Celebrating the legacy of a young artist

Celebrating the legacy of a young artist

It’s amazing how little you can know about a person you take for granted as part of your world. That is, until you lose her.

I spent years watching a little girl grow up, and simply assumed I knew whatever it was that was important to know about a child. That is, until she left us, unexpectedly, at 16.

Deborah Cornell and some of her drawings.

What I did know about Debbie Cornell, what continues to be true is this: Adopted as an infant and biracial, Debbie was raised as a Jew in a loving Ridgewood home. She and her family — mother, father, and sister — are people we know from synagogue. Our paths crossed continually, and we count them among our many friends in the community. Shabbat mornings were particularly special for Debbie’s mother, Susan Mayo, and me. We brought our daughters to services and allowed them to play afterwards, running through the corridors of Temple Israel during kiddush. My vivid recollection of Debbie is of a chubby-ish toddler, thumb in mouth, clutching a worn white blanket and racing to keep up with the bigger girls. Sometimes a little frustrated if she couldn’t find them or if they excluded her, Debbie was mostly a lively bundle of energy, keenly observant and with a serious expression.

Her older sister, Rebecca, and my youngest, Elizabeth, just a year apart, often continued the Shabbat playdate at one or the other of our homes. When Liz played at the Cornell house, Debbie joined them — or tried to, being considered, naturally, the "annoying" baby sister.

A few years later, my two older girls took turns babysitting the Cornell sisters. My daughter, Joanna, recently confided to me that she was afraid she’d be reprimanded when Susan and her husband, Gene, returned home from an evening out to find Debbie still awake. To delay bedtime, Debbie would repeatedly throw her stuffed animals down the stairs, Joanna recalled; Debbue was reluctant to go to sleep before Susan could tuck her in.

As time passed, I saw less of the Cornells, with our children entering their separate orbits of friends and activities. I wondered from time to time how Debbie felt about being Jewish and biracial, a minority within a minority. I wondered whether it was going to be easy for her to fit into our largely white community, especially in a competitive, cliquish public high school. She would cope, somehow, I figured, with the inevitable traumas of adolescence — and in the process find where she belonged.

Unfortunately, Debbie did not discover a personal comfort zone. Rather, she escaped into drugs to ease her pain and confusion.

But while drugs may have taken Debbie from us, nothing could destroy her vigorous spirit — reflected in the haunting poetry and visual imagery she left behind. Eschewing formal instruction, she was completely self-taught.

Like many others who had not seen her in a number of years, I did not know the depth of her brilliance, her sensitivity, her insights, her multifaceted talent. I also learned then that several years ago, Debbie, always with a mind of her own, had renounced her identity as a Jew, declaring herself an atheist. Her parents sought to honor her wishes in choosing to forgo Jewish burial and mourning rites, instead carefully planning a wake and memorial service as a final tribute.

Always supportive, hoping to help her defeat her demons, Debbie’s mom and dad were trying to persuade her to apply to a specialized art program for college. Despite the evident struggle, they were looking ahead with optimism, envisioning that their gifted daughter’s artistry would someday bring her public acclaim.

Although Debbie will never have the opportunity to create new works, to mature as an artist, it is never too late to introduce Debbie Cornell, the writer, the painter, the illustrator, the lyricist. Everyone needs to know and understand who she was, without grieving for what she might have become. She must be appreciated — no, celebrated — right now, and forever.

Susan, Gene, and Rebecca, may you be comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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