On February 5th, 1921, in a small cabin in the backwoods of Leslie County, Kentucky,
Hazel Pennington Adkins was born to Alice Joseph and Willard Pennington.
In the year of Hazel’s birth, the world was a mix of discovery and turmoil. Warren Harding was the US president. In January that year, he signed a resolution declaring the end to America’s state of war with Germany, Austria, and Hungary. It was also the year of the founding of the Communist Party in China, and the first broadcasting of a baseball game across the country via radio. Families sat in wide eyed wonder in their living rooms as they listened to the Pirates against the Phillies at Forbes Stadium.
1921 was also the year of the first vaccine for tuberculosis. Jews were just starting to immigrant into Eastern Europe. All the while, thousands of miles away, for a young beautiful girl, with eyes like her name, a life of discovery and turmoil, was just beginning.
Hazel grew up in the hills of Kentucky. She was the oldest of seven children. Following her was Mavie, Omi, Oni Polly Jane, Ann, and Arlene.
As a child, Hazel came to the Christian Faith at a house revival, where the community would come together in each others’ homes for food and worship. They would arrive in wagons from all over. A preacher would bring the sermon, souls would be saved and sometimes the sick and crippled among them would be healed. It was in this kind of meeting that Hazel committed her life to Jesus. The soil was rich with the love of God, but the ground of their lives was often rocky. Still, she walked on, never giving up hope for something more. Something better.
Hazel, like all her sisters, was no stranger to hard work, growing up in the era of the Great Depression. But also in those days, as life was simpler, they learned how to make the most out of the smallest joys in life.
Hazel was a young beauty, with long auburn hair and curious eyes. She was the kind of girl that made men and boys alike fall silent when she walked into a church service. It was there, in a church meeting, that she met her first love and her first husband: Wayne Shepherd. It was a love that would be wrought with dark valleys and desperation.
As the oldest girl, she was the first to marry, giving her vows at the tender year of sixteen. On January 17, at the age of seventeen on a snowy winter night, she gave birth to her first child: a dark haired angel named Lola.
Not long after Lola was born, the disappearance of Wayne became a regular occurrence. After Lola, came many other children. And with this, disappearances and visits from Wayne became a part of life, like a wicked wind blowing him in and away again and again. Wayne would re-appear, romance Hazel, leaving her to find herself once again with child. Then he would be off again. To where, she never knew. This was the life Hazel endured.
In the early years of raising her children, they lived in Bad Creek, Kentucky, in a two room, roughly hewn, wooden house. Hazel cooked on a wood burning stove, lit the darkness with coal oil lamps, bathed the kids in front of the fire in a large aluminum tub. The family gathered for meals at a long, handmade table.
They ate the food she and her children grew and the meat that the boys could hunt. Often there wasn't enough. Being married, Hazel was not eligible for any government assistance. Finally, when she feared she and her children would starve, she decided she had had enough of that wicked wind. A blessing came by way of a divorce. Her love for him was as confounding as it was tragic. Maybe only she knew what it was about him that made her love him for as long as she did, almost to the point of her undoing. In the end, she chose her children, like any good mother would.
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”
On Easter, 2007, at her second daughter Frieda’s house, she suffered a brain aneurysm. And yet, she astonished the doctors by surviving brain surgery at 87.
She spent the remainder of her life in the loving care of Frieda, with frequent visits from her firstborn Lola and her other children and grandchildren from time to time. She lived in a comfortable house in the peace of the woods and fresh air.
On the snow covered morning of January 15th, Hazel went home to be with Jesus, just shy of her 90th birthday. On January 17th, family gathered to celebrate her life and to lay her to rest, the same day as the birth of her eldest daughter, Lola. So, it seemed that day, heaven had received the birthday gift of a daughter coming home.
When I think of Hazel and her life, I am reminded of this verse:
"For lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land." -Song of Solomon 2:11–1
Hazel Pennington Adkins.
Rest in God's peace.