On a bright sunny morning, Polly Gilmore puts on her straw hat and heads to the shed to spring her 25-year-old riding mower from hiding. Because of the mower’s age, she jiggles this and that to get it started—she doesn’t see the sense in buying a new mower while this one is still working just fine. With the engine cranked, Polly draws a linear pattern with her mower blades back and forth across her lawn. First she will tackle the front yard, then the backyard, and then an adjacent patch of land owned by the city, trimming and blowing leaves off of all of it. And it’s no surprise her well-manicured lawn and knock-out rose bushes won her the 2015 the Vestavia Hills Beautification Award.
Oh, and did we mention Polly is 90 years old—or rather 90 years young?
When asked her secret to the fountain of youth, Polly laughs. “It’s hard work, not giving up staying busy, and spending time with friends and family,” she says. “If all I did was sit down and watch television, I think it would be over.”
On another day you might find Polly driving her car to get pine straw and spreading it herself. “I’ve learned the secret to spreading pine straw is that you grab small clumps and drop it,” she says. “It makes it fluffy. And to get the professional edge I learned from the pine straw seller that you use a blower to even it up. Even at 90 I learn something new every day—it’s amazing!”
One of Polly’s favorite things to do is to stand back and enjoy looking at the job she completed. After all, she likes to accomplish something every day, she’ll tell you with a smile.
Polly is a living example that at any age anything is possible. Her zest for life is contagious. Her, wit, mind and memory are sharper than her mower blades. Her blue eyes sparkle with laughter, and her smile is as warm as the sun as she talks about working in her yard.
Her penchant for hard work began when she was a child. Polly grew up with seven brothers and sisters in the Overton community near Cahaba Heights, and her dad was a coal miner. “Everyone had a job back then,” she recounts. She and her sister were in charge of indoor cleaning but also learned about farming and raising animals. Then, like today, hard work wasn’t a chore. She enjoyed being busy.
Her family had chickens and cows and grew much of their own vegetables and fruit. “The only thing Momma would have to buy was flour and sugar,” she says. “In fact Momma would make our clothes out of the flour sacks. The sacks came in floral patterns for just that purpose.” In the early days their family had a horse but no car.
Polly gleaned some of her mental toughness and never-give-up attitude from her late husband Clyde Gilmore too. At 18 she met the love of her life, a war hero and former prisoner of war returning from World War II.
Clyde was taken prisoner by the Japanese while serving in the Philippines. The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, he was one of the 60,000 to 80,000 U.S. and Philippine soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced on the Bataan Death March. He and the rest were tortured and barely had enough to eat. Conditions were filthy, degrading and dangerous, and they basically treated worse than animals. Many of the men died.
Sometimes Clyde would have to sleep next to a dead body until the morning came, he later told his wife. Those who did survive these treacherous conditions came back to the U.S. plagued with health issues. Clyde was no exception. He returned with tuberculosis, dysentery and beriberi (a thiamine deficiency) but still went to school to become an electrician.
The couple found a tiny house on a small patch of land in Vestavia Hills in 1947. At the time there were only six small houses on the street, but today you’ll find couple of dozen. Quickly they realized the three-room home with no indoor plumbing would not be suitable for a family, so while Clyde went to school to learn to become an electrician, Polly and her brother Warren Patterson worked on building the home most of the week. When Clyde came home from school and work, he would also help build their new home.
“Yes, I held the main beam while my brother nailed it in place,” Polly recalls. “And there were no power tools back them. My brother hand-picked each piece of wood.”
That same house is very sturdy to this day, and Polly makes sure the it is painted and that windows caulked and generally kept in good condition. It’s as if the sun is always shining inside Polly’s home, no matter what the weather outside with the pride she takes in her home she helped build.
When Polly was 45, Clyde died after a long battle with cancer, and she was left with four children to care for, the youngest ages 12 and 14. She knew there was no such thing as giving up, so in order to pay bills and keep food on the table, Polly worked as a greeter at Brookwood Hospital. There she made lifelong friends just as she continues to do today on her daily walks (yes, she walks every day) and wherever she goes.
Polly never meets a stranger and has a good word for those she meets. Her smile is teasing, and her sense of humor never quits. “Imagine me making some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my 80s,” she says, again laughing as her crystal blue eyes sparkle with delight.
She lovingly listens as her friends share about their lives—domestic violence, health issues, deaths in the family—and offers her own stories of loss. She often shares that she knows God has each of us here and now for a reason, lending a sympathetic ear and offer advice to stay strong.
Just as Polly keeps her yard and her mower in tip top shape, with a tune-up every six months, she keeps her own check-ups at her doctor regularly. She’ll readily advise others to get rid of junk in your life and take care of what God gave you. In fact, she drives from Vestavia Hills two hours north to take her sister who is living in a nursing home to doctor’s appointments. If one of her sisters needs her help, she hits the road and drives and hour to an hour and a half to help.
Hard work and caring for others—that’s Polly’s her secret to the fountain of youth. “Life is too short,” she says. “Enjoy your life. Don’t waste your days worrying, and if you are in a dire dangerous situation, the quickest way out is too slow.”