Hazel Abernathy: March 3, 1926 – June 25, 2014
It never occurred to me that I might be up here one day, talking about Grandma Hazel instead of with her. If it was naïve of me to think of her as invincible, it was at least understandable, considering everything she lived through and what an impact she had on everyone she knew.
Grandma might have been a small woman – I doubt she ever broke 100 pounds in her life, except maybe while carrying one of her six children – but she had this quiet strength you could feel the moment she stepped into a room. Anyone who met her and thought they were dealing with a “little old lady” was set straight shortly thereafter. She would do this using one of her politely stern glances, a subtle head tilt, or the phrase we’ve all heard her utter so many times, “I am not sure I understand.”
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Of course, she did understand. She understood most people better than they understood themselves, which is why they knew not to cross her. Grandma never suffered fools.
But that is not to say that she wasn’t gracious to others. Grandma was a tremendous person to have in your corner, not because she would tell you what you wanted to hear, but because she would say or do exactly what was needed to get you through your struggles.
I wish I knew what Grandma would say to get us through the grief we are feeling right now. I’m sure she would appreciate all of the beautiful music, the flower arrangements, and seeing everyone dressed in their best – because she loved those things all the time – but she would also feel a little embarrassed about all the attention centered on her. But Grandma, you are going to have to deal with it for a few more minutes.
To start off, I want to tell you about the moment I first realized my grandmother was a superhero in disguise. I was five years old, and Grandma was watching me while my mom was at work. I sat at the living room table – drawing pictures of aliens most likely, which Grandma hated – while she worked in the kitchen, probably making lunch.
I suddenly heard this absolute cacophony in the kitchen. It was like someone knocking on the door, yet they pounded as if they were going to knock down the door. Grandma yelled for me to run and hide, so obviously I ran right into the kitchen to see what was going on.
It turned out that this mentally ill man that lived next door thought Grandma was stealing apples from his orchard. (Of course, Grandma would never have done such a thing, but I may have stolen one or two of them.) He was irate and really wanted to get in and harm her, and he was a big guy – probably about 250 pounds. But Grandma was unfazed.
She picked me up under one arm, carried me down the hallway to a closet she always kept locked, opened it, and pulled out an M14 rifle. She then hid me in her bedroom closet and went back out to confront the man.
Of course, I snuck out of the closet and back down the hallway so I could hear what was happening. I never heard Grandma yell like she yelled at that man, before or since. I will not use some of the words she used, but I will say that she threatened to shoot off certain parts of his anatomy that he would sorely miss. She also shot off a few rounds as he ran away, just to emphasize her point. To my knowledge, that neighbor never bothered Grandma again. To her last breath, Grandma never told me how or why she got her hands on a military rifle.
But she didn’t need to have a gun in her hands to show people how strong she was. Many people don’t know this about her, but Grandma went through a great deal quite early in life. When she was 17, she met Miles, the man who would become her first husband. She was crazy about him and devastated when he went off to fight in the war two months after their wedding. She was three months pregnant when she got the news that he had been killed in an air raid, and that baby – my uncle John – became ill and died when he was three years old.
I can’t imagine being so young – only 21 years old – and already a widow and a bereaved mother. Yet somehow, she made it through these tragedies. She worked as a seamstress until she met Grandpa Lester, got married, and had five more kids, all of whom she raised to be amazing people that I am proud to call family.
So when times became hard for other people, it wasn’t that she didn’t feel for them; she had just been through so much that dealing with hardship was like getting back on a bike she really hated.
I learned this about ten years ago, when things were not going so well in my own life. Some of you might remember my ill-informed attempt to go “make it big” in New York, but you probably don’t remember exactly when I returned with my tail between my legs. That’s because I was hiding out in Grandma’s spare bedroom, licking my wounds.
Of course, that didn’t last long, because when you lived in Grandma’s house, she put you to work. And the work that we happened to be doing at the time was making preserves. We would go around to different pick-your-own fruit farms and come home with huge bags of berries, peaches, and apples and spend all day heating, stirring, jarring, sealing, and talking. That is when I learned about Grandma’s life before Grandpa, and it really put my own experience into perspective.
There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed, and she would stand in the doorway and say, “There is no time to sleep when there is work to do, Grace.” I can imagine her saying those same words to herself as a young woman, alone in the world but determined to do whatever had to be done.
Grandma was in many ways a proper woman. She didn’t joke around very much, and I don’t think anyone ever saw her in anything but a perfectly coordinated ensemble with pantyhose and highly polished shoes. But I want everyone to know there was a sense of humor lurking in there, and I have a photo to prove it.
For those of you that haven’t seen this picture, I took it at Aunt Sandy’s bridal shower six years ago. You can see Grandma looks very elegant in her matching pink dress and hat – but if you look closer, she happens to be wearing a pair of fuzzy handcuffs.
I would like it to be known that no one told Grandma to put on those handcuffs. They also did not have to teach her how to play Dirty Scrabble, of which she was the clear winner that day when she achieved a Triple Word Score with careful placement of the word “boobs.” I am also certain that despite her usual teetotaler status, she was well aware that the punch – of which she drank several cups – was spiked.
It’s hard to put into a few words how Grandma helped me – and so many other people – become who we are today. She was much more of the “lead by example” type than one who would tell you how to live your life. And watching her continue to raise her adult children, care for her grandkids, and do so much work in her church and community taught me that you don’t have to be a movie star or fly to the moon to be a success.
So many things will continue to remind me of Grandma long after today. Every time I drive by her house, I will remember growing up there, surrounded by her tough but gentle love. Every time I spread strawberry preserves on a piece of toast, I will remember how she got herself back on her feet time after time so she could help others do the same.
I feel blessed that I had so many opportunities to talk with Grandma before she passed, but there are still things I wish I’d had the chance to say. Most of all, I would like to tell her that every day since I saw her in her housedress, brandishing a gun at that angry man from next door, I knew I wanted to grow up to be just like her.
But what I think she would have said to that – and what she would say to you today, if she could – is that you should never grow up to be someone else, no matter how much you admire them. Like Grandma, you have to make your own success and become your own hero.