Jeff Cornelius was my rock;
for 32 years he was the center of my universe. And then, unbelievably, on July 7 last year he was gone taking my world with him. Jeff was an amazing human being and one of the world’s special people. The better anyone knew him, the more they found in him to admire and love. And he loved his daughters and me with a bright passion that never wavered or diminished. Jeff was unable to spend 20 minutes engaged in a conversation with an acquaintance he hadn’t seen for a while or with some stranger without displaying pictures of his wife and daughters. As time passed the process took longer because every two years, or so, he had to cram the picture of another daughter into his wallet until their were ten of us.
People were always surprised to discover that Jeff had eight children, amazed to discover that they were all girls, and astonished to learn that in each case we planned to have a girl. When I presented Jeff with our first-born Kimmie, I told Jeff a fib and said I was sorry she wasn’t a boy. “I wouldn’t mind if all our children were girls,” he replied. I made up my mind that I would have six daughters and was totally pleased when we ended up with two bonus girls.
I gave birth at home whenever possible, and it was a family affair. Jeff delivered the girls. The kids were involved and each was assigned a particular role whether to cut the umbilical cord (Jeff’s task), weigh the baby, bathe it, choose the first outfit, etcetera. I never took drugs during the delivery. I wanted to completely embrace the experience because the pain prepared me for the future. A helicopter could drop you off on a mountaintop or you could climb step-by-step and arrive at the same point the view in either case is the same, but the perspective is completely different.
Raising those girls was a joyful challenge. There was scarcely a moment when each of them didn’t totally love her sisters and when all of them didn’t love Jeff and me.
I’ve come to believe that a family is like a recipe. A husband and wife are like flour and water. You can make glue. But then, a child comes along and becomes yeast so you can make pancakes. Every child becomes an ingredient. With eight kids we had a 3-layer cake with an assortment of cherries, and sprinkles on top. I’m so thankful for each of the eight ingredients in our cake. We made a memorable dessert indeed.
After Jeff passed it was difficult trying to create a new normal from the pieces of our shattered lives. However, we are people of faith who believe that good things come out of bad things. For one thing, we learned that suffering has a wonderful quality of stirring compassion in people’s hearts. Those terrible hours and days provided others with opportunities to express the love they had for us through acts of sympathy, empathy, and generosity. Members of the community and of our Cornerstone Church would bring us meals, bottles of water for the kids, and carry out other acts of kindness. Responding to our loss served to create powerful bonds as people pitched in to do what they could.
Communication has always been a powerful force in my life. My gratitude for people who are important to me seems incomplete until I can show them my appreciation. Feelings of gratitude and affection become complete only when I am able to share those emotions in some way. I suppose my deep and abiding fascination with scrapbooking is based upon my ability through photographs, printed media, and other artifacts to share with the world the love that continually overflows my heart for the important people, places, and events in my life.
“God makes a way where there is no way”
So during the darkness of those days when Jeff was leaving us, I felt that grief and pain would cause my heart to burst unless I was able to share my aching in some way. Personal videotaping turned out to be the easiest way for me to share whatever longings, pains, and frustrations were going through me at any given time. Making videos was far easier than trying to write emails or send texts to the host of people waiting for updates. I also appreciate a video’s ability to capture voice inflections, facial expressions, gestures, and body language to convey meanings and emotions that extend beyond the meanings of the words themselves.
The usual process of making and distributing videos is clumsy and ineffective, but then I discovered the amazing ability of Facebook Live to effortlessly capture images and thoughts of any moment viewable in real time with anyone currently linked to the session, and then effortlessly to share them at a later time with anyone on the Internet, whether or not they were on Facebook. The videos were instantly accessible by my 2,000 Facebook friends, and by their friends, so the potential audience surely numbered in the tens of thousands.
There’s not much mystery about me because I’ve always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person. In particular, I was in a vulnerable state while making those videos so I didn’t put on fancy clothes or curl my hair but faced the camera wearing whatever makeup and clothing I had on at the time. I would simply hit the record button and begin sharing what was going on in my heart, mind, and life, speaking directly from my heart to the listeners without script or plans about Jeff, the girls, and other people involved in caring and supporting us. I would weep at some points and laugh at others. Sometimes I would be laughing out loud while the tears were still wet on my face from a brief crying jag.
I would weep at some points and laugh at others. Sometimes I would be laughing out loud while the tears were still wet on my face from a brief crying jag.
By the grace of God we are successfully moving into a new normal. My son-in-“love” Scott Richardson holds us together. He commissioned Sunday as a Family Funday when all of us get together to play the one game we found, Four square, that is capable of entertaining all of us with our ages ranging from seven-year-old Ellycia to me, who is at least 39. It’s sometimes difficult to accept the fact that Kimmie and Scott are now the lead couple making the decisions that Jeff and I made in the past. They are in the master bedroom and I’m in the bunk bed. However, it’s no big deal. Thank God for Scott & Kimmie! What would we have done without them?
It took a lot of energy to cope with the gaping wound that Jeff’s departure had left in our lives, but we still had to face distressing issues with life insurance and the lingering effects of a foreclosure. Our biggest need was to find housing. A number of people wanted to help, but none of them had sufficient space to house a family of eight. However, God makes a way where there is no way. One day I received a stunning Facebook message from a total stranger. He was not one of my Facebook friends or a person I had ever heard of before. He admitted that he didn’t know the details of my situation but knew that the girls and I needed a place to live. And then he offered to turn his house over to us.
“You can have our home for a month,” he said. “Or three months; or a year —whatever you need.” Anthony Sozio turned out to be a 29-year-old firefighter, married to Alyssa, a beautiful woman and a nurse. The two of them turned their furnished six-bedroom Brentwood home over to us and moved into a bedroom in their parent’s house.
Kimmie and Scott have their own home and Annelise is living with them. So last December I moved in with the other six girls. We plan to give the home back in September when the new school year begins. I have no idea what we will do at that point, but you can imagine that I have no anxiety about the issue.
Another beautiful thing that came out of those desperate days is the connection I established with Campos Family Vineyards. I was looking for a suitable location for honoring Jeff with a Celebration of Life event. I knew that the affair would attract far more people than would fit into our small home. My friend Angie Harper connected me with Ric & Michelle Campos who welcomed me with open arms and offered their winery as a perfect site for the celebration.
From our first moments together I felt a connection with Ric & Michelle, and with their beautiful vineyard. Michelle and I, in particular, hit it off at the beginning. During our first moments together I recognized that there was something about her that appealed to me on a deep level. The event was more wonderful than I had hoped. Michelle told me later, “The whole community seemed to be here.” She then added that it was the biggest outpouring of love they had ever witnessed in that room. I subsequently learned that the Campos had acquired the vineyard several years ago and regarded it as a mission given to them by God to create a family friendly community gathering place and in particular the site for their vibrant and growing Freedom House.
During the celebration my friends began telling Michelle about my talents as a people-person and my skills as an event planner. I told her as I left to let me know if she ever needed another person to help with the work. A few months later I ran into her. Things had settled down in my life so she said, “Whenever you’re ready to come to work, we’ll gladly make a place for you here.” I began working last October as a hostess in the tasting room and enjoyed the positive energies that seem continually to be flowing over and about the place. Also, I enjoyed socializing with grown ups and carrying on adult conversations. Michelle told me later that she welcomed my administrative and people skills. She also said that she appreciates the personable, creative, and bubbly energy I bring to the position. This is more than just a job. I work with the mindset of a business professional and not simply as an employee.
I love the winery and vineyard! Michelle likes to refer to the scripture that says God gave wine as a gift “to gladden the hearts of men.” When appropriate, I am glad to share my story. Guests are amazed to learn of my eight daughters and encouraged by the fact that I could heal and thrive following the worst blow life could deliver. Watching the people I serve as their hearts are indeed “gladdened” in this beautiful place lifts my own heart.
I maintain an upbeat cheerful attitude towards life, but not a day goes by that I don’t grieve for my missing partner. I cry when I need to, and sometimes do so in unexpected places such as the DMV or the bank. I miss the snuggling and intimate physical contact, of course. But I also miss Jeff’s sharp mind and his manner of going straight to the heart of a difficult issue. Plus, I’m always missing his taxi service.
I’m still a long way from joining the dating scene and might remain single for a long time. The fact is, Jeff is a tough and perhaps impossible act for anyone to follow. An equally great difficulty, perhaps, is that any potential candidate for the position who shows up in the distant future will have to understand that he’s going to take all 10 of us. In fact, after Father’s Day, the number will rise to 11 because Kimmie is pregnant. I think that’s wonderful because one of my main reasons for having kids was so I could have grandkids.
I’m planningto be a wonderful grandma. And I will tell each of the darling grandchildren stories about their grandpa in heaven who, if he had lived, would have been an important part of their lives and who, in fact, had played such a central role in the heritage that was being handed down to them.
That will be good. I can’t wait!
Photo By RON ESSEX