Jeanne Merkel was 23 years old with three children under five when her husband left their marriage. It was an early lesson in how to navigate crisis and transition.
Now Jeanne’s three daughters are adults, she has three grandchildren and she lives and works on Shelter Island as a spiritual counselor and life-coach, helping other people get on with their lives when things change.
Born in Glen Cove, Jeanne and her slightly older twin sister Elaine were the eighth and seventh children in a family that would top off at nine. When she was three, the family moved to a two-bedroom cottage on a canal-front acre in South Jamesport and docked their boat out back. Two bedrooms for a large clan was a mash, with the boys in one room and the girls in another. “It was idyllic,” said Jeanne said, “The excitement of a big family.”
Her father, Joseph Merkel, drove a truck during the week and Jeanne’s parents loved to take the entire family out on their boat every weekend of the summer. They installed boxes over the engine to lull her and her twin sister to sleep with the hum. During one of these trips, Jeanne first visited Shelter Island. Her mother, Jeanne St. André Merkel, later wrote a book about the family’s experiences titled “Nine Boats and Nine Kids.”
Jeanne’s mother was a breast cancer survivor, but when she first learned she had cancer, her children were young. Wondering how they could take care of themselves without her, she decided to start a business that could involve and support the whole family. The clan moved to Riverhead and opened a day nursery, where Jeanne worked during her middle and high school years.
In 1976, when Jeanne was 17, she married Chris Young, who worked as a piano tuner and actor.
They met when she was in middle school and he wasn’t yet 20. In 1978 their daughter Beth was born, followed by Shoshana in 1979 and Rivkah in 1981. When Chris left the family, Jeanne, who had been working since she was eight, decided to go on welfare.
She found an apartment for $325 a month above the Mill Creek Inn with a water view, and her daughters went to school in Greenport. While working and taking care of her kids, and with help from her mother-in-law, she took classes at Suffolk Community College, eventually earning a BA in Developmental Psychology.
When the Mattituck Free Library hired Jeanne as a clerk typist in 1988, she discovered the library was her niche. Within three years she went from clerk typist to interim director.
In 1991 Jeanne met Frank Wills at the library. He was a retired engineer, 34 years her senior. “We had a strong friendship, and then we realized we really loved each other,” Jeanne said. “He was totally encouraging of who I was and who I could become. That relationship gave me such a stable base. I finally had someone who was taking care of me.”
They married and were together for 20 years.
With Frank’s support, Jeanne graduated from the Union Theological Seminary in 2001, with a Master of Divinity.
In 2003, Jeanne founded Anam Cara, a bookstore and spiritual center in Southold. “It was about the internal life, the integrity of the human soul.” Jeanne said. “Being able to talk with people about the most important things in life. I wanted to develop a community base on that model.”
During this period, Jeanne was doing a type of counseling she called “companioning,” helping people who were struggling spiritually. When the bookstore was no longer financially viable she continued doing workshops out of her home.
In 2006, Jeanne discovered SoulCollage ®, a medium for self-exploration and sharing that involves the creation of cards that express different parts of your personality for sharing with a group, or on your own. Jeanne started leading workshops, and later, with a partner, began training facilitators and holding retreats, including one coming up at the Kripalu Institute. She also runs SoulCollage ® workshops locally.
When Frank passed away in 2012 after a long illness, Jeanne relied on family and friends for support. “It was one of the most profound experiences,” she said. “I felt his presence so strongly. I have never felt so surrounded in love as I have in those months after Frank died.”
Jeanne’s transition from spiritual counseling to her current work as a life coach came when she was facing the transition after Frank’s death, and a life coach offered her a free session. The coach helped her figure out how to move on from the home where she and Frank had lived. In the process, Jeanne realized that being a life coach might be a very good fit for her own skills as a counselor. “There is nothing more precious to me than deep conversation with people about meaningful things,” she said. “I love that sense of connection.”
She graduated this year from a program at the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, and is now a certified professional coach. Jeanne has started conducting workshops locally, and has one coming up called Navigating Life Transitions, on November 15 at the Shelter Island Public Library.
Jeanne’s daughters are grown with children of their own. Beth Young lives in Flanders and is founding editor of the East End Beacon. Shoshana lives in Baiting Hollow and is the author of “I Camped Utah.” Rivkah lives in California and just passed her bar exam to be a patent agent. Jeanne has three grandchildren; Beth’s son Isaac, 22; and Shoshana’s daughters Avenue, 17, and Viola, 15.
Jeanne moved to Shelter Island from Mattituck after Frank died, to satisfy her desire to be part of a close-knit community. She’s immersed herself, getting involved with reading to children at the school and volunteering at Mashomack.
“There is a bond that comes from living on an Island,” she said. “These are people who are going to be living with you for the rest of your life. It holds you accountable for being your best self.”
When was the last time you were elated? My daughter Shoshana wrote a book bon camping in Utah, and she took me on a camping trip to Canyonlands where we climbed the rocks behind the campground at sunrise to an incredible 360-degree view.
What do you always have with you? A notebook and a pen to write down the names of people I meet and where we met.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? The part of the yellow trail in Mashomack where the meadow meets the sea.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Mullaghmore in County Clare. Ireland.
What exasperates you? I think Americans have stopped talking and listening to each other and are listening to forces that don’t have their best interests in mind.
When was the last time you were afraid? I’m afraid about my grandchildren’s future, if they will be able to live in a free democracy.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The opening of the Havens Farmer’s market in June.
Favorite movie or book? “The Book of Runes,” by Ralph Blum.
Favorite food? Bastilla, a Moroccan dish.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian analyst and story teller.