Oldtimer, clay sculpture, KSR
It’s hard to reconstruct a life through the memory of a fifteen year old girl, but Jean Cornelier deserves more of a history than he got.
He came to America as a young race car driver in about 1909, to race against Barney Oldfield, a famous driver who was the first to drive a roaring 60 miles an hour. Barney had built a reputation by racing for Ford Motor Co., and he was a challenge for any young and daring young driver of the new “contraptions”.
There’s no record as to how well he did on the track, and other than a few gruff references to his racing career, that was his youth as far I ever knew.
He may have met and married my Great-Aunt Hazel in San Francisco, where she had been married and divorced from a prominent lawyer there, and thus he became my Uncle Jean.
Hazel had been born and raised in Grants Pass, Oregon, and this is where she and Jean settled down on a large piece of property out in the country where they raised chickens, cows and a few sheep.
They certainly had money as they bought several buildings in town, as well as many acres of land, but they chose to live in a rough cabin-like house consisting of one large communal room and a large bedroom, with an outhouse a distance away from the house, and a long dirt road which became a mudhole in the Oregon winter rains.
My first recollection of them was from a visit when I was about 9-10 years old, and coming from a city background, it was a delight to see the farm animals and help collect eggs, etc.
They were homely no-nonsense people, and I was a quiet and curious child and somewhat afraid of Jean, whose English was a bit broken and who did not communicate well with children. I’m not sure if he really liked them much, or maybe me in particular.
He seemed tall and skinny, and was quite weathered looking, with wild coarse grey hair which never seemed to stay put. His face was craggy, with a very prominent nose taking up the center of his face. His eyeglasses seemed always to be slipping down and being saved from actually falling by his nose.
He was taciturn and seemingly preferred to be alone, so I was pleased and surprised when he invited me to ride down to the barn with him to milk the few cows. We bounced along down the hill in an old open-topped truck, narrowly missing large rocks and potholes, and rolling precariously over an open irrigation ditch with no sides.
He gave me my first red Delicious apple and pointed out the infinitesimal white stars all over the shiny skin. It was probably the juiciest apple I ever had; cold and true to its name, delicious. With apple juice dripping down my chin and all over my new “farm” clothes, I offered him a bite, and he looked down at me and said “I got no teeth, Darlin'”.
I had never seen anyone without their teeth, and on closer inspection I was surprised to see that he really did not have any teeth! My Grandpa and another Great-Uncle used to tease me by clicking their dentures in and out, but it did not occur to me that the reason they wore them was because of the lack of real teeth.
My next visit with them was during the War, when I was 15 and we came to live with them for a year. He seemed older and greyer, and the farm animals had mostly gone, but I think he liked me better. When he found I liked poetry, he went to a bookcase in their bedroom where there were several old beautiful leather-bound books and gave me a small book of French poetry. I have always treasured it, and though I never learned to speak French, my granddaaughter is fluent in the language, so there is someone who may love it as I do.
I have always thought there was a lot more to Jean Cornelier than we ever knew.