Last Monday, the Evergreen Outreach party was a special one, as they celebrated EO charter member Polly Grinnell’s 90th birthday with songs, well wishes, refreshments, and balloons.
And the guest of honor reciprocated by sitting down at the piano and playing one of her favorite songs, “Turkey In the Straw.”
Polly, who was born on Feb. 15, 1919, began taking piano lessons when she was 8 years old and was urged diligently by her mother to practice, practice, practice.
“I studied (piano) all the time,” she said. “My mother would say, ‘You’re not practicing – I don’t hear you.’ Then I’d get with it.”
Her mother was wise, because Polly, who still plays the piano like a concert performer, enjoyed a long, successful career as a piano and music teacher.
“I went to a musical college, McMurray College in Jacksonville, for four years,” Polly said.
She was already gifted at that point, playing for churches all over Jacksonville. ”My teacher wouldn’t let me walk on Sunday mornings. They said no to a little girl walking by herself, so sent a taxi for me,” she said.
She taught in Vandalia and Brownstown in Illinois, and in Idaho and California.
Polly shared some of her memories of teaching and traveling as a young wife with her husband, a Navy man, Max Grinnell.
“In the beginning, I taught music, and I also taught typing and shorthand. Then as time went on, I just taught music,” she said.
“I taught one year on Goreville. Then, when Max was moved, I tagged along,” she said. “He was sent to Idaho, so I went there. The first thing I did was get a job at the Pack River Lumber Co., which I didn’t know anything about.
“In the meantime, I got a job at the school and was working both jobs. We were there a year, then Max was sent to California, and, of course, I went along.”
She remembers one particular group of students in California.
“I taught one section of the eighth grade that was giving (teachers) a lot of trouble. We got to be great friends. An example of that is one young man who was so aggravating, the meanest thing. But when I got back to Illinois, I got the sweetest letter you would ever see from him,” she said.
“I couldn’t believe it. The others (teachers) had argued with him and fought with him, but I was firm with him.”
Memories of Max
Polly has wonderful memories of her late husband, Max. “When he built this house, he built it just for me,” she said. “Max was teaching agriculture here in Vandalia, and I was teaching in Brownstown.
“I would come over when school was out, and we would work on it until we gave out. He told one of the men working on it that he was making it for me, so I would have a place to stay.”
Polly said that Max was ill for a long time before he died about two years ago.
“I was always busy,” she said. “I never knew what it was to just sit down. It was unheard of.”
Arthritis has made walking very difficult for her, but she moves with a walker in her home and relies on a wheelchair when she goes out.
Her easy chair is positioned near the patio door and she enjoys watching the birds and squirrels in her back yard. “I have a little party that goes on, but it’s a little cold today. They have a big time out there,” she said, referring to the wild creatures.
She also has a special little visitor that comes in on her closed-in porch. A birdfeeder and partially-eaten ears of corn are in the middle of the carpeted porch floor.
“The squirrels and birds don’t come inside, but I have a little chipmunk, ‘Roscoe,’ who comes in a little hole somewhere. He never bothers anything; he just eats his corn and plays. Sometimes he comes up here to the door and looks in to see what I’m doing.”
She still plays the piano lively and beautifully. Although arthritis has seriously affected her legs, her hands and fingers are free of the disease.
Athough in the past, she read the music, she plays by ear a lot now, because, “It’s easier than trying to read the notes, the little notes.
However, her repertoire of songs seems endless as she plays for the Evergreen Outreach parties. Her fingers fly over the keys for a variety of tunes, such as two of her signature songs, “Turkey In The Straw” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as well as slower and mellow favorite old songs.
Belonging to the Presbyterian Church in Vandalia, she played the organ there, “for years and years,‘till my legs gave out,” she said.
“I play ‘Turkey in the Straw’ so much, that someone said, ‘When you die, that’s what we’re going to play,’ and I said, ‘That’s fine with me,’” she said, laughing.
“I play some at places, not too much,” she said. “I try not to get too much going, because my old frame won’t take it.”
She has enjoyed her life in music, teaching the children through the years. “I’ve always been pretty happy. I had several girls in Brownstown who were very good on the piano, and it makes me feel wonderful to know they play for their churches now. It makes me feel maybe the time wasn’t wasted after all,” she said.
“If I had one wish, I’d like to do it all over again, but that’s not possible.”
“But my greatest wish is to be with my husband again – that’s my greatest wish,” Polly said softly.
In the meantime, at age 90, she continues to brighten others’ lives with her gift of making beautiful music.