I well remember my childhood visits to Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s house at 1017 Union Street in Hannibal, Mo. We spent some days with my mother’s parents during our two or three visits each year.
There were times they’d visit us, too. They’d take the train from Hannibal to Galesburg, and we’d pick them up there and bring them the rest of the way.
To look at it their house today, it’s just an old white house on a terrace in an aging neighborhood. But back then, to my young eyes, it was a stately mansion sitting proudly atop a hill.
My brother and I would swing for hours in the swing on the screened-in front porch. We didn’t have one of those at home. Grandpa, Benjamin Thomas Miller, a retired railroad man, would get on us mildly when we’d get too aggressive while swinging and bump the railing behind the swing.
I’d play with my diecast metal toy cars, made by Tootsietoy, on the hilly terrain. Sometimes my brother and I, my dad and I, or all three of us, would play catch in the back yard.
Grandpa Ben had a huge shed in the back yard. It had a dirt floor and was dark and musty smelling. Grandpa was a saver, and I always wanted to explore his shed, seeing what treasures I could find in it. But when he went inside to get something and I’d follow, he’d never let me stray too far. I always wondered why.
Sometimes during our Union Street stays, I’d visit Nellie Fisher, the widow woman who lived next door to my grandparents on the downhill side. She was a nice old lady and, I guess, lonely.
Sometimes, when I was in my early teens, she’d invite me inside for tea. We’d sit in her living room drinking hot tea and chatting, and I felt like a grownup. The only time I remember drinking hot tea at home was when I was sick.
My brother and I would also play with some neighbor kids, the Bozarths, who lived two doors down from our grandparents, next to Mrs. Fisher. Keith was about my age, and I had a crush on his older sister, Linda. I think they had an older brother, and there was a younger brother Bruce’s age. It was on Bozarth’s front steps that I learned from Linda how to play rock school, something I later taught my daughter Andrea’s children.
I’d also play with “Skippy” Webster when in Hannibal. He was a tall kid who lived across the alley from the Millers and was so skinny he had to hold his jeans up with suspenders.
As I recall, Skippy; his mother, the former Kathryn Saunders; and his father Charlie; lived with Kathryn’s mother or grandmother.
Skippy was an only child and had some really neat toys. But we’d have to be fairly quiet around his place during the day because his dad, who became somewhat a legend in later years around Hannibal, was a policeman who worked nights and slept days.
One of the fun things about a visit to Union Street was going shopping with my Aunt Doris, who was unmarried for most of her life and lived with her parents.
We’d sometimes take Doris’s folding grocery cart — the Millers never owned a car to my knowledge — and head down Union Street to shop at two stores, Hy-Klas Market and Booth’s Dairy Store. Oddly enough, they sat side by side. Doris would buy some items at each business.
The stores were just a stone’s throw from a single-bay firehouse on the corner at the foot of Union Street. It housed one open-air, 1920s pumper that I think seldom left the station. On warm summer nights when we’d drive by, several firefighters would be sitting outside the station in wooden chairs, hiked up in front and leaning against the brick building, chatting.
My grandma, Minnie Francis Miller, loved plants and flowers and her house and its yard were full of them. Her house also was full of what-nots. She always wore flower-print dresses and often an apron.
Grandma was friendly and kind and smiled a lot. She wasn’t loud or demonstrative despite have raised half a dozen kids, often alone, because her husband was gone a lot with this job on the railroad.
I remember one story from my grandmother’s childhood. She said she had to walk through some woods to get to school. Her family was poor, and she didn’t have shoes.
Once in a while her bare feet would come down on a snake as she went to school, and she’d just step a little higher and faster.
My grandfather was a tall man with thick, white hair, a sense of humor — he liked to tease — a big belly and thick glasses. He wore longsleeve denim shirts year-round and held his trousers up with suspenders. He always carried a pocketknife in his pants pocket and always had a pencil or two in the pocket of his shirt.
Thanks to cataract surgery, Grandpa’s eyes were quite sensitive to light. So he often wore clip-on sunglasses, even in the house. And his straw hat had a green eyeshade in the front part of the brim.
By the time I remember Grandpa Ben, he was getting up in years and not too steady on his feet anymore. Once they joked how he had fallen in his sitting room because, when he had gotten out of his rocker and tried to walk, he’d forgotten his legs had been crossed and his feet got tangled up.
Grandpa’s mind was sharp, and he’d sometimes share stories about his years of working on the railroad, where he’d started as a teenage waterboy on a section gang and ended up a passenger train conductor. I wish I could remember more stories, but only two come to mind.
One is about a train Grandpa was on going up a steep hill when two of the cars became uncoupled, sending the back half of the train back down the hill, out of control. I can’t remember whether or not it derailed.
The other story was about a real hot day on a passenger train. When the train pulled into a station, one of the passengers, a man, saw a bucket of water on the dock. He was so hot, he stuck his head into it, and died instantly.
Grandpa had one thing in life that really bothered him — that was dogs running loose in the neighborhood. Hannibal apparently didn’t have a leash law in the ’60s, and Grandpa Ben was tired of big dogs leaving piles of poop in his yard.
The dogs wouldn’t depart when Grandpa yelled at them, and he was in no shape to chase them. So he gathered some good-sized rocks on his front porch railing by the screen door. And he would throw one occassionally to get a pooping dog’s attention.
It was a good plan until one of his rocks hit a car passing by, and the angry driver stopped. The rock-throwing also stopped.
Breakfast was always a big affair at the Miller house, supposedly because Grandma, who had diabetes, had to eat well. There were always fried eggs, bacon, toast, oatmeal and cold cereal on the table.
Grandpa sat at the head of the table, and it was his job — exclusively — to operate the toaster. He took that task very seriously, and none of us ever challenged him on it.
Grandpa Ben liked to play with words. He’d say things like, “we have an abundance of superfluency here.”
He also taught me about the “swattermock,” something I passed onto my grandchildren. The basement of the Miller house had been dug out after the house was built and was a dark, dank, musty place. I’d only be permitted down the narrow, winding basement stairs on laundry day to watch the action.
The basement had a large, open sump hole, and Grandpa was afraid I’d fall into it and drown. So he’d tell me, and presumably other children, that a monster — a swattermock — lived in the water-filled hole, so I’d best stay clear of it, or the swattermock would get me. His plan worked. I never fell into the water with the swattermock.
One thing my grandfather taught me that I will always remember is a nursery rhyme he had learned as a child. I tried to get my grandchildren to memorize it, too.
It goes like this:
Ery, ory, ickery, Ann
Phillisan, phallisan, nickwish, John
English navy, quevy, quavy
Stickum, stankum, buck.
I have in recent times found numerous variations of this rhyme — one uses the word Nicholas instead of nickwish — on page 95 of the public domain book, “The Counting-out Rhymes of Children, Their Antiquity, Origin, and Wide Distribution, a Study in Folk-Lore,” by Henry Carrington Bolton, D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1888. The book has been digitalized by Google.
The only bad part of a visit to the Millers was trying to sleep there on a hot summer night. Their house wasn’t air conditioned, and they had few fans.
There were two bedrooms. Grandma and Grandpa slept in the back bedroom. Mom and Dad got the front bedroom off the sitting room, where Bruce and I slept on a hideabed. Doris slept on a sofa in the formal living room.
The Millers went to bed early — always before the town’s sirens wailed at 10 p.m., signaling curfew time for juveniles. And I spent a lot of time tossing and turning in sheets made wet with sweat.
I’d often hear the Miller’s mantle clock in the dining room, which chimed every 15 minutes, for an hour or more before I’d drift off to sleep.
Using the bathroom there at night was awkward, too. Holding just a toilet and a clawfoot tub and no sink, the small room apparently was added off Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom after the house had been built. One had to tiptoe past their bed on creaky floors to use the toilet.
Here are some other memories of the Millers.
I remember using their phone before it had a dial. All of the calls were completed by the operator. Once, I was permitted to call my Aunt Louise, whose number was 3868. I picked up the receiver and a woman operator said, “Number pulleeese.” I said 3-8-6-8 and was soon speaking to my aunt. I don’t remember the Miller’s number in the pre-dial days, but my Grandma Roberts’s number was 27W. When the community went to dial phones, Aunt Louise’s number became Academy 1 (or AC1) 3868. Grandma Roberts’ became AC1-0027. Eventually Academy 1 was referred to merely as 221.
It was at the Miller house that I first saw my dad cry. It was probably in the early ’60s and Dad had received a call notifying him that his boss, Keith Hunter, had died of a heart attack. Hunter was a tough boss but Dad learned a lot from him and respected him.
I believe it was after lunch that the family was gathered in the kitchen and dining room but I noticed that my dad was missing. I found him in the sitting room lying face down on the sofa, sobbing. I didn’t know what to do, so I quietly walked away. That made a lasting impression on me.
Weekday afternoon TV was a big deal at the Miller house. Grandma had some soap operas she followed religously and both Grandma and Grandpa Miller watched a program called “Divorce Court.”
According to the Internet, the program debuted in 1957 and lasted 12 seasons. If you phoned while Grandma was watching one of her programs, you were out of luck. She wouldn’t answer.
Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.