When the ideas clatter and claw inside Merle Phillips’ head in the dark of night, there’s no point trying to get back to sleep.
So she eases out of bed and shuffles over to her desk, with its “giant-print” Bible and a magnifying glass within easy reach. She bends her 4-foot-10-inch frame toward her spiral notebook and begins to write.
“If I don’t get up and write, then I forget,” Phillips says, echoing a common writer’s fear.
She’s no common writer, though. Phillips, who turns 110 years old on April 2, suffers few of the neuroses that often afflict younger writers. She writes mostly when she wants to, and she rarely experiences writer’s block. She’s written 11 books — all self-published and mostly autobiographical — since she took up writing as a serious pursuit in her 70s. When inspiration strikes, she’s been known to write most of the day.
The source of her inspiration? Sitting in her recliner, which looks a couple of sizes too big for her, she shrugs. Maybe an interest from her past, she says — beyond that, she really doesn’t know.
“If I have something to write about, I write,” says Phillips, who lives at Belmont Village, an assisted-living facility in Carol Stream. “If I don’t, I don’t — and not every day because I don’t have the time.”
Phillips says she knows she’s not an exceptional writer. She’s “not smart enough” to write fiction, she says. Sometimes, she rambles. Her tangents about the people who’ve taken advantage of her through the years can run several pages.
But her stories offer a remarkable window into a time almost no one living today remembers — a life of hardship, perseverance, occasional heartbreak and unquenchable curiosity. They conjure a time of horse-and-buggy rides, houses without running water, electricity and bedrooms so cold “water would freeze in your drinking glass.”
She was born on a farm in Kingston, Ark., in 1907. Four months after her birth, her father died.
“My father was thin and puny,” she says. “He drank some contaminated water. He got typhoid fever.”
She writes of feeding farm animals and gathering eggs for her mother — who lived into her 90s — and also spying through a keyhole on her mother and her new boyfriend.
And she recalls, with amazement, watching the sculptors chip away at what would become the stone faces of Mount Rushmore. “They looked like little children,” she writes.
Her books offer wisdom culled from her extraordinarily long life: “Don’t blow up and say regretful things you can’t take back. Keep your cool. A soft answer turns away wrath.”
Phillips earned a bachelor’s degree at Buena Vista College in Iowa — majoring in math, psychology and education — at a time when a home life was expected of most women and later got a master’s degree in social work.
She writes of once overhearing an aunt talking to her mother about her education.
“ ‘None of my girls are going to be an educated fool,’ ” Phillips remembers the aunt saying. “Here I was in college — so I’m ‘an educated fool.’ That has always stuck in my mind, even to this day.”
Phillips was 104 when she wrote those words.
Phillips’ husband figures prominently in her writing. They met while she was in graduate school at the University of Iowa. They lived in Le Claire, Iowa, then Chicago and finally Wheaton. They both had jobs in the city — he as a research biologist, she a chemistry lab worker.
They were married for almost 31 years, until leukemia took him. For each of their years together, he gave her a Valentine’s Day gift — often a handmade card. She keeps those in a faded scrapbook. He died Feb. 13 but not before making his final card.
“He was so good and so unselfish and so kind,” Phillips says.
Her eyes moisten as she talks, and her fingers twist a lace handkerchief in her lap. Leonard Phillips has been dead for 49 years.
Phillips didn’t retreat into herself after her husband’s death, though.
“I began to work more and more hours in order to drown out my sorrow,” she writes. “One week, I worked 104 hours.”
A few years later, she was almost killed returning home to Wheaton from the city when a semi-truck sideswiped her car, pushing it into oncoming traffic. The crash shoved her engine into her front seat.
“My heart was enlarged and damaged,” she writes. “My spleen, stomach and lungs were damaged also. My liver was split in two.”
Doctors at the hospital didn’t expect her to make it through the night.
“It was only because God let me live,” she says now, 47 years after her “terrible accident.”
Phillips says she retired in 1972. But that’s not quite true. Into her late 90s, she continued to work in child care and elder care — clocking as many as 65 hours a week. She traveled widely — to Israel, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, where she worked for several months as a Christian missionary.
And always there was her writing. It was born of a thirst to know more about her ancestors, who came to America from England in the 1600s, she says.
Asked what she knows of the character of one those ancestors — Titus Mug Podge, whose name she took for the title of one of her books — she deadpans: “I don’t know. I didn’t see him.”
All of her writing is done in large, lined, spiral notebooks. She’s not against computers — she recently learned to use email — but she says she was too old when the technology arrived to feel comfortable with it.
Phillips is practical and frugal. When she was still living in Wheaton — she moved into assisted living three years ago — she kept the thermostat at 55 degrees, says her close friend Linda DuBose.
“Even when the temperature was below freezing, she’d be there with four or five [layers] on,” says DuBose.
When she began writing books, she did so with a purpose — to make money. She’d send the manuscript off to a bookbinder. Then, she’d walk door to door in Wheaton and Glen Ellyn, carrying 10 to 20 copies in a cloth sack to sell them. Many people said no thanks, but plenty said yes, paying her anything from face value to $100 per book.
“One woman read my book and decided she didn’t give me enough for it,” Phillips says.
She gave up peddling books in her early 80s. These days, if you ask, she might give you a free autographed copy of her most recent work, “Beautiful Pebbles.”
As for her money, most of what’s left will go to Buena Vista and Wheaton Wesleyan Church, DuBose says. Phillips had no children.
“I guess we were too busy,” she says, with a shrug.
Phillips can’t say for sure when she’ll complete her 12th book. A recent fascination with Sudoku, the numbers puzzle game, has proved to be a distraction, as has her fierce love of Scrabble.
“Lately, I’ve been doing silly exercises,” she says, shaking her arthritis-free fingers.
For her upcoming birthday, she’s been asked to offer a nugget of wisdom for each of her 110 years.
And what wisdom would she offer to a budding writer?
“If they want to write,” she says, “just write.”