Polly Claassen believed the world was to be explored.
So the 44-year-old Californian ventured out with her husband, Gary, and their 8-year-old son, Trent.
There is a Facebook picture of the three smiling and posing near a drop-off at Yosemite National Park. In the photo, taken about a year ago, Polly holds onto her son from behind, her hands comfortably clasped around his stomach. Sunlight highlights gold strands in his tousled red hair. Someone posted a comment on the picture: “Boy your little one has really grown Polly, he is so cute!”
Polly’s life of travel had taken her to India and South Africa. She took her son to Mexico so she could immerse him in the culture there. But their exploration ended Friday at an icy pond in Moundridge during what was supposed to be part of a happy family gathering.
Her boy ventured too far on the ice, fell through and went into the water beyond her grasp.
She couldn’t save her son or herself. Both died minutes after arriving at hospitals after rescuers got them out of the pond. Gary, the husband and father, could have died, too. Rescuers threw him a rope just in time.
Moundridge – a town of about 1,700 between Newton and McPherson along I-135 – is devastated, said June Galle Krehbiel.
June is Gary’s aunt. Gary, Polly and Trent had been staying at June and Perry Krehbiel’s house, several blocks from the pond in Pack Park, in the northwest corner of town. Prairie grass and cottonwoods ring the pond. Kids go there for the playground equipment and for a fishing derby.
On Monday evening, June Krehbiel and Forrest Claassen, Gary’s older brother, sat down with a reporter at June’s house and talked about the lives that were lost.
Gary, whose mother is from Moundridge, grew up in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Polly went to UCLA, focusing on psychology and computer science. The two met in 1996 and married in 2001. Gary, 43, is a manager of training and communication at a San Jose-area insurance company. Polly recently had gotten a job as a church administrator.
They settled in San Jose, then moved up into the hills of Los Gatos because they thought it would be a good place to raise their son.
They wanted to nurture him but not so he would be “confined to a bubble,” Forrest said. Because Hispanic culture is so entwined in the life where the Claassens lived, they had their son attend a bilingual school.
Polly was the driver, the instigator in the family. She taught Gary how to ride a motorcycle, and they rode on two wheels to their wedding reception.
But once Trent was born, Polly stopped getting on motorcycles, “because she always wanted to make sure she was safe for this child,” June said.
Polly was busy. She led a church youth group, she helped gut and renovate a house. She invited people over for big meals, assigning someone to pick green beans and someone to gather plums from her yard.
“Polly loved cooking. She loved her chickens” as pets and for their eggs, June said. Polly had 17 of the birds.
Neighborhood kids played at her place. She hosted marshmallow roasts. At Thanksgiving, she led an effort to feed people at a shelter.
“Polly thought of others,” June said. “She taught that to Trent, too.”
Trent was a Cub Scout. He took a hip-hop dance class and liked soccer, tennis and basketball. He loved to play with Legos.
His parents built him a tree house and a 30-foot-long teeter-totter.
Each year, Polly let her son pick a birthday party theme.
His ninth birthday party was coming soon – Feb. 21. The theme: “Harry Potter.”
In the midst of describing Polly – sitting in the same room where a few days earlier Trent had held June’s cat in his lap – June’s thoughts shifted.
Without prompting, June’s words went right to the moment at the pond.
They were at the shallow area, “on good ice,” June said.
June saw it unfold.
Suddenly, Polly noticed that Trent had gone past the shallow area and had gone under up to his neck. The boy held onto the ice.
“She went there lickety-split,” June said.
“I think her motherly instinct just kicked in. She was going as fast as she could.”
She was trying to save her son, and Gary was trying to save them all after the three ended up in the water, June said.
For most of the interview on Monday, Gary remained in another room. But near the end, he stepped in, wearing bandages over cuts on his right hand from grappling with the ice.
Gary said he wanted to thank the rescuers. They risked their lives trying to save his family, he said.
Gary recalled how in the frigid water he was losing his ability to speak and losing his vision.
But he heard the stern voice of a rescuer, commanding, repeating “You grab that rope! You grab that rope!”
In California this week, counselors were being made available at Trent’s school.
The family of three had come to Moundridge as part of what was supposed to be a second Christmas after a trip to the Northeast.
Twenty-four people were still gathered at June’s house on Saturday, the day after Polly and Trent died. They cried and laughed together, remembering other relatives who had died, June said.
The extended family had never suffered such a tragedy until now. They had grown up knowing that the right thing to do is to take care of others when they are grieving.
Now, neighbors have brought food and hugs to June and Perry Krehbiel’s door “and great sadness in their eyes,” June said.
“Many people were touched so deeply by this,” she said.
“I mean, you have a child, and you have a mother …”
On Monday evening, a cold wind blew across the pond, its surface a jumble of icy sheets, like pieces of broken plates, sometimes separated, sometimes overlapping.
In spots, pools of water broke the icy surface. In the low sun, the sheen varied in shades from crystal clear to white to gray to dark blue and black.
Near the water’s edge on the north shore where the rescue effort occurred, someone had placed something on the ground.
A wrapped bouquet. Roses.