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Remembering Polly Baumgardner Shank

Michael Hillman

There's an old saying: 'You're only as old as you feel.' In Polly's case, she celebrated her 4th birthday 86 times.

While age gave her wisdom, she refused to yield her child like view of the world. A view that all people were good and kind; that the dawn of every day brought new hope and opportunity; that watching a flower open or a egg hatch was as wondrous as watching man land on the moon; that listening to an old person reminisce, or a young child recall their exploits at the playground, was as important, nay more important, then anything one would ever do.

Polly understood the importance of hard work, and never shirked it, but she never placed it on a higher pedestal than playing. She understood the importance of a helping hand or a kind deed, especially when it was unexpected. She understood the value of a smile, a laugh, a kind word, and made it her mission in life to share her ever present smile with everyone she met.

In short, she led the life many of us only dream of, and she led it well.

While some might remember her as a hunched over 90 year old, try as I might, I can't picture her as anything but a happy-go-lucky 4 year old sneaking off from her chores with her sister, Jane, to play 'pick and hit a brick' on the side of their house, with the ball they had hidden from their ever vigilant sister, Ann.

Close your eyes and imagine the joyous smile and laughter of a little girl on a lazy summer afternoon playing under a large shady tree, its leaves gently rustling in the breeze. Of a little girl shouting with glee as lemonade and fresh cookies were served. Imagine a mother standing next to her youngest, lovingly stroking her hair. That image is one of Polly.

Imagine a innocent girl holding onto a mother's skirt in a kitchen filled with aromas of fresh baked pies and bread, and wondering why all the church bells were ringing. Imagine her reaction when she saw her sister, Dorothy, come racing up the road on horse drawn cart, pig-tails flying, yelling "the war is over, the war is over." Imagine a little girl watching her mother cry as she listened of the news on the party line, all the while wondering 'what was war?' That innocent child was Polly.

Imagine a young child who every morning rose before sunrise and joined her sisters in milking the family cows, sat with them for breakfast, and left with them for school, but was almost always late for class because she'd stop and talk to all the old women along the path who found joy and hope in talking to the sparkling eyed child. That young child was Polly.

Imagine a curious little girl wandering out of her aunt's house and into the adjoining house, where she would sit and watch in silence and wonder for hours as the telephone switchboard operators gossiped and placed calls. That curious little girl was Polly

Imagine a young girl crying as she watched her proud uncle's parade down Main Street through hostile crowds for a crime she didn't understand. Imagine a young girl listening to her parents whispering about coming financial difficulties, trials, and family shame. Imagine the pain of a girl losing her ability to talk proudly of her once prominent extended family. That young girl was Polly.

Imagine a mischievous 12 year old girl eager to drive, and when given the opportunity, scarring her companions so badly they sought to jump from the weaving auto! Image a girl perfecting the art of synchronizing the gears on a family's old Model-T, and grinding the gears so loudly that the giggle of her fellow sisters could be heard over the grinding clear down to the main house! That mischievous 12 year-old was Polly.

Imagine a school girl sitting in a one room school house listening as the older classes were given their instructions. Imagine a school girl who prided herself on always doing her homework, on always being prepared. Then imagine the one and only day she failed to do her homework ... the very day the teacher chose to call upon her. That mortified school girl was Polly.

Imagine a bright high-school student who excelled as much in the classroom as she did on the sports field. A student who could recite the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence from memory. A student who could whip through fraction conversion, name and locate the capitals of the world, and explain the difference between future perfect tense, dangling participles, and conjunctive clauses. A student who could 'swish' a basketball from 25 feet, slam a home run, and fire a hockey ball between a goalie's feet while at a dead run. That bright high-school student was Polly.

Imagine a budding beauty skating with friends on a cold winter night. Imagine her flirting with would-be suitors around a roaring bonfire, and hoping her parents would soon depart for home. Imagine her skating for miles, hand-in-hand with some lucky young man, along the moon-lit winding path of the frozen creek That budding beauty was Polly.

Imagine a young woman working at her first job. Imagine her arriving early to help set out the silverware, engaging in polite conversation and taking orders for patrons who most likely had once or twice changed her diapers. Image her arriving home late, so tired from standing on her feet all day that it was a wonder to her how she never had an accident. That young woman was Polly.

Imagine a lucky woman meeting the man of her dreams. Imagine them nestled together in his car planning their lives together. Imagine the joy of her marriage and the birth of her first child. Imagine her encouraging "Dad," as she affectionately called her husband, to pursue his love of flying. Image the scene when he one day asked her to help launch his newly constructed hand glider - with his large six foot plus frame easily running with the body and she, with her small 5 foot frame struggling to hold up the tail. Imagine her finally giving up and falling to the ground, giggling uncontrollably. That lucky young women was Polly.

Imagine a young mother with children all about. Image her rising early to make them their breakfast and swooshing them out the door for school. Imagine that mother spending the day helping her husband run the family mill; taking orders over the phone, sowing up grain sacks, and tidying up the shop at night. Imagine a young mother who could whip out a fresh baked pie faster then the time it would take you to run to the store to get one today. Imagine a young mother who ran a home that all the kids wanted to play at. That young mother was Polly.

Imagine a loving mother who instilled in her children a love for God, a love for their church, a love for nature, and a love for all mankind. Imagine a mother who taught her children right from wrong, to love with all their heart, to laugh with all their soul, to excel in all their pursuits, and to trust implicitly in each other and all they met. Imagine a mother who taught her children that God was good, that no matter what burden they might carry, it would always be lighter if they shared it with God. That no matter how dim their prospect might be, as long as they kept God in their hearts, they would always find a path home. That loving mother was Polly.

Imagine an old women with a memory as sharp as a pin, who understood the importance of sharing her memories, and took the time to do so with a stranger she barely knew. Imagine her driving down roads of her youth, recalling events of days gone by as if they had happened only yesterday. Imagine sitting listening to her as she brought back to life people and events long since forgotten. Imagine seeing the tears in her eyes when she learns that her uncle's had been unjustly charged with a crime, and that instead of being criminals, they were victims. Imagine her smile as she reads about her family's history and knows that she has done her part in restoring its proud heritage. That old woman was Polly.

Imagine a new widow, grieving inside for the loss of her husband, her best friend, her soul mate. Imagine her more concerned about the feeling of her children, the feeling of others. Image the widow after the funeral more worried about making sure everyone came to the luncheon than waiting to receive people's sympathies. That widow was Polly.

On Whit Sunday, 2005, God chose to call Polly home. Whit Sunday commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles, when 'they were all with one accord in one place,' after the ascension of our Lord; on which occasion they received the gift of tongues, that they might impart the gospel to foreign nations. It was a fitting day to be called home for a women who while she never imparted the gospel to foreign nations, treasured imparting it as a lifelong Sunday school teacher.

There is another old saying: That as long as one keeps the memory of someone alive, they will never be truly dead. Never was this saying truer then in the case of Polly. She will live on in the memory of her loving children, their prodigy, and their prodigy. She will live on in the memory of her friends and all those who met her. And last but least, she will live on in the memory of all those who will read the new History of Emmitsburg, for it will be a reflection of her memories of the people and events of the charming town she called home.

In many ways Emmitsburg was Polly and Polly was Emmitsburg. Long may the thought of both bring a smile to one's face.

To learn more about Polly's extraordinary life, Read: Reminiscing with Polly Baumgardner Shank.  To learn more about her husband, Weldon, Read: Remembering Weldon Shank