She made lye soap for their baths and the clothes they wore from burlap sacks. To wash their clothes, she carried water from the creek, heated it, then poured it into a large tub of water where she would scrub the clothes on a wash board. She then hanged them on the clothesline in the yard, drying them in the sun. In the winter, they would dry the clothes by the fire.
It was a time of simplicity, struggle, and triumph in their tiny house bursting at the studs with nine children.
There was no man to protect her or the kids. Living as far back in the woods as she did, there was no law or nearby neighbor to call on if she needed help.
One night, as they were about to turn in for bed, she heard a commotion outside, the voices of men who had been drinking. She looked around the house for a way to defend herself without endangering her children, then an idea came to her. She stuck her small hand down in the front of her dress. This was where women, in those days would often keep a small handgun. She answered the door with her hand down in the front of her dress. Two men stood there, with dirty faces and shifty smiles "We was hungry and wanted you to fix us something to eat." Everything about them spoke danger to her, but what was she to do, alone with her children in the woods. Hazel spoke next "I will fix you something to eat but I want you to know that I have my hand on a gun and if you make any wrong moves I will not hesitate to blow you away." She showed them in. The kids all staring up fearfully at the men who took two seats at the table." She never took her hand out of her dress. She cooked the food, served them and watched them eat while never letting her show of strength down. Finally, as the sun rose they left, looking defeated. When she locked the door behind them she pulled her hand out of her dress. Her bluff had convinced them and saved her family from who knows what awful thing that could have happened.
Later on, as her children grew older, she longed to leave the wild hills of Kentucky, and finally she did, moving the city of Dayton, Ohio. All of her kids, one by one, would follow her there.
If Hazel thought leaving the wild ways of Kentucky would protect her from tragedy in life, sadly, this was not to be true. Her son Willard, a father of five, in the prime of his life, was accidentally electrocuted by a faulty wire running through a puddle of rain in the garage. After that she lost a grandson in his twenties who was attacked outside of a bar. There were other tragedies and troubles that don't seem fitting to tell. For one life, it seemed almost too much to bear. Somehow, she did.
There were good times as well. One of my most vivid memories of Grandma Hazel was coming to her spotless house in Dayton, at the age of my youngest daughter now. The aroma of chicken frying and biscuits baking in the oven was mouth watering. I would kiss her beautiful, soft cheek, which always smelled of Jergens lotion. But her hands always smelled of bleach.
You cannot talk about Hazel without her mentioning her unwavering devotion to Bleach. She was BIG on Bleach. She bleached the floors, she bleached the dishes, she bleached the clothes, she bleached the sinks, and she bleached the counters (maybe even the kids). No germ dared to take up residence in her presence. All her kids use to say that you could eat off her floors. And this was the gospel truth.
We did eat. If you went to Hazel’s house, she would always feed you. She knew how to love you with food.
My Uncle Arthur said that he remembered showing up at her house one night, long after the dinner hour, and it only took a few moments for the kitchen to be brewing. She cooked a full meal just for Arthur. I’m sure each of her kids could tell a story just like this.
At her kitchen table, with chrome legs and a checkered table cloth, we would sit and listen to stories of the old days in Kentucky, all while she fixed fried chicken, potatoes, and cat head biscuits. I can almost taste it today.
Hazel was still beautiful and wrinkle free at almost 90 years old. Her life, like her beauty, was deep and complex. She was not a woman without sins or regrets. To make her seem a saint would be untrue and a dis-service to her memory. She was all things. Sinner and saint. Hero and villain. But in the end, regardless of all else, a daughter of the Almighty.
Her two sons, Larry and Arthur, are quoted as saying something that reflects the feeling of all her kids: “Other than Jesus, Mom was the best friend we ever had”