. “It did not bother us much,” she told me, “since we didn’t have any money to begin with anyway.”

Last week at her service at Mount Carmel Baptist Church on the Orange-Chatham County line near Chapel Hill, the pastor, Dr. Dennis Hill, remembered some of the things she had done over the more that 80 years she had been a member. They included playing the piano every Sunday for most of those years, teaching Sunday School, leading prayer circles, changing diapers, and hauling children to and from the church, always looking out for children and one time even leaving the three-year-old Wyndell sleeping on the back pew, forgetting him while she took care of other people’s children. “She loved so many,” he said. “Wyndell was just one of them.”

Listening to him describe her life and how she put aside her own hardships and struggles to help others, I began to wonder how I would measure up at the end of my life. Dr. Hill must have known what I was thinking.

He assured us that we, too, could, like Mrs. Merritt, be “quick to forgive, be a light in others’ darkness, and be an instrument of God’s peace.”

And the next time somebody mentions Merritt’s Store, those words will come to mind along with the memories of my first visit there.

Note: A link to the entire conversation with Mrs. Merritt can be found here.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit their wepage.

This week’s (May 26, 30) guest is Duke Professor William Chafe’s author of “Bill and Hillary.”

In reviewing Duke Professor William Chafe’s  “Bill and Hillary,” Jonathan Yardley wrote, about the Clintons, “No personalities in recent history speak more compellingly to the importance of understanding that the personal and the political are inseparable.” Chafe’s detailed study of the relationship between the power couple of all power couples shows how their relationship shaped our history.

The program will also air at Wednesday May 29 at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). In addition, airing at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday on UNC-MX will be a classic Bookwatch program featuring Jim Early author of “Tar Heel Barbecue.”

A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/one-on-one/remembering-the-merritts-of-merritts-store/