Sunday, July 5, 2009

Harmons huddle into a traveling sisterhood

Telegram Staff Writer

Sunday afternoons were for dinner with the family.
That's the way it was for the 10 children of Joseph and Bertha Harmon of Moffat.
'It was the way all of us came together,' said Martha Tomme, the oldest daughter. 'Us five girls, and the five boys. We'd all come for supper, even after we were grown.'
But when Mrs. Harmon died 23 years ago, her fear was that the family would drift apart.
'We didn't want that to happen,' said Melinda Murray, the youngest daughter. 'So we tried to make it a point to continue to get together.'
Even though all of the 10 siblings lived within 40 minutes of each other, it was difficult to continue the routine.
'The dynamic of the family had changed,' said Martie Crocker, one of the sisters. 'Things weren't the same.'
So the group made a pact. They promised each other they would take a vacation together at least once a year.
'It doesn't matter where we go,' Mrs. Murray said. 'As long as we go somewhere.'
That pact transformed into an annual October camp-out at Cedar Ridge.
'That's when all of us get together,' Mrs. Crocker said. 'And it's a big group because we bring our husbands, kids and what not. Sometimes the siblings of our spouses tag along.'
So the Harmon family felt whole again - not the same as when they were young, but just as happy and just as united.
The group's approach to life after the death of their mother was normal and healthy.
'Things change,' said Vekram Mehra, an area psychologist and counselor. 'And the best thing you can do with that is accept it and learn how to live with it the best you can.' After hearing the story of Harmon siblings, Mehra said changing the tradition was the best move they could make.
'It's important to keep traditions,' Mehra said. 'But when a person like Mom dies, the tradition dies. She was part of it. So to honor her and salvage what you can, you change the tradition and keep it going. It reminds you of mom without making you miss her all the time or turning the Sunday dinner into a time for tears.'
So to Mehra it makes sense that the Harmon siblings couldn't continue to the Sunday dinner routine.
'They were trying to force it,' he said. 'It probably felt wrong without Mom there.'
But now they have an annual camp-out - a time that's reserved for family and memories.
'It's wonderful,' Mrs. Murray said.
And the first few camp-outs turned out to be so fun that the Harmon siblings decided they'd beef up their pact.
In addition to the October camp, the sisters take an annual vacation like a cruise or a weekend at the beach and the brothers go to Shreveport for gambling or Alaska for hunting.
'And those trips are an absolute blast,' Mrs. Crocker said.
It's just the girls, or just the boys, with a very few tag-alongs, like the occasional grandchild or sibling-in-law.
The girls - 'We've been everywhere,' Mrs. Murray said, listing the spots they've visited: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, the Grand Canyon, Cozumel and San Juan.
'I love those times,' said Loleta Wolbrueck, one of the sisters. 'We have a closeness, I think, that a lot of other sisters don't have the privilege of knowing. Most seem to bicker or not want to talk to each other. But we're friends, we live within blocks of each other, and we're on the phone with each other every day.'
Mrs. Tomme laughed.
'Yeah, these gals are a bunch of yakkers,' said Mrs. Tomme, the sister who's known for being the quietest.
Mrs. Murray grinned.
'If we don't hear from each other that day we'll actually think the other person's feelings are hurt,' Mrs. Murray said.
And it's the same way with the brothers, Mrs. Tomme said.
The bunches of children and grandchildren notice and envy the friendship and affection of the Harmon siblings.
Vivian Elliott, the sister who used to be a picky eater, said, 'The little ones will often ask, 'Why didn't you have more sisters or brothers for me?''
Her four sisters all laughed at that.
'They do ask that,' Mrs. Tomme said. 'And one good answer is birth control and the ability to plan.'
Such options were not available to Mrs. Harmon almost a century ago. All of her children were born about 22 months apart.
But there's another answer to the youngster's plea for more siblings, more of a nostalgic one.
'Families aren't as large as they used to be,' Mrs. Elliott said. 'People don't have the option of growing up in big families, with people always there and coming and going.'
It was a different way of life, the sisters said, one they are glad they were able to experience.
A bittersweet reminder of that came three years ago when their oldest brother, Deward Harmon, died.
'It was a train accident,' said Loleta Wolbrueck, another sister. 'And when he went, it was like a part of us died with him. That's when I started to tell everyone I loved them when I saw them. You never know if you're going to get to see them again.'

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