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Aunt Sandy’s train

By Steven Otte | December 18, 2023

A devoted nephew finishes a model train layout for his beloved aunt

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An N scale city scene at night with lighted skyscrapers
A view of the city scene on Ari Sandel’s Aunt Sandy’s train set. Although neither Ari nor his 79-year-old Aunt Sandy had ever completed a train layout before, the two of them built a spectacularly illuminated and operating N scale train layout in less than three years. Ari finished the layout after his aunt passed away. Photos by Ari Sandel

By Ari Sandel

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always loved miniatures, whether I was making models or painting toy soldiers. And though I always appreciated trains, I never had an actual train set because it seemed so intimidating.

Flash forward to me in my 40s, when I convinced my best friend to make a “Santa’s Village” for Christmas as a bonding activity for his two young daughters. I could see my friend was skeptical, but I promised to help him, which was really just a ploy for me to get to play with a train set. For the next three Christmases, this Santa’s Village grew to epic proportions as we added Styrofoam mountains, a second train, and lighting galore. It got to a point where my friend and I were working on it without his daughters, who didn’t really care. It eventually became the hit of his neighborhood, as neighbors brought their kids to see what we had created.

An overall view of the N scale layout, with a village in the foreground and city skyscrapers behind
This overall view of the layout shows the suburban town in the foreground and the city scene behind.

An idea and a gift

One day in December 2020, I proudly showed a video of it to my Aunt Sandy, with whom I was very close. A retired teacher, Sandy was always into crafts and loved miniatures as much as I did. Her doll house projects were amazingly detailed.

When she saw my video, she was absolutely enchanted. The first thing out of her mouth was, “Oh, I always wanted a train ever since I was a little girl. But when I asked Daddy for one, he said ‘little girls don’t play with trains.’” I heard this and was like, “What!?”

Since my friend’s Christmas village was finished and I needed a new excuse to buy a train, I decided that I would surprise her with a train for Christmas and maybe, “if I had the time,” help her set it up. To be honest, it was really my hope she’d fall in love with it and want to do it on her own. She was 79 years old, retired, and lived alone, and I thought she might welcome a new reason to get up in the morning. So without even asking whether she had the room for a train or even actually wanted one at her age, I went to my favorite train store in Los Angles, the Train Shack in Burbank, and bought Aunt Sandy’s train.

I decided on N scale because it could fit in her house better. Also, it was kind of adorable. I bought a Kato Santa Fe Super Chief starter pack that came with eight cars. I also bought her a second engine, extra track, a bridge, some trees, and a Woodland Scenics “J. Frank’s Grocery Store” so she would have at least one building. I also got her some N scale figures, mostly silly ones that I figured would make her laugh.

By the time I was done, the bill for Aunt Sandy’s train was close to $1,000, and I was seriously questioning my own sanity. What if she hated this? It’s like buying someone a pet. Yeah, it’s fun for a day, but once I leave, she’s stuck with it. Still, I hoped for the best.

When she opened it on Christmas, she thought it was fantastic! I could tell she was nervous, though. She’s not technical, and the electrical and construction aspects of a layout were intimidating. I promised I would help her every step of the way.

She commented on the J. Frank’s Grocery Store. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that her late husband was named Frank. And his middle initial was J! She took it as a sign, and now she was determined to start this thing. And so was I.

A model of a donut shop with a large donut lettered “Sandy’s Donuts” on the roof
Since Ari and Sandy were both living in the Los Angeles area, Ari bought his aunt a model kit of L.A.’s landmark Randy’s Donuts and re-lettered the iconic sign “Sandy’s Donuts.”

Getting started

The problem was, I had never actually built a layout. The Christmas village I did with my friend was always temporary, with Lemax porcelain houses. There was not much wiring, no construction, no plaster. I learned to cut foam, but that was it. So for me to “teach” my aunt, I had to learn it all myself first.

First, we set out to find a location for Aunt Sandy’s train set. To my surprise, she wanted it smack in the middle of her living room for everyone to see. No hidden-away basements for her. We got rid of her piano, moved some furniture, and taped out an area on the floor to see how big it could be. In the end, we settled on a layout that was much bigger than either of us imagined. We planned an L-shaped layout, 8 x 10 feet, and 5 feet wide. It was pretty enormous.

We tried to plan it out using layout programs but neither of us could really figure that out, so I found a guy online in London who said he’d do it for free. What luck! I then asked a carpenter friend of mine to build us a table frame that could break apart into sections in case we wanted to move it. He did an incredible job and built us a table on wheels with built-in drawers.

We decided on two trains at once, the Santa Fe for passengers and a more old-school steam engine for freight. Neither of us had the patience to learn Digital Command Control, so we kept it simple and went with direct current. One end of Aunt Sandy’s train layout would be a downtown with skyscrapers, and the other would be a suburban town square with shops. In between was farmland.

To be honest, we were both excited but also truly overwhelmed. I’d never modeled water; used resin, Mod Podge, or plaster; or even knew how to glue dirt to terrain. What I did know was how to paint. So we bought lots of structure kits, and I showed her how to prime, paint, drybrush, and weather them.

She was a quick learner, and before long, her entire dining room had become her workstation. She spent hours every night online watching videos, learning techniques, and getting new ideas. She had every paint color, paint brush, and tool. It quickly became her passion. Every day she painted and glued new buildings and they got better and better — a school, a house, a fire station. I, too, built buildings in my free time, mostly skyscrapers from Lunde Studios and Custom Model Railroads. I challenged her to take on the projects that scared her the most. Before long, she was also making skyscrapers and complex structures like Kibri’s massive French cathedral with stained glass. She even got an airbrush. It was awesome!

Light shows through the stained-glass windows of an elaborate stone cathedral model
Though Sandy had never built a model structure before, she watched instructional videos and soon was confident enough to tackle complex kits like Kibri’s N scale cathedral.

Construction begins

By the time she turned 80 that next April, after just four months at it, we had a cabinet full of finished buildings. We next got to work on the Aunt Sandy’s train layout itself. With extruded-foam insulation board as a base, we added giant foam blocks for mountains. After I taught her how to carve the mountains with a hot-wire cutter, we dug out a riverbed.

We drew out where the track would go and hot-glued it down to the base. Finally, we had a real train set. It was barren, but it was a start.

The biggest and most challenging aspect was incorporating MagnoRail into the set so we would have moving vehicles and traffic. When we saw it online we both thought, “we have to have that!” I will say, it was easier said than done. It was probably the most difficult, most time-consuming, and least enjoyable part of the process. But, when it’s up and running, it’s magical.

I routed the channels for the MagnoRail track and she vacuumed up the foam bits behind me with goggles on. We had two two-lane highways going both directions in our main downtown. Another two-lane highway went around our suburban town plaza, and a fifth route made a one-way road in the town square.

Miniature vehicles follow a track around city streets on a model railroad
When Ari and Sandy saw videos of MagnoRail online, they had to incorporate it into the layout. The system guides moving N scale cars around tracks milled into the road.

A shocking turn

In the middle of 2021, Aunt Sandy was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She had beaten it six years earlier, and we had hoped it was gone for good, but it came back. Aunt Sandy told me that as the doctor gave her the news, the only thing she could think was, “What if I can’t finish the train?” She had tears in her eyes when she told me that. I was crushed, but I assured her we were finishing this thing! We jokingly called it her “cancer train,” but I was more worried than I let show. We had so much left to do and we were about to get into the hardest parts that I really had no experience with. Still, I kept a positive face and assured her it was all going to happen.

In the first weeks after her diagnosis, as we continued working on Aunt Sandy’s train layout, she started chemotherapy again. This left her with barely enough energy to get out of her chair, let alone work on the train. She became like a different person – pale, gaunt, and exhausted. After weeks of this, she decided to stop the chemo. She wanted the energy to live out her life the way she wanted, even if that meant shortening it, rather than spend her final years sapped of the will to get up in the morning.

As a family, we all agreed. But we had no idea how much time she would have. Three years? Two years? Less? Who knew. But at the time, everything looked fine.

Figuring we needed some creative inspiration, we decided to take a field trip to the only train convention that was going on at the time, in Victorville, Calif., about two hours from us. Aunt Sandy was so excited as she donned her “I Still Play With Trains” T-shirt and we headed out to the convention center.

To say it was full of characters is an understatement. We bought a ton of stuff and had a great time. But as we looked at all the layouts, we looked at each other and thought, “We could give these people a run for their money!” We were getting pretty good at our craft, and Aunt Sandy’s train layout was starting to look awesome. We felt more confident than ever, and Sandy was feeling fine again. I was beginning to think the doctors had gotten her prognosis wrong and we’d get another 10 years out of her. I also felt we had plenty of time to finish the train.

By December of 2022, two years since we started, I was getting ready to use my Christmas break to spend a solid two weeks with her to get Aunt Sandy’s train to where it could be really amazing. Not finished, mind you, but with the buildings in place, roads down, and trees up. She was most excited about the trees and the foliage, since so far it was just a desert wasteland.

A row of illuminated houses stretch around a curving gravel road
The area between the city scene and the suburban one is farmland and mountains. Every structure on the layout is illuminated.

Last station call

Then out of the blue one night, my aunt complained about not being able to see things on her computer screen. She thought it was a problem with the screen and called my sister to help with it. My sister, a doctor, immediately recognized that it wasn’t the computer. Aunt Sandy’s vision impairment meant the cancer had traveled to her eyes and possibly her brain. We hadn’t expected this bad news to come so abruptly.

The next day I talked to Sandy on the phone and she seemed OK, just a little bit off. She didn’t get all my jokes, she was a little slow on my sarcasm, and was taking things I said oddly literally. We were all worried. By that night, her daughter was at the house and caring for her. The next day, hospice care moved a hospital bed into her living room. Sandy couldn’t remember things and was in and out of lucidity. It happened that fast, just a quick one-two punch. The warning signs we thought we’d see had never come.

The worst part was I couldn’t go see her. I had just come down with COVID-19, was home in bed, and didn’t dare expose her or anyone visiting her to the virus. I checked in regularly by phone and then, on the third day, she was suddenly up and moving around, talking and making jokes. We had no idea how long this would last. I hoped I would get better soon so I could go see her while she was feeling alert.

Later that night, her daughter helped her phone me. Sandy was fairly lucid, but in tears. She said, “I just wanted to call to tell you I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be able to finish the train.” I cried with her, because we knew it was the end. I felt so bad for not working faster on the train she loved so much and that she wouldn’t see the end result. Before we hung up, I promised to come see her the next day, COVID or not.

But she took a turn for the worse, and as I fought Southern California traffic on my way to her house, I got a call that she had maybe an hour left. I drove as fast as I could, but when I walked into her living room, she had just passed. I was crestfallen.

There she lay, eyes closed, gone, next to her beloved train. She was surrounded by her daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. It was an incredible sight of comfort in death, surrounded by love. I will never forget it.

A creek winds alongside the track on an N scale train layout
Although Sandy never got to see the model railroad with trees, ground cover, or figures, Ari was determined to complete it in time for her memorial.

Finishing the job

After much grieving, the family decided to plan a memorial at Sandy’s house. I made it my mission to finish that train in time for all to see it. I had three weeks, so I devoted every free minute I had to working on it. Though I was alone in her house, I felt her presence with me.

I glued the buildings down, painted the road lines, laid down the vegetation, bushes, and trees, wired all the lighting, finished the MagnoRail, laid out the vehicles, and added as many final touches as time would permit.

We had probably collected over 500 figures for our town over the previous two years, planning to glue them down as our final step, but those little N scale people are a real pain to glue. Who knew! So I picked a select group of about 30, as that’s all I had time for.

We had so many ideas and things we wanted to do that, alas, I couldn’t get to it all. But what I did finish, I must say, was pretty impressive, and exactly what she wanted.

When it came time for her memorial, more than 100 people came to pay their respects. We ate, drank, shared stories, and made speeches. But most of all, people gathered around her train set and marveled. It was truly awesome to see their reactions. I was so happy and proud of what we had made together, but mostly I was so happy that everyone could see what she had been working on all this time. Everyone remarked that this was all she talked about to them for the last two years. It had become a labor of love for her, and everyone knew it.

It started out as a gift to my aunt that was really just an excuse for me to play with trains. It became the gift to myself of being able to spend so much quality time with my aunt in her final years. And even though she never saw it finished, I think she would have been the first to say that it was never in the finishing, it was always in the doing.

And we really did good.

A man and woman smile in front of a partially completed train table
Ari and his Aunt Sandy pose in front of the layout in an early stage of construction.

For more model railroad visits, see the Model Train Layouts section of our website.

11 thoughts on “Aunt Sandy’s train

  1. What a wonderful TRIBUTE for your Aunt Sandy!! It is and was a great way to spend quality time with her!! Great job on the layout!!

  2. What a beautiful and heartfelt tribute. We should all be lucky enough to have someone make our final days and years as meaningful as you did for your Aunt Sandy. She might no longer be with us, but the memory and more importantly the spirit of this story will last forever.

    You really did do good and should be proud.

  3. Longtime N-scaler here. Christmas 1988 saw my father recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was released from the hospital just in time for Christmas. He was a lifelong railfan and on and off model railroader in H0. My then-wife and I basically had only one day to get ready for Christmas. But, what got my father the most was that underneath the Christmas tree was a circle of H0 track with the 1958 Marx blue and yellow diesel, NYC (Michigan Central) gondola, B & O wood-braced boxcar, and NYC bay-window caboose that I’d shown her how to get running. (That $10 Marx set from Children’s Discount Supermarket (later “Toys R Us”) was what got him into H0 as his mother had given his prewar Lionel to a scrap metal drive after he was reported MIA in the Battle of Normandie in WWII.) On what would be our last family trip -at Easter to Hawaii- we stopped in San Francisco for a couple of days on the way back. He wanted so much to go to the Sacramento museum. So, despite my dislike of the City and especially driving in it, I rented a Toyota Camry and we made the drive. Dad loved the museum! On the way back, we saw a freeway exit for Fairfield. I remembered the trolley museum and even though it would likely be closed on Friday, I asked him if he wanted to see it. He did. My future ex- navigated for me using only the roadmap we had. It was semi-open. One thing my father wanted to see was a freight motor that he’d likely seen as a child on the old Washington Baltimore & Annapolis. In the gift shop, my father mentioned it to one of the volunteers, Craig Ferguson. Craig told my father that if he could come back the next day, he’d have it out of the carbarn. We were back on Saturday morning. And, Craig had it out for him to see. Fast forward thirty-two years to November 2021. Divorced and retired, I’d flown to Boss Angeles for a long weekend to go to a one-day “Mini-Meet” of the SPT&HS in Glendale. While checking-in, I saw a guy named “Craig Ferguson”. I had to ask. Same person! I got to thank him once again for bringing joy to my father in his last days on this earth. If Craig sees this, I pray that you’ve been richly blessed. As you so blessed my father.

  4. One of the most inspiring train layout stories I have ever read. Being 82, I found it very personal. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Ari,
    thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story of your Aunt and the “train set”. It brought me to tears and that’s hard to do. You helped your Aunt in so many ways, I’m sure she was much appreciative as are we the readers… I’m so glad that this little girl got a chance to play with trains and build an incredible layout. Karma will repay you 10 fold.
    Cheers, Tug S.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful touching story that moved me to tears. What an amazing time you both shared as you fulfilled your aunt’s childhood wish! There are no such things as coincidences and the name of the store you chose for her was definitely a sign. Your aunt is certainly looking upon you and your work with tremendous love and happiness as surely she is still “playing with trains”. I wish you great blessings.

  7. I sit here in tears as I read this but what better memorial as a beautiful memorial at that. I know she’s looking down on You and happy with the railroad

    1. What a beautiful and heartfelt tribute. We should all be lucky enough to have someone make our final days and years as meaningful as you did for your Aunt Sandy. She might no longer be with us, but the memory and more importantly the spirit of this story will last forever.

      You really did do good and should be proud.

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