by Kate Shunney
Helen Bradfield Shambaugh is known in the Paw Paw area and beyond as a great cook, loving mother and grandmother. She has spent a lifetime caring for and nourishing the people in her family and community – in her home, as a church member, volunteer, school cook and also as a writer.
Nearly 90, Shambaugh has written so much over the years, it’s tough to get an accurate inventory. Talking about her stories and poems, she suddenly remembers there’s another magazine that carried her recollections and recipes, a newspaper that printed her columns.
Her catalog of work includes plays, magazine articles, stacks of holiday church programs and skits, inspirational recitations, local history volumes, song adaptations and more. Those publications stretch back 60 years.
Her love of words reaches back even further.
Enrolled at Paw Paw School at the age of five, Shambaugh said her teacher, Miss McCabe, assured her that letters, reading and writing would soon be under her command. And they were.
“Once I started reading, I read everything,” Shambaugh said, laughing. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of books, so I read the label of the Carnation milk can that sat on our table.”
“My mother would send me upstairs to dress the bed and there was a closet with books in it. After I’d been up there awhile, she’d coming looking for me and say, ‘Have you got your nose in a book again?’,” Shambaugh said.
She doesn’t recall anyone encouraging her literary interests, but remembers vividly thinking to herself, “I wish I could write a poem.”
Her schooling ended at age 15 when her parents moved to Pin Oak. After attending school in Capon Bridge for half a year, she decided not to go back, as the bus ride was long and the atmosphere was so different from Paw Paw.
It wasn’t until Shambaugh was married and a mother herself that her own creative writing – including those poems she wished she could write – started to take shape.
The family had spent 12 years living in Magnolia, where her husband Lindy Shambaugh worked for the B&O Railroad. When they moved back to Paw Paw in 1960, her neighbor, Pearl Sharp, invited her to attend the Church of Christ.
Even though she had intended to go the Methodist church, as she had in Magnolia, her children had playmates who went to Sharp’s church, so that became a natural fit.
The minister at the time didn’t approve of Christmas celebrations except in a strict religious sense. Shambaugh decided to try and change his mind about allowing more Christmas activities to celebrate all aspects of the season.
“So I wrote a poem to show him the other side,” she said.
Her verse persuaded him enough that they started doing Christmas programs, with Shambaugh writing skits and songs and recitations for the children.
Pearl Sharp told her Standard Publishing Company, which printed church booklets, was looking for exactly that kind of writing.
“She said, ‘You should submit them’ and I did and they sent it back,” Shambaugh said. “Then I got a letter asking if I’d resubmit it.”
Her first Christmas piece appeared in a 1961 booklet. The company’s church booklets were then, and still are, distributed
around the U.S. and Canada.
Standard paid her around five cents per line, she recalls.
What started with Christmas programs grew to include creative pieces for Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother’s and Father’s Day publications. Shambaugh created and submitted seasonal pieces for Standard Publishing nearly every year for 40 years. Her last piece was printed in a 2001 booklet.
“I’d sit up of a night and work on them after everybody was in bed,” she said, explaining how she fit that writing into a busy life of raising seven children and running a household.
Her own children were often cast in roles in her programs and skits, and she wrote parts with specific children in mind, she said.
A group of women, including Rita Bradfield, Wilma Delawder and Alice Lease, put on the church programs through the years, tapping the children’s musical and singing talents.
The Bible provided inspiration and she never seemed to run out of ideas.
“I just made it up as I went along,” she said.
In the early days, she composed on an old manual typewriter and made copies of scripts by reusing carbon paper her husband brought home from work. Later, her son Kenny bought her a nice electric typewriter that was easier to use and quieter. Daughter Kathy Jo remembers the early sounds of her mother tapping away on a new project.
It was Kathy Jo who urged her mother to attend her first writer’s conference in 1998 at Radford University.
“She said they were having a creative writing class. I thought I was going to learn how to prepare a submission to send out, and there I was surrounded by Ph.D.’s,” said Helen Shambaugh. “It was fun. I have a tendency to be shy, but once I got over that, I enjoyed it.”
The conference focused on Appalachian stories and authors, and she got to work with novelist Gurney Norman, who encouraged her to keep writing in her own style, keeping the dialect and mountain culture woven through family stories.
In 2001, Shambaugh’s vivid recollections about making apple butter during her childhood was published by Goldenseal, the magazine of West Virginia Traditional Life. Another article about county nurse Patty Norton would be published by Goldenseal in 2003. Her stories would appear in the Good Old Days magazine. A poem about memories of catching lightning bugs was featured in the Appalachian Heritage literary magazine.
Shambaugh said moving and other life changes put an end to her writing in recent years.
She’s clear that her chief and greatest joy in life remains her children, 10 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, and all of the ways they have made her life richer.
Her stories, both written and told, have her family and friends as the main characters, and return to the theme of finding blessings and good times amid life’s work and hardships.
In the opening of one story collection, Shambaugh writes: “Scraps of memories good and bad, passed down stories, personal opinions and observations, could make a quilt of my life. So I will attempt to sew some of those scraps together for whomever might be interested. For I am a storyteller.”