Day 24 Grandpa, the Train Man

Great Grandparents, Sherm and Hattie Harmon

Great Grandparents, Sherm and Hattie Harmon

My Great Grandpa Harmon lived a stone’s throw from the train tracks in Emmett, Michigan. The family had big gatherings on Father’s Day, and I remember Grandpa sitting on the front porch while all the kids played. Every hour or so we would run up to him and ask, “When is the next train coming, Grandpa?” He worked at the depot for many years before retiring, and he knew the schedule by heart.

He would look at his watch and tell us to the minute when the next train would arrive. If the time was short, we would dash over to the side of the tracks and wait for the first glimpse of the train.

It doesn’t sound very safe to let kids so close to train tracks, but the adults were watching and I’m sure we were scolded if we ventured too close. It was so exciting to feel the whoosh of air as each car passed. We would count them until we lost track.

By the 60s, passenger trains were not running much, but freight trains were still a regular sight in Grandpa’s neighborhood.

As much fun as it was to count train cars and play in Grandpa’s yard, it was even better when he came to visit my grandmother (his daughter). He was well into his eighties and still driving the sixty miles to our town by himself.

Great Grandparents having fun

Great Grandparents having fun

One time when Grandpa Harmon was visiting, he was playing with us. I ran circles through the living room, into the hallway, to the kitchen and back into the living room. On one of my trips around, my mother grabbed me and scolded, “Don’t play so rough with Grandpa. He’s old!”

“It’s not my fault, Momma. Every time I run past Grandpa, he pulls my pants up real tight.”

Even in his eighties he enjoyed giving a good wedgie.

Grandpa Harmon with me and my sister

Grandpa Harmon with me and my sister

Another thing Grandpa did was to hold my mother and tell us to tickle her feet. He knew that was her most ticklish spot. He’d hold her arms tight so she couldn’t get away while we tickled her into submission.

I can see Grandpa’s sense of humor in this picture with their dog sitting in a chair. It’s a copy of a copy, so it’s not great quality, but it’s one of my favorite pictures of Grandpa.

Grandpa and Grandma pose with their dog.

Grandpa and Grandma pose with their dog.

Only a few years ago when I started researching my family tree, I learned some other things about Grandpa Harmon. He was often called upon to break up fights. The train depot was across the street from a hotel and a bar. Whenever a fight broke out, somebody would yell, “Go get Sherm!” All he had to do was show up, and the guys would say, “We were just stopping, Sherm.” According to my mother, Grandpa rarely had to get physical. His size and reputation were enough to put the kibosh on their shenanigans.

Socks Knit with Hand Dyed Yarn

Socks Knit with Hand Dyed Yarn (Photo credit: sumptinelse)

My mother told me another bit of trivia when I was learning how to knit socks. “Grandpa Harmon knew how to knit,” she told me.


“Yes, during World War I when women were knitting socks for the servicemen, they often called upon him to turn the heel.”

I haven’t mastered the skill of knitting socks yet, but knowing my Grandpa could do it so well inspires me to keep learning.

I wish I knew more stories about Great Grandpa Harmon. At least his sense of humor was passed down in my family. My brother, Les has always been a jokester, but that’s another story I’ll save for another day on my 31 Days of Family Joy.

This post is part of my 31 Days of Family Joy, linking up with


Day 21 Hillbilly Breakfast

Back in 1974 when my husband and I announced our plan to get married in three days and go to Florida, my mother-in-law told him, “You know your Mamaw and Papaw won’t be able to come.”

“I know,” hubby answered, “but we will stop on the way to Florida and spend a few days.”

Mamaw and Papaw Miracle lived in Tennessee at the time, but had raised their family in the hills of Kentucky. When we arrived, Mamaw (Hazel) Miracle waited on us like we were royalty, and the next morning she laid out a spread our family calls Hillbilly breakfast–bacon, eggs, biscuits and milk gravy.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Buttermilk Biscuits (Photo credit: Bordecia34)

Mamaw’s biscuit-making procedure was new to me, even though I was the daughter of a baker. She put shortening and milk in a bowl of flour and worked it in with her fingers, making one biscuit at a time. I ate five of them that morning! Delicious.

For several years. Mamaw’s was our half-way stop on the way to and from Michigan. She would cook for us as long as she was able, and she’d press a few bills into my husband’s hand for gas money as we were leaving.

Mamaw Hazel Miracle telling stories

Mamaw Hazel Miracle telling stories

On one of our stops, the power was out when it was time to make breakfast. Without missing a beat, Mamaw went into her shed. She got a fire going in an old, black, cast-iron stove and cooked breakfast for us. I was in awe of how easy she made it look. The biscuits were baked to golden-brown perfection, and my eggs cooked over-easy. It was no great stretch for Mamaw to make breakfast on a wood stove. She grew up in the hills too and ran a home without electricity for years.

Woman cooking on a wood cook stove in a house ...

Woman cooking on a wood cook stove in a house at Delta Cooperative (Photo credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University)

Our kids were fascinated to watch Mamaw at work. While we sat and watched her, a big, aluminum washtub caught their eyes. After breakfast Mamaw pulled it and a washboard out and showed the kids how to use them. (Notice little Sarah’s concentration in the lower right corner picture.) At the time (about 1991) Mamaw still used an old wringer washer.

Kids and the washtub

Kids and the washtub

The flavors of the south continue to be a traditional part of our family gatherings. Any time we are in Michigan to visit, we have a big Hillbilly breakfast. My father-in-law, Glen usually starts by cooking the bacon, and he often fries up a skillet of potatoes too. My mother-in-law, Millie made scratch biscuits for many years before she chose to take a shortcut and bake frozen biscuits. It takes a big batch of biscuits and gravy to feed the whole gang.

As a young woman, I learned how to make the milk gravy, although it was never as good as Mamaw’s or Millie’s. As I am writing this, I realize my own daughters haven’t yet mastered the art of making milk gravy. It’s not their fault, though. They are still young enough to be on the receiving end of this family fare. As we get older, they will keep the Hillbilly breakfast tradition alive.

What traditional meals do you have at big, family gatherings? What are the roots of those favorite foods?

Day 7 One Grandma’s Decision

When I was growing up, I remember my Grandma Dorothy Merchant spreading old photo albums on her lap. She would gently turn the flaking black pages and tell me about the people in her childhood. I wasn’t very interested at the time, but now that I’m a grandmother, I wish I had paid more attention to those stories.

A few years ago I started a heritage album of my own. I inherited some of Grandma Dorothy’s pictures, given to me by my mother, and I wanted to preserve them for future generations. This was one of the oldest pictures in the stack, my great, great grandmother.

My Great Great Grandma McPhee

My Great Great Grandma McPhee

I knew she was a McPhee, but didn’t know her first name. Since then, I’ve done some research into my ancestry. I learned some interesting things about Great Great Grandma McPhee. She made a decision that affected many generations. She raised my Grandma Dorothy from infancy to adulthood.

Back in the early 1900s tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in America. My paternal great grandmother (Dorothy’s mother) died of it a few months after giving birth to my grandmother. Her father couldn’t care for her because his work required him to travel, so Dorothy went to live with her grandmother.

At four months old, one of Dorothy’s aunts took her by train to a little farming community in Michigan. Dorothy’s grandmother, Mary MacDonald McPhee, was in her sixties when she took Dorothy in. It couldn’t have been easy for her at that age.

My grandmother, Dorothy McPhee Merchant

My grandmother, Dorothy McPhee Merchant

I’ve often wondered what it was like to live with her Scottish grandmother. Did Grandma McPhee speak with a Scottish brogue or sing lullabies in Gaelic? I have other photos that help piece together some events of my grandmother’s life, and I found nuggets of information in the local newspaper archives online.

For instance, Great Great Grandma McPhee gave Dorothy a birthday party and invited “several of her little friends.” It’s clear that Grandma McPhee loved her granddaughter dearly. This picture in front of her grandma’s house, taken about 1910, offers more evidence of that. Dorothy’s doll sits in a child’s rocker and a small parasol lays next to it.

Great Great Grandma McPhee with my grandmother, Dorothy

Great Great Grandma McPhee with my grandmother, Dorothy

More than 100 years ago, my great great grandmother set things in motion for Dorothy to grow up and marry a local farmer. They had a little boy, Stuart, who grew up, married and had four children. I was number three.

What if Grandma McPhee hadn’t raised my grandmother? Dorothy would have lived with another family member in a different town, married someone else and I would never have been born.

I don’t know all the details of Grandma McPhee’s decision to raise her baby granddaughter, but I’m one of the results. It’s fun to share these pictures with my grandchildren and tell them about their Scottish heritage. I’ll do my best to put names to the faces of the old family photos, so my grandchildren can tell their children some day.

Do you know any stories of your grandparents or great grandparents? Share them with your children and grandchildren. Pull out old photo albums and explain how someone’s decisions many years ago affected their lives.