I found the 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 non- profit organization loosely affiliated with the Department of Commerce. We were struggling to increase international business in Silicon Valley. It was then that I met Corinne Gilb.
Corinne was a tall, stately lady, with a crown of smooth brown hair shading into steel-gray, level gray eyes, and a smoothly modulated voice brimming 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 which 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 house 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.
A tea service had been set up noiselessly in the front room by an invisible servant. We drank tea 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 good time,” said Corinne. 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 letter from Corinne. It 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.
“Child-proof” – Ha! (LATC October)
It happened just like they warn in the Emergency Care manuals
We had been having houseguests with small children all summer. We had childproofed the main rooms with all the breakable gewgaws put away. We had taken the cleaning supplies out of the children’s bathroom. We had the toys in an easily accessible closet and we locked the door to the attic.
But we had not hosted a two-year-old in years.
It started just like they warned it would. “Where’s Joshua?” “I thought he was with you!”
Then the search began. Not in the kitchen. Not upstairs. Not next door at Grandma’s. Not visible walking up or down the street. Finally his dad found him –in the master bathroom. It had never occurred to me to make this part of the house off limits, because no other visiting child had ever ventured into this part of the house without escort.
There were about a dozen bright red ibuprofen pills scattered, some smushed, on the floor.
Never underestimate the tenacity of a 2-year-old.
It had been a new box of ibuprojen, flaps still glued. It was shut away in a drawer.
Joshua had opened the drawer and found the box.
Joshua had ripped the box open.
Inside was a “child-proof” bottle, the kind where you have to press on the sides at the same time as you turn the lid. No problem for Joshua: he bit down on the lid with his gleaming white baby teeth and turned. No more lid.
The contents were kept fresh by a vacuum -glued foil-lined seal. Many is the time I have sworn at these seals as I tried to pry them off with fingernails, toenail clippers, or scissors. Again, no problem for Joshua. Joshua gnawed through the seal like a roof rat gnawing through an orange.
Then, fortunately, he spilled half of the pills on the floor. His dad found him as he was trying to replace them in the bottle.
He told us he had not eaten any of the pills.
Maybe he was a little scared because he had spilled and smashed some, and made a mess. Maybe he knew he was in trouble, and told us he had not eaten any so that the trouble would be less.
We all watched him like a hawk for signs of drowsiness, stomach pain, nausea…. nothing. Two-year-olds are tough.
There had been other close calls for toddlers in my experience. Once my little brother fell out of the car as it was going around a corner – he just opened the door and “Poof!” he was gone. (This was before the days of child safety seats.) Once my grandson slipped out of his flotation jacket in the swimming pool and was two feet down before I grabbed him. But these were accident of poor design, not carelessness or lack of oversight. This time I felt responsible – I should have been more vigilant.
For the rest of the visit, “Where’s Joshua?” became my mantra. Even with my elevated level of surveillance, it was amazing how quickly the two-year-old could be gone. Once he got as far as the end of the street, down by the un-fenced creek. “Where were you going?” “I was just walking.”
Happily, Joshua survived the visit. His curiosity is no longer my immediate problem. But his visit left me with a lot less complacency about the safety of my home and the adequacy of my imagination in recognizing hazards. The next time I have miniature guests, I’ll invest in padlocks.
If the guest is Joshua, he will probably find the bolt cutters in the garage.