A letter to a man I hardly knew, but who shaped my life forever.

Vernon Merritt III, pictured below, was best known for his work in photojournalism in the 1960s, and 70s He is my grandfather, who sadly and tragically passed away in 2000. I was 5 years old. This letter is for him.

Granddaddy Merritt,

I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, and I don’t know why. When someone suggested I write a letter to you to sort through my feelings, it took me a while, but we’re finally here. This is kind of a confusing mosh-mash of thoughts, but I think you’ll get it.

I barely had the chance to know you before you were taken from us all. I’ve seen pictures of you holding me as a baby, but when I close my eyes and try to remember your face, it doesn’t happen. Even though I was five years old when you died, it still hurts to think about all the things we never got to do together. I still tear up when I think about what you’d think about the person I am today, because I don’t even know what your voice sounds like, let alone what you’d think of me in all my weird glory, and general strangeness.

I remember. I remember, and still own the copy of “Puss in Boots” you gave me for my fourth birthday. I open it and see the note you wrote in it, and can’t help but wonder what would go through your mind when you thought about me. Hopefully it was good, but I don’t know. I remember bringing your old camera to my eighth grade class and crying in front of everyone when I tried to explain where it came from, because even though I barely knew you, you’re still a part of me I’ll never get to explore, because I’m here and you aren’t. It was hard. The concept of death was foreign to me until it appeared right in my backyard, and in the hearts of people I so desperately care about. I had never seen my dad, your son, cry before the day we buried you. He stood up and sang a song in front of everyone, and he did it while fighting back tears, because no matter what, you were his dad, and he wouldn’t get to see you anymore. I’ll never forget the random people I didn’t know coming up to me and my siblings, talking about how great you were, and wishing so much that I was talking to you instead. I remember Aunt Blaine and Aunt Kim and Grandma and my dad, standing in a row, shaking people’s hands and thanking them for coming, when I’m sure that it was the last thing they actually wanted because, despite everything, they wished you were there even more than I did.

On a less melancholy side, because if you’re a thing like my dad, you don’t like to sit in sadness for very long, I remember looking at magazines that have pictures that you took in them, and being inspired. I remember reading stories about the crazy things you did and being amazed. I remember thinking how much courage it took for you to go to Vietnam at the height of the conflict, not knowing that you would get shot and be temporarily paralyzed. I remember getting angry when I read about what happened to you in Nostaluga when you were covering the civil rights movement when my dad was just a kid. I remember how you seemed so big and lofty to me the first time I googled your name, and then I remember that you were a person with hopes and dreams and loves and passions just like I am. I remember that you were a person who worked hard, was a bit of a hard-ass (I won’t tell you which one of your children said so,) and who, with gusto and determination, pursued the things and the stories you cared about through the medium you excelled in: photography. You never let any of the bad things that happened to you stop you. Your subject matter was a vast collection of interesting things, like photographing the Charles Manson trial, Coretta Scott-King in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and New York fashion in the 1970's. My favorite thing about you, though, is that you got to pursue your dreams and passions. My dad tells me all the time about how much you loved horses, and all of the wonderful projects that came out of that love, some of which are still around today. I think you can tell, I remember a lot of things about you, but, sadly, none I learned when you were alive.

Even though you aren’t here, that doesn’t mean you haven’t impacted me, and my life. You’re always with me, and even though I can’t talk to you on the phone or visit you in person, I carry you with me always. Your love for storytelling, your passion for the things you love, and the type of person you were, who searched for the truth, and told stories that mattered, have inspired me in my own life to pursue journalism as a career. They have motivated me, not only to be a good storyteller, but a good person, and that’s what this world needs more of. Good people.

People ask me what I want to do when I grow up, I tell them I want to be a broadcast journalist and a documentary filmmaker. What I should tell them, however, is that I want to be like you.

Granddaddy Merritt,

I miss you.

I am proud to share your name, and so honored to soon share in your profession.

I am honored to be a part of your legacy.

I am so deeply proud and so throughly blessed to be your granddaughter.

Thank you for helping me find my passion, and giving me the courage to pursue my dreams.

I will never look at a horse in the same way again.

Love always and forever,

Kendall Lacey Merritt, Granddaughter #3