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My Dad, Remembered at Length

My dad died on December 10, 2010. He had spent his last year in a nursing home before developing what appeared to be pneumonia in early December. Thankfully my brother was able to give me enough of a heads up for me to make the long journey down from Alaska to spend some of my Dad’s last hours with him. Unlike my mom back in 2006, Dad was able to appreciate my company. However, he had severe short term memory problems so I don’t know whether he died remembering that I had visited.

After my initial four hour visit with my dad, I went to my brother’s to sleep off the flight. I woke up the next morning ready to for a day’s worth of visiting. Sadly, just as I was about to head off for the hospital, they called to say he had died.

My dad was a complex man who lived out a complex life. Such complexity can’t really be reflected in newspaper notices like this one had run in the Los Angeles Times:

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Roger Lee Cornwall, Sr passed away peacefully at the age of 77 in Oxnard, CA on Friday, December 10, 2010 after a brief illness. Roger Cornwall was a long time resident of the Lake View Terrace/Kagel Canyon area. He was preceded in death by his wife Virginia “Gini” Cornwall in 2006. He is survived by sons Roger, Russell and Daniel, stepson Jerry LaBansat, daughter Evelyn “Lyn” Edwards, plus several grand and great grand children.

In lieu of cards and flowers, please make a donation in his name to The Wildlife Waystation, 14831 Little Tujunga Rd, Angeles National Forest, CA 91342.
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That little bit of text cost us $240. But Dad’s life could go on for pages. Our family wanted to purchase the obituary to make Dad’s life and death part of the permanent, printed public record.

However, since the printed word is expensive, and I’ve got all the electronic ink I want, I’ll try to give you a sense of my father, Roger Cornwall as I knew him. I don’t think any one person’s perspective qualifies as “the REAL” Roger, but this is my effort.

Roger was many things: a father, a husband (twice), a painter, a contractor, a part-time movie actor, part-time rancher. He was also an alcoholic with a bad temper that his second wife and all his children feared. I don’t say this last to speak ill of the dead but to highlight the miracle that me and most of his family loved him despite his major flaws.

Here is a rough story of his life based on my personal recollections and talking with others:

Roger Lee Cornwall was born in Los Angeles on August 2, 1933 to George and Evelyn Cornwall. He had an older brother named Robert. George was a firefighter and Evelyn worked on costuming in Hollywood. His parents divorced before Roger was 10.

In high school, Roger got into some trouble with three friends and was given the choice of going to jail or serving in the military. In 1950, Roger decided to enlist in the Air Force. He held a stateside aircraft mechanic job during the Korean War and likely served on America’s Gulf Coast and in the Northwest. He once described his work as mostly removing engines from planes. He served one hitch and was honorably discharged.

After leaving the Air Force, Roger took some stuntman jobs in Hollywood, making the acquaintance of some actors. At one point he was interested in acting and put out a photo portfolio. He would have a lifelong interest in film, appearing as an extra on movies, television movies and at least one music video. He may have been offered a job as a costumer with his mother and brother, but instead joined with a friend to start up a painting and contracting business. He married Catherine Clark in the 1950s and had three children with her – Roger Lee, Russell and Lyn. During this time Roger might have had an uncredited appearance as a German sailor in the 1957 film “The Enemy Below.” By 1965, the couple was divorced. Roger married Virginia “Gini” Fixmer/Labansat/Sullivan in 1967. At the time, Gini had four children – Donny, Rick, Jerry and Daniel. I still find it remarkable that a man in his mid 30s would be willing to take on an “instant family” with four children. He was close to me (Daniel), but distant toward the others. Mom named me “Daniel Wester” when I was born. Dad (Roger) officially adopted me and gave me the Cornwall name when I was 14. As far as I know, this option was not made available to others.

Roger and Gini would remain married until Gini’s death in 2006 with the exception of a short trial separation in the mid 1980s. Theirs was an odd marriage in some respects, but I can say without hesitation that they were better together than apart. Their marriage came under internal and external stresses, but without a doubt they loved each other and their children in their own way.

On the professional level, Dad’s initial contracting partnership did not last long enough for me to remember it. He mostly worked alone,  bringing on workers as needed. He seemed to seek out the otherwise unemployable, but they worked out well enough most of the time. Up until the late 1990s, there was evident pride of workmanship in all that he did. To me, this commitment seemed to flag as he got older. Perhaps he was burnt out but was too proud to share that with us.

Roger would take his kids to work, but normally it was a punishment. Several of the kids learned practical skills, especially Jerry, in my view. I was not one of them. I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t being punished enough to learn or whether because I was too dedicated to book learning. My few times with Dad on the job were enough to convince me I should stay in school and aim for some sort of clerical or white collar middle class career, which I have accomplished.

Roger and Gini loved the semi-country life. They bought a house with a half acre back in 1972 and did some small scale ranching and gardening on it. At its height, the property boasted three horses, a half dozen goats, dozens of chickens and a half castrated bull named Freddy Rumproast. Freddy lived up to his name when he started chasing Russ and Roger around a backyard tree. Don’t mean to go all Sarah Palin on you, but Freddy was good eatin’ you betcha! As family members moved away and my parents got older, Roger and Gini got rid of the animals and by 1990 was down to a couple of dogs and cats, plus some container grown tomatoes.

I have positive memories of the “homesteading years.” I wasn’t especially good at killing things, but I could be counted on to pluck chickens and not raise a fuss over how meat got to our table. I collected the eggs with trepidation and my mom would mock my fear. She was probably right. My two fondest memories were of watering the horses and nursing baby goats with Dr. Pepper bottles. That and reading Carla Emery’s Old fashioned recipe book : an encyclopedia of country living. Our edition was mimeographed by Carla herself, but I forget what happened to it.

I think Dad enjoyed animals and he did like to go horseback riding with Gini. At least until Mom’s growing arthritis issues kept her mostly housebound and the horses were let go.

My Dad told me that he loved me and I believed him, but we never talked a whole lot and I feel that a good chunk of his life was a blank. This opinion is shared to some degree by other family members. In my view there were three reasons he didn’t share too much of his inner life with us:

1) Drinking – I don’t want to belabor the point, but Roger Cornwall drank a lot. Sometimes he wouldn’t come home for days at a time. Several times a week when he did come home he was either unable to talk because of his drunkenness or on such a hair trigger with his alcohol fueled temper that you didn’t want to talk to him. I once excitedly talked to him about a satire commercial a friend and I did as a school project and I still regret the results.
2) Television – As I mentioned, my Dad had a lifelong interest in film and television. When he shared, he seemed to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of westerns from the 1950s and 1960s. A byproduct of this interest was a lot of television watching which could not be profitably interrupted except for asking who appeared in what. An ungodly number of hours that Roger could have shared with his family got sucked up into the television set.
3) Gini – By himself, and especially with friends, Roger could be talkative. But Gini Cornwall, my Mom, was even more talkative and took it upon herself to “translate” Dad to the outside world. Often enough when you asked Roger about what he felt or believed, you got an answer from Gini. It was a sort of lower class version of Abba’s “Head over Heels.” Dad seemed content with this arrangement.

Roger and Gini’s later years were marked by financial struggle and Mom’s attachment to staying at home with the windows covered almost to the point of agoraphobia. They refinanced the house several times and never owned it free and clear despite the $25,000 purchase price in 1972. Damage done to the house by wind and earthquake was badly patched, if at all.

I moved out of California in 1993 and maintained a “holidays only” sort of phone contact, visiting every few years. I knew that Dad loved me but was never comfortable with him. Before Mom’s death in 2006, I seriously thought that the last time I’d see my Dad was at Mom’s funeral. She died in 2006, but I was able to do some reconnection with Dad during the month Louise and I stayed in California. I kept in better touch the next year, but then reverted to habit. I last visited Dad at his house in 2008. He seemed strange in a not-drunk way and his “girlfriend” was even stranger. But I’d be so used to him being off from alcohol that I didn’t think much of it.

By the time 2009 rolled around, the authorities called my brother to let him know that Dad was being taken advantage of and being abused by the people around him. They threatened to put Dad in the state psych system if nothing was done. After a two month unsuccessful effort to help Dad live alone with the assistance of his first wife Catherine as a neighbor, my brother put Dad in a nursing home with my full support. I visited Dad for several days in October 2009. He wasn’t happy with being locked in, when he could remember that he was locked in, but seemed happy to see me. I sent him postcards from the Alaska State Museum. I only talked to him a few times that last year as his dementia made it hard to communicate.

Which is where you, Dear Reader, came in.

I’d like to leave you with a favorite childhood memory, which just didn’t fit into the narrative above, but which I wanted to share.

When I was in the 5-7th grades, about once a month Mom and Dad would give me a major treat. We’d go out to Sizzler for some sort of steak dish, then we’d go to Griffith Observatory. We’d spend some time in their museum and then take in a planetarium show. I got the impression that this stuff interested me more than it interested either of them since I don’t recall us talking about the shows afterwards. But this could be my memory playing tricks on me. Regardless, both of them were willing to be with me as I got inspired by science and I really appreciate them both for it.

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One Response

  1. This story is beautiful. Your dad was a neat guy and I
    appreciate that you wrote about him as you knew him. This isn’t the
    full story of someone you are trying to get canonized for the
    sainthood, but of a man who coped with life as best as he knew
    while raising a family and living. Thank you for sharing this
    story.

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