By Dave Schlenker | Illustration by David Vallejo
Liz Cumbess led a life rich in stories, laughter, color and texture.She was a beloved Marion County artist who, in 2002, parked her life-sized Horse Fever statue in her kitchen as she converted the huge chunk of fiberglass into Van Whoa, a public arts masterpiece that fetched thousands of dollars for the local arts community. “It scared the junk out of my dad,” Jessica Cumbess recalls, referring to the time when her groggy dad, Jerry—an ex-Marine who restores cars—ambled into the kitchen late at night to find a dimly lit Van Whoa guarding the ice box.Liz was a “pebble-kicking tomboy” who was not afraid to square off with neighborhood bullies growing up. As an adult, she would spend evenings tearing up the farm on four-wheelers with her closest friend, Scott. She was a holiday-crazy hostess who also lured friends to “property-cleaning parties” to pick up yard debris, cut down trees and work their ever-loving asses off in sweaty chores. In the end, there would be a bonfire, drinks and all the trappings of a Liz-sanctioned shindig.Liz was a mom with “Inspire” tattooed on her wrist. She used to drop Jessica off at grade school in the family’s yellow Jeep—doors and top off, Pearl Jam spilling out of her Wrangler.Liz went overboard during the holidays, from Halloween haunted barns to food-rich Christmases. Leftovers of her holiday stuffing were savored in a binging bowl on a couch with a spoon.“We guarded our portions closely,” Jerry confesses.But any portrait of Liz Cumbess would not be complete without horses. She adored them. They adored her. “Horses were really her life. She had a natural gift with them,” says Jessica. “She had a connection with animals, horses especially. One of her favorite things to do was to sit in the barn, listening to the horses eating hay.”Liz was a rider, trainer, instructor and equine massage therapist with a deep, spiritual connection to classical dressage.
She did not want to waste life. And perhaps that is the most resonant element of this remarkable life cut short. “She would rather be celebrated than mourned,” Jessica offers. My friend Liz died on September 16th, 2021, following a long bout with cancer. The cancer did not end her life, but an odd side effect from treatment did. Odd story— doesn’t matter. In traditional obituary protocol, I tell you that Elizabeth Anne Riccardo Cumbess was born on February 6th, 1964, in upstate New York. She is survived by her brother, Anthony Riccardo Jr.; her beloved husband, Jerry Cumbess; daughter Jessica and 1-year-old grandson, Kaeson; son-in-law Alex Fort; and, last but not least, her dear friend Scott Head. That’s it for protocol. Liz was not about protocol. She was about horses, art, education, laughter and love. She grew up with a pony named Lollipop and died with an armada of animals that included horses, dogs, chickens and a 40-ish cockatoo named Garth (a mouthy big bird who prefers the company of women). She led equestrian summer camps at the house. “It was amazing,” says Jessica. “She really had a love of seeing other people enjoy horses.” She was a painter whose horse-heavy landscapes and whimsical puppy portraits filled local galleries and art corners. She was an art teacher who, Jessica said, “always taught out of the box.” Jerry met Liz when she was dating one of his friends. He saw her, and he was putty. He left for the Marines but sent the lovely Liz letters and his dog tags. “When it came to my mom, he was a big teddy bear,” Jessica shares. An obituary is not exactly what I had planned to write for my holiday column. Yet I love thinking about the life of Liz in this time of family, tradition and warm fuzzies. I think of her family shoveling her famous holiday stuffing in their festive pie holes. That memory will make them smile this year. “This may sound odd, but she had an innocence,” Jessica points out. “She just saw the good in people. Everything is new. Everything is beautiful. She kept it joyful.” In the weeks before her death, there were splashes of serendipity, little things that brought a close family closer. Liz declared, for example, she wanted dreadlocks. That resulted in an unforgettable mother-daughter artistic collaboration that produced a work of art with shades of blue. “She was so unique,” Jerry asserts. “She wasn’t cut from the same cloth as others.” On another day in those final weeks, her grandson, Kaeson, suddenly hugged Liz like no human has hugged another human. It was tight. There were tears. “He called her Goo-ga,” Jessica recalls. “She was beside herself.” Another thing the world needs to know is that Pearl Jam-loving Liz played the cello. The sweet resonance of a bow on strings was a spell, deeply personal and powerful. In those final days, she played Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star for an enchanted Kaeson. A simple tune. A bittersweet encore. Celebrated not mourned. And that is where I will leave this not-really-an-obituary obituary about a grandma in dreadlocks dubbed Goo-ga. One closing request: This holiday season, savor your leftovers on the couch and tip your glass to all lives lived with grace, color, texture and kindness. And just to be safe —guard your portions! OS