"My life has been a rich experience," Polly Francis wrote several years ago when she penned her first essay expressing her philosophy of the twilight years.

By then in her 90s, she mused, "What a baffling thing old age is! It doesn't bring the peace we were led to expect . . ."

Mrs. Francis, once a noted fashion illustrator but completely unknown as an essayist, concluded: "When the bell tolls for me, I shall go willingly with no bitterness - but with tenderness toward my fellow travelers on my long journey."

Mrs. Francis died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at the Laurelwood Nursing Home in Elkton, Md., where she had lived since Feb. 18.She was 94 on Feb. 8.

Her first essay, "The Autumn on My Life," was sent to The Washington Post on a chance that the newsapaper might be interested in it. The Post was interested, and her essay became the lead article of a Sunday Outlook section. It was published on March 16, 1975.

"Our young folk want to be kind to us, I'm sure. But they don't know what we want and they don't know how we feel . . . " Mrs. Francis wrote. "The young people may think that we are unreasoningly demanding. It seems to them that all our needs are met . . . Our greatest need is not met. It is one that we never outgrow. It is the need to feel cherished by someone - to know that there is a place where we 'belong' . . .

At that time, Mrs. Francis was living in her own comfortable apartment in Takoma Park. Her son was living in nearby Virginia.

She wrote of her comfortable and quiet, pleasant life, of a "beloved voice" on the telephone, of "the spontaneous kindness of the people everywhere." She was glad that she had the time to think back on the past, to "relive so many poignant experience, brief and fleeting, the imprints of which lie deep and clear in my heart."

With that essay came a small measure of success. It brought a vast response from readers of The Post. It was reprinted wholly or in part by other newspapers and excerpts from it were broadcast to millions of listeners in Europe, Africa, India, Australia.

The essay also appeared in Perspective on Aging, a publication of the National Council on the Aging. So encouraged was Mrs. Francis that she wrote another essay, "Awakening." It also was published by Perspective on Aging.

"With my autumn spent and the barriers of winter closing in, I contemplate my harvest," she wrote. "Old beliefs and habits have blown away with the leaves of my years. Some of the less obvious aspects of aging are now seen clearly and simply. This awakening has brought me added peace and a stronger faith in a guiding force."

She drew delight from a world of fantasy into which she comtimes wandered, to "memories, with their abiding comfort . . .

"Old age is not an affliction which blights the end of life. Don't pity us we are not forlorn old people. Don't be oversolictious and patronizing. We cling to our independence and our dignity," she cautioned.

In a third and final essay, scheduled for future publication in Perspective on Aging, Mrs. Francis noted the problems of giving the elderly proper care. She called it "Before the Shadow Falls," and she offered encouragement to the aging.

"Old age is a common part of a normal life - an integral part of the whole, not to be dreaded any more than is any other sector of life," she wrote. "Our infirmities will increase, under the law of Creation and Destruction; but we can keep our minds alive," she advised.

"My thought is not on where I shall go from here, but on how I have met the challenges of life; and hoping I have left some spiritual legacy; she continued.

She concluded with a poem:

Let my passing be as the parting day

Which slips so unobtrusively away

And when, at last, all consciousness has gone

And in my heart is heard no linnet's song,

Let those I love not grieve.

The joys I've had they gave

Unstintingly to me .

Born Delia Margaret Tighe in Buffalo, N.Y., she graduated from high school there in 1905, and moved on to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she studied fashion illustration and design.

After graduation, she worked for a while in New York City and then headed for Paris, arriving there on Christmas Eve in 1911. At the time she spoke no French.

Soon, However, she was drawing fashions for Harper's Bazaar. Then she became an illustrator for the Conde Nast publications, based in Paris.

Her fashion drawings and photographs along with her name became familiar, particularly to the readers of Vogue magazine. In a 1936 editorial, Vogue wrote of her:

"Mrs. Francis' long years of residence in Paris, her sensitive perception of the essence of French fashion and her own exquisite taste are producing a very special soort of clothes.

"Her things are not for the masses, to be sure, but they are of the sort of clothes that say 'good shops and custom-order departments' in definite, if very quiet tones, to those who can hear them."

By that time (1936), Mrs. Francis and her family had returned to this country from Paris, where they had lived in the city's suburbs. Her husband, Henry W. Francis, was a British-born newspaperman and free-lance writer whom she had met while on an earlier return visit to New York City.

After they came back to this country, Mrs. Francis continued to work for Vogue for several years, then opened a small dress shop on Madison Avenue. She retired in the late 1930s.

She and her husband restored a small house in Danbury, Conn., and lived in Valley Forge, Pa., before moving to the Washington area, where they lived in the 1950s and '60s in Parkfairfax. Her husband died in 1966.

Mrs. Francis had lived in Takoma Park for about 10 years. Asked once why she took up writing, she said simply, "I'd be bored to death if I didn't have something to do."

She is survivied by her son, Philip A. Francis, of Alexandria.