They say that the measure of a man is the impact he left behind on those around him, if that's truly the case, then my great uncle Jim Cornett was a huge man indeed. He passed away on December 26th at the age of 74 after a long battle with Alzheimer's and Pick's disease. It's taken me a couple of weeks, and about a half dozen attempts to get these words out, but I'm going to give it a shot.
My favourite memories of growing up are of going out to my grandparents' farm, hanging about, not much to do, nowhere to go, just me and the farm dog Sandy, wandering around and having a blast. My grandma and grandpa were great people, Grandma Muriel (although everyone calls her “Moo”) is still with us, but Grandpa Ralph passed away nearly 20 years ago.
“RB” as everyone called him was part of what the media has recently labelled the “greatest generation”, he signed up for military duty when he was 17 and served as a Military Policeman in the Canadian Army during World War II. Whether it was his military service, or a lifetime of being a “farm boy”, he was as conservative as you got. He was the one who told me to sit up straight, he was the one who made sure that I wrote, shovelled, and played hockey the “right way” (Right handed…there'd be no communist pinko lefties in his family by the good lord!). Don't get me wrong, he was a blast to be around, and I think it's pretty safe to say that I share a lot of his qualities, both the good and the bad, but you did things his way, or you just didn't do them.
Aunt Hettie is Grandma Moo's sister, and she was married to Uncle Jim. The two of them lived in Windsor, and if my memories of weekends and lazy summer afternoons on the farm are some of my best, then I'd have to say that trips to Windsor qualify as close seconds. Yup, Windsor Ontario, a place that I've always had a soft spot in my heart for because of Aunt Hettie and Uncle Jim.
When I was young, they had this awesome house that had three or four levels, there was an attic where my cousin Tim was, a floor that had 3 bedrooms for cousin David, Janie, and the master bedroom, the main floor which I can still picture fairly well in my mind, and the basement, which had the best board games of all time (including Rock-em Sock-em Robots!). I remember Art in the Park, I remember the tree-lined street. I remember hanging out with my cousin Janie who introduced me to Styx and the violin, but most of all I remember my uncle Jim. I grew up in single floor houses, but Aunt Hettie and Uncle Jim's home is what always made me want a multi-floor home.
If Grandpa Ralph was a dyed in the wool conservative, then Uncle Jim was a big “L” liberal.
For one thing, he worked for a Newspaper…and I think you have to be a Liberal to be in the media (I know I am). For another he was just “cool”. Not “cool because of what you wear or where you live” cool, just a neat guy to hang around. If I live to be 100 I'll never forget his firm handshake, the earnest way he'd talk to you, and his smile which was so genuine that it made you happy just to be around him. He and Aunt Hettie seemed like the perfect match, they both were always so friendly, happy, and quick to laugh. The entire family reminded me just a little bit of the Brady Bunch (with Tim playing the role of the mysterious attic dwelling brother Greg).
Uncle Jim was a bit of a trickster too, we were walking down the street when he passed our new car, and he said “That must be your car.”, to which I asked how he knew. “London plates, 800 is the London license plate number.” It would be about 10 years before I'd find out he just made that story up and there were no such thing as “City assigned plates”. Aunt Hettie has this wryness about her that I adore, and I'll bet that her sense of humour was honed into razor sharpness by Uncle Jim over the years.
Heck, I didn't know his name was really Thomas.
When I decided to go into TV, he and I talked about his years in the Newspaper business. It was fascinating to hear about how he started with no real training, just the ability to “turn a phrase”, and worked his way up. Oddly enough my career in the internet kind of mirrors that because when I first started I got the job largely because I knew how to turn on a computer.
Alzheimer's is a terrible disease any way you slice it, but I think it's even worse for someone who made his life out of remembering little stories, and who was a master of words. I remember the frustration in his face when words would fail him and he couldn't find the word he was looking for.
Uncle Jim was a great man, and I know that one day I will meet him again. When I do, I know he'll have a warm smile for me, a firm handshake, and a good yarn or two to keep everyone entertained.