She helped invent the modern woman

Our daughter told my favorite story about her grandmother at the funeral last week for my 104-year-old mother-in-law.

The story said a lot about Polly Colvin, a woman born in a small north Louisiana town before World War I, who remembered the first car and first airplane she saw and who helped invent the modern American woman.

Over her father’s objections, Polly drove her Ford across the South, up the East Coast and into New York City in the 1920s. Polly’s father, who was born before the Civil War, couldn’t imagine such a trip for his daughter and three of her friends without a man along to protect them.

Polly wasn’t overly concerned about engine trouble, flat tires, the scarcity of auto garages or getting lost.

In thick New York traffic, unable to find their hotel, Polly pulled alongside a truck driver to ask directions to the Pennsylvania Hotel.

The hotel was more than a hundred blocks “back the other way,” the truck driver said.

“Where am I going to turn around?” she asked.

“Wherever you’re man enough to, lady,” the truck driver said.

Polly did a U-turn. She and her passengers counted the blocks to the Pennsylvania Hotel on Seventh Avenue, across the street from Penn Station.

A graduate of Ruston High School, Louisiana Tech and LSU, where she earned a master’s degree, Polly was a teacher at 19. She taught home economics in Franklin, Vivian, Shreveport, Plaquemine and the LSU Lab School. She played the piano and led glee clubs.

She was 36 when she had her first child and lived almost 40 years after her husband died. My children found her a youthful grandmother who played the piano in her living room.

Polly doted on her grandchildren. Though a fastidious housekeeper, she allowed her granddaughter to sift flour on a sheet on the floor in the den. She kept a long list of things for my son to do on visits, rewarding him with dinner at Piccadilly.

Polly planned her funeral years ago, writing down the names of pallbearers, scriptures to be read and hymns to be sung.

When she was in her early 40s, Polly’s doctor told her that her unusually low blood pressure probably meant she’d outlive her friends. She outlived her friends and the designated pallbearers.

The doctor who treated her for Stage 4 colon cancer when Polly was 80 said her age would be an ally. She opted to forego chemotherapy and radiation and lived another 24 years.

Emanuel Baptist Church in Alexandria, where Polly taught Sunday school for more than 50 years, arranged a funeral service that was equal parts religion and homecoming.

When it was time for her to leave her home church for the last time, two of the pallbearers were men in their 60s that Polly had taught as 4-year-olds in Sunday school.