Letters Home from College: The Making of a Writer

Merrill Joan Gerber

Fall 2017

In 1955, after graduating from Miami Beach High School, I went off to the University of Florida, in Gainesville—a pretty town located between Tallahassee to the west and Jacksonville to the east. Nearly every day of my four years there, I wrote letters home to my mother, who in turn typed letters to me from our family’s apartment in Miami Beach. In 1962, this correspondence, carefully saved by my mother, crossed the country in an ancient truck my father bought to transport the contents of his antique store from Florida to California. On the nights that my mother and sister slept in a motel, my father kept watch on a blanket under the truck to protect his cargo. Now, in the late years of my life, I sit with the letters spread about me, discovering truths I had forgotten.
My first roommate, a blonde Betty Lu Butterfield, was desperate to be chosen by a sorority, and she made fun of me as I typed on my typewriter. She said things like: “Writing another poem, Merrill? Writing the great American novel, Merrill?” Betty Lu had six crinolines, all crammed into her side of the closet. Her bras were pink lace and padded, and her girdle was made of some kind of brown rubber. She played her Elvis records round the clock. When her friends were in the room, all of them smoking, they’d chatter till midnight, even when I begged them to leave. She was irritated that I already had a boyfriend and would ask, “Where do you and Joe go? Into the woods? Is that where you get all those mosquito bites? And what do you do in the woods with him?”

I did want to write a novel someday. The summer after high school I had worked posting mortgage payments in the offices of Marvin Lachmann Associates on Lincoln Road. Joe had a job in North Miami Beach posting stock market quotations on a blackboard in an investment office. My bus went south on Collins Avenue, Joe’s bus north, and we timed our respective departures, each watching for the approaching bus and waving passionately as we sped past each other. His beautifully-formed forearm waving at me filled me with joy that had to last me for a long day of entering mortgage payments on a big green NCR machine. Other women in the office worked full-time for Mr. Lachmann, who always had a cigar in his mouth as he checked on our work. I dreaded the thought of growing up to be one of those secretaries, going into an office like his, taking dictation from a man like him, who always made a point of complimenting my dress or my hair in a way that disgusted me. “Aren’t you a pretty little thing today!” he would say.

On my lunch hour I read, every day, a Shakespeare play. I knew I was college bound. Joe was also not going to be writing stock quotes on a blackboard all his life. I had met him the day before my sixteenth birthday at the meeting of a Young Judea club at Miami Beach High School. He was so handsome, already muscled and manly. He was, I knew as soon as we spoke, a deep soul. My heart leapt at the sight of him.

Both sets of our parents had moved to Miami Beach from Brooklyn, our fathers in search of some business venture that never worked out. Our mothers were both legal secretaries. Joe and I recognized each other as kindred spirits. Even at sixteen and seventeen we knew our destinies. Love. And college.

During the first meeting with my advisor at the University of Florida, she said, “With your interests, you will want to study with the great writing teacher here, Andrew Lytle. You may not take his class for credit freshman year, but he might let you sit in.”

Merrill Joan Gerber, a frequent SR contributor, has published thirty books, the most recent a memoir, Beauty and the Breast: A Tale of Breast Cancer, Love and Friendship. Her literary archive was sent to Yale’s Beinecke Library in June.

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