I met Cornelia Tiller in the Atchafalaya Swamp, where mutual friends had rented a houseboat and she slept on its board floor for three nights.
I’m anything but a clotheshorse, but I have to admit that the first thing I noticed about the woman were her clothes – a smart black pantsuit that served swamp duty for three days and still looked like a million dollars when she left for the New Orleans airport.
Once I got past admiring the trademark black clothes, I found other things. Cornelia is as inquisitive as a talk-show host, funny as a stand-up comic and a madcap beauty who puts you in mind of Katharine Hepburn in her prime. She loves to travel, carries a plastic alligator with a rope around its neck in the back seat of her car as a burglar system and is part of a weekly jail ministry.
She is 80.
Cornelia has long hair that she wears in a bun on her neck, with chic bangs to soften the effect. Often she wears a big hat, including a Shady Brady straw cowboy hat that works well with calypso pants. Her real letters are wonderful, stream-of-consciousness epistles that read just like she talks. When I see a Jackson, Tenn., return address, I don’t make it back to the house from the mailbox without perching somewhere and opening a Cornelia note.
“I’ve been searching and searching for the right word to describe your new bridge,” she once wrote after sitting on a deck over the branch at my home. “I think I’ve found it: ‘Ridiculous!’”
That might have made me mad coming from anyone else, but from Cornelia it was a compliment. She meant the bridge was unexpected, frivolous, impractical, fun and, yes, a little ridiculous.
I recently was invited to her 80th birthday party, along with maybe 200 of her other closest friends. Having seen Cornelia in action a couple of years, I wasn’t about to miss it. On her 79th birthday, for instance, she announced she was about to do what she called “the rabbit dance.” As a crowd watched, she fell to the floor on all fours and began a twitching, hopping, tail-shaking movement that looked for all the world like a rabbit sashaying across a lawn. Talk about ridiculous.
The day of the latest party it was misting rain, and a crowd already had gathered beneath a tent at Cornelia’s daughter’s home. We stood about making polite talk when a roar punctured the hum of party in the perfectly groomed suburban setting.
It was a man, wearing the requisite black leather, on a motorcycle – with Cornelia riding behind. His engine made a dramatic “vroom-vroom” sound and curved toward the party, but then the cycle slipped on the newly damp street and fell over sideways, spilling its riders.
Moments later, the driver was on his way to the emergency room with a broken leg, but Cornelia – master of the grand entrance – was wearing only a Band-Aid with her black and greeting her guests with a huge smile. When last I saw her, she was dancing to a live band. There were at least half a dozen birthday cakes on a table and enough gathered friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve at Times Square.
It was a party that little Jackson will talk about for years, or at least till Cornelia has another party. She told a friend, “I had to get up quickly or everyone would have worried.”
We learn a lot or a little from those who populate our lives. Cornelia, the free spirit, teaches all of us that you might as well smile as cry in this life. Otherwise, you’ll spoil the party for everyone else.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
NEMS Daily Journal