With an appetite for good company, deep and long-lasting friendships, Merrill surrounded herself with interesting and diverse people. She was a voracious reader, enjoyed the arts of painting, drawing, pottery, sculpture, music and dance, and took great pleasure in her garden where she grew roses among many other plants and was known to have lively gatherings with friends and family.
Helen Merrill McRae was born in East Orange, New Jersey to Ruby Carter Adams and Roderick Dhu McRae on Oct 24, 1934. She was raised in Coconut Grove, Florida by her mother and stepfather William Warnock Gibbs. She graduated from Coral Gables High School in 1951.
She married William Slocum (Bill) Tilghman in 1952 and was welcomed into the Tilghman family. After a brief period in New York City, the couple moved in 1953 to Santa Barbara, California where Merrill spent the rest of her life, living briefly in Sandyland and Montecito, then a long while in the foothills on Old San Marcos Road where the couple built a house on 10 acres. Merrill and Bill owned and ran the El Tecolote Bookshop in El Paseo for a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Merrill thrived in the artistic bohemian milieu of Mountain Drive during that era. After a divorce from Bill Tilghman, she partnered and had a son, Josef, with Jon Sikelianos and maintained a life-long bond with the Sikelianos clan. She spent the latter part of her life on Olive Street not far from the Santa Barbara Mission, where she was a “grand dame” of the neighborhood.
Merrill earned a B.A and an M.A. in English Literature at UCSB, where she attended during the 1960s while raising her family. She was passionate about teaching—not only literature, but art and cooking classes—throughout her life. In addition to her formal education Merrill seriously studied astrology and embraced an eclectic approach to the spiritual side of life including Eastern religions.
She had life-long love of animals and often surrounded herself with a menagerie. Always a commanding presence, she will be remembered and missed by a large circle of friends and acquaintances, especially creative types, from many walks of life.
She died peacefully at home on September 9, 2021, surrounded by loving family members. Predeceased by her parents, a son William Tilghman, a daughter Anna Maria (Amy) Tilghman Goldsmith, ex-husband William. S. Tilghman, ex-partner Jon Sikelianos, Merrill is survived by son Tench Tilghman and wife Robin Tilghman (Fresno, CA), daughter Alison Tilghman Kline and husband Kenneth P. Kline (Woods Hole, MA), son Josef Jon Sikelianos and wife Katherine (Kat) R. White (Oakland, CA), her sister Nora Gibbs Merrill and husband Thomas Merrill (Gainesville, FL), stepsisters Rebecca Gibbs (Cincinnati, OH), Denny Gibbs (Sanford, FL), Eleanor (Robbie) Miller (Flagler Beach, FL), and Emilie Gibbs (Orlando, FL), stepbrother Tucker Gibbs (Coconut Grove, FL), stepdaughters Eleni Sikelianos (Providence, RI) and Pouli Sikelianos (Mora, NM) and stepson Zeke Sikelianos (Berkely, CA), grandchildren Jason K. Musacchia (Falmouth, MA), Moses Tilghman and Ana Tilghman (Fresno, CA), and great grandchildren Judah and Ezra Tilghman (Fresno, CA).