Christmas is coming. It already has arrived in many of the stores. We’re still two months away on the calendar, and some folks are decking the halls.
Lately, Mike and Nancy Kaplan have been doing a lot of talking about Christmas. It’s a way to find joy in their grief. Two months ago, they lost their 45-year-old daughter, Merrie Kaplan, who was born with William’s Syndrome.
Not long after her death, Mike was driving on U.S. 41. “I was thinking what we were going to do with our lives,’’ he said. As he rolled toward Bolingbroke, he glanced out the window and noticed a yellow butterfly following the truck.
It must be a sign, he said. He called Nancy. “What do you think?’’ he asked.
And that’s how the Merrie Christmas Project was born.
To know Merrie Kaplan was to love her. And she certainly would love you back. Nancy called her “an angel on earth.’’
“She had this amazing ability to have room in her heart for everybody,’’ Mike said.
Merrie loved all the holidays, but Christmas was her favorite. She embodied the spirit of the season. It thrilled her to see family members come home for the holidays, and open presents on Christmas morning. In a sense, she still believed in Santa Claus.
“On Nov. 1, when radio station 93.7 (WPEZ-FM ) switches to Christmas music, that’s all we would listen to,’’ Mike said. “And we would watch all those Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel.’’
He laughed and said he had the biggest Christmas CD collection of any “Jewish guy on the planet.’’
Red was her favorite color because of Christmas …. and, of course, the Georgia Bulldogs. For more than 30 years, Mike never went to a game without her.
Merrie died on Aug. 22 of heart issues. These past two months have been as much of a celebration of her life than mourning her death.
“She was a part of many people’s lives and families, as much more than an affable friend, but as a family member,’’ Nancy said. “I have heard from people who have said she saved their lives and changed them forever. To God be the glory!”
Merrie was born on Jan. 15, 1974, with a genetic condition known as William’s Syndrome. There wasn’t as much known about it 45 years ago.
But Nancy did the best she could to navigate life with a child she named after her best friend from college at Middle Georgia in Cochran.
When Mike Kaplan fell in love with Nancy, he fell in love with Merrie, too. Nancy was a single mom. Mike is Jewish. Nancy is a Christian.
“When we were dating, I was a single mother and didn’t have the money to buy a Christmas tree,’’ Nancy said. “Mike bought us a tree, and we put up candy canes and icicles. It was the best thing in the world, and Merrie loved it.”
Mike adopted Merrie when she was 4 years old, and she took his last name. He raised her as his own. The Kaplans later had two other daughters – Lily and Shannon.
“People with Williams Syndrome all have certain facial characteristics,’’ Nancy said. “They are exceptionally beautiful children with big eyes, little noses and pretty lips.’’
Merrie’s challenges provided some of the highest highs and lowest lows.
She excelled in her vocabulary, social skills and the ability to understand and express herself. She was gifted in music and, like most people with Williams Syndrome, was blessed with perfect pitch and rhythm.
She attended the Lifting Lives Music Camp at the Kennedy Center at Vanderbilt in conjunction with the Academy of Country Music and performed four times on stage with the other campers at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
She also learned sign language, and her parents were amazed when she once began signing across the church aisle with a hearing-impaired woman. Mike asked her where she learned to sign.
“Daddy, remember when you gave money to that guy on the street?’’ Merrie said. “He gave you a card with the ‘sign’ alphabet on the back?”
There were many concepts Merrie could not grasp. Time and space were difficult. She could not tell time or count change.
Merrie was mainstreamed in the Bibb County public schools and attended Central High School. She served as manager of the boys basketball team at First Presbyterian Day School for 13 years. She attended the Roosevelt Institute in Warm Springs and received her degree as a nursing home assistant. She worked at John Wesley Villas on Thomaston Road.
“You probably wouldn’t know anything if you were just talking to her,’’ Nancy said. “You just would be thinking: ‘I like this person. She’s very intuitive and fun to talk to.’ She could figure you out in a second, which was kind of scary. And she didn’t have a filter. She pretty much would tell you what she thought.’’
Her extraordinary devotion to Christmas was why Nancy and Mike came up with the idea of the “Merrie Christmas Project.’’
Simply put, it is about bringing joy to our corner of the world. It could be having a tree to decorate, a gift to go under that tree or food to go on the table.
Mike contacted his sister, Jaime, who is the director of philanthropy at United Way. She presented it to United Way President and CEO George McCanless, who embraced the idea as a way to help the less fortunate during the holidays.
The United Way serves 14 counties in Middle Georgia. When folks make their pledge during the current campaign, they can designate their donation to a specific program or project.
On Sunday, Nov. 10, singer Ronnie Milsap will give a benefit concert at the Grand Opera House in Macon, with proceeds going to both the Merrie Christmas Project and Pink Promise United. The Kaplan’s neighbor, Kay Powell, is the younger sister of Milsap’s wife, Joyce.
“We want to make sure the people who need help at Christmas are getting it, and that’s where United Way comes in,’’ Mike said. “This is the first year. We hope it will grow.’’
Said Nancy: “We want it to be a happy thing.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.