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Remembering Corinne

I found her letter as I was cleaning out my desk upstairs – the one where unfinished business had collected over several previous employments.

Some years back, shortly after the dot-com bust, I was working for a small nonprofit organization loosely affiliated with the Department of Commerce. It was then that I met Corinne Gilb.

Corinne was a tall, stately lady, with a crown of smooth brown hair threaded with steel-gray. Her eyes were level and gray, and her smoothly modulated voice brimmed with confidence. She and I connected because I was studying Mandarin Chinese and she had been a delegate to several conferences in Mainland China related to the automotive business. I was fascinated because she had actually been to places I had only dreamed of going, and had acquired expertise in areas I had always thought closed to women. Corinne seemed to me to be the first real grown-up I had encountered.

Corinne invited me to come to her home for tea. Hers was an elegant house sheltered within the twisted cul-de-sacs of Atherton, shielded from any vagrant noise by tall walls and taller trees. The large rooms were lined with bookshelves that stretched floor to ceiling, crammed with books related to Corinne’s many areas of interest. I saw copies of some of the same Chinese texts I had been studying, next to bound journals in Chinese. “Yes,” Corinne said, “I taught myself to read Mandarin so I could keep up with what was happening in China.” I was in awe.

An invisible servant had noiselessly set up a tea service in the front room. We drank from dainty porcelain cups. She talked about what she had learned as a delegate to the Chinese conferences, at a technical level I only half understood. She listened patiently to my half-formed ideas; she may have been flattered by my evident admiration.

After we finished tea, she showed me to the door. She said, “I enjoyed this meeting. Maybe you and I and our husbands could meet for lunch sometime. I would like to meet your husband.”

I was abashed. My husband did not begrudge the time I spent exploring Chinese culture and international business, but he did not share these interests. I could only imagine Corinne’s husband – what would the four of us find to talk about?

“Give me a call when you have a convenient time,” Corinne said. I gave her my thanks and left. I did not mention her invitation to my husband, nor did I call Corinne. She sent a note, and then a Christmas card. She had been in ill health but still wanted to have lunch. My not having called became an obstacle to my calling – the budding friendship withered because I was afraid to expose how little I really knew – as if Corinne had not already guessed that. Then I got a notice that her husband had died. I was young. I didn’t know very many people who had died. I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing.

Some months later, I got another note from Corinne. This was a typed letter, a form letter. It said goodbye. She had been diagnosed much too late with metastasized breast cancer. In the letter, she wrote of being near death but still participating in conferences, overseeing the publication of books, writing reviews and presiding over her family. Scrawled in a shaky hand at the bottom of the letter was a note: “So sorry we never had that lunch.”

So am I, Corinne. So am I.

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