Merle always had his five string banjo beside him on the couch. Even when arthritis had taken some of the magic away, and Alzheimer's had taken away a little more, he could pick up that grayed instrument, wrap his gnarled hands around it, and that little spark would return.

I never got to know the many years of life that filled his sails. I knew he loved a woman named Zeta Janine, and they had some children together. I knew that his garden was his pride and joy, and fewer pastimes filled him with more joy than a day spent fishing at the three-cornered pond about half a mile from his house. I knew he loved to bring water to a boil, cool it down, and keep it in his refrigerator in old green wine bottles. And I knew that there was magic in his old eyes and fingers.

I would spend my summers in Merle's house. I would lay on the floor while he read the newspaper aloud to me. We would listen to folk and blues records, and sometimes he would pick up the banjo and reproduce the songs. I would sit back on the floor, sipping cold water from an old wine bottle, and watch him play, his gnarled fingers moving back and forth and his old man's voice struggling to hit notes from some song long in the past.

He kept a wooden crate beside the couch and never mentioned what was inside of it, but after a while I began to notice it, if for no other reason than nothing sat on top of it. It didn't seem to be locked, and thus my child mind began to run with all sorts of strange possibilities.

One day, Merle went to the bathroom, and my curiosity could hold out no longer. I opened up the crate, and inside there were hundreds, if not thousands, of letters and photographs. I closed the top as fast as I could and laid back down on the floor, not wanting to let my old friend know that I had peeked into the box.

As the months passed, I got more courageous; I looked through a few of the photographs, depicting people who had long since departed this earth. They were pictures of Zeta.


That last summer, I somehow knew that things were different. There was a touch of sadness in his eyes sometimes, and his mind was drifting farther down the long road of Alzheimer's. I went to his house a few times, and he did not recognize me; he would open the door to look at me, but then close it again, without that magical gleam in his eye that I had grown to love over the last few years.

The days were just beginning to grow shorter again, but summer was still in full force one day when I went to his house. I had reached the door and was about to knock, but I could hear him inside playing the banjo and singing:

Oh, I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes
Who is sailing far over the sea
I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes
And I wonder if she ever thinks of me

Oh, you told me once, dear, that you loved me;
You vowed that we never would part
But a link in the chain has been broken
Leaving me with a sad and aching heart

It was a song I'd heard on the records before, a traditional song that several old groups had performed, but he had never played it. I listened more:

Oh, I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes
Who is sailing far over the sea
I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes
And I wonder if she ever thinks of me

When the cold, cold grave shall enclose me
Will you come near and shed just one tear?
Will you say to the strangers around you
A poor heart you have broken lies here?

He kept playing for a bit and stopped. I looked inside the window, and he was sitting in there reading a letter; the wooden case sat open beside him. He was crying; it was the only time I'd ever seen him cry. I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me, and I didn't tell anyone.


Merle got sick that fall, and so my mother would sometimes make dinner for him and have me carry it to his house. I'd stay there and talk to him as he ate it; sometimes, it would be like nothing had changed, but other times, he would not even recognize who I was.

The evening after the first snowfall, I took dinner over to Merle's house. The night before, he hadn't answered the door, and so my mother went over there to make sure he was still getting around all right. I didn't think he would answer the door tonight, either, but as soon as I knocked, I heard him speak my name loudly inside, so I let myself in.

Merle was lying on the couch, and he looked old. I knew that he was a very old man, but that was the first time that "old" was the first word I could think of to describe him. I unpacked the dinner and sat it on the coffee table before him, and then with great effort, he sat up and began to eat.

He wanted to know about my schoolwork and so forth, but then we started to talk about my future. What did I want to do with my life? Did I want to have some children someday? I was barely ten years old; I didn't really know these things. He knew; he smiled.

After he finished dinner, he opened up the wooden chest and gave me a small book out of it with an old, leathery cover. He looked at me and said, "This was the first journal I ever kept. I wrote it in 1922. That was the year I met her." We both looked at the picture of him and Zeta that hung on the wall opposite the couch.

He looked at me. "I want you to read this. It was the happiest year of my life, and I've kept the memory of it locked away here for so long."

I took it home with me in my back pocket, to hide it so my mother wouldn't be suspicious.


I spent several days reading the diary; each evening, I took dinner to Merle, who usually didn't recognize me. I remember finishing the journal on a Saturday evening, not long after coming back from delivering dinner to him. I looked out my bedroom window at his house. It was snowing out, and the flakes were obscuring the view.

The next morning, before I even had a chance to tell him that I had read it, the coroner came to pick him up. A heart attack claimed him in the night, I heard my dad telling another neighbor. I pulled my stocking cap down further on my head, and felt his diary in my coat pocket.

We went to his funeral on Christmas Eve. As we walked to the casket and knelt, I was just able to look at him. He looked asleep. After my parents got up and moved on, I reached into my pocket, took out the journal, and slipped it in beside him, which was about as far as my arm would reach.

I only got to keep two things from his house. I have an old photograph of him and Zeta from the 1930s; he's dressed in a pressed shirt, tie, and pants and is looking at her; she's looking at the camera, with her black hair all in curls. This photograph hangs on my wall.

The other thing is the banjo.


My wife has two of the bluest eyes you've ever seen. And sometimes, when we're apart, I will get out that old banjo, which I taught myself how to play, and pull something out from my memories:

Oh, I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes
Who is sailing far over the sea
I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes
And I wonder if she ever thinks of me

And I think of Merle and Zeta ... and of me and Sarah.

Song lyrics taken from I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes (Traditional)