|Corinne Smith (Photo: The Detroit Times)|
For nearly a decade, I lived next-door to a woman in Michigan who was a pioneer of her time. I never knew it until now. Corinne Smith was elderly and retired, very independent, lived alone, and didn’t share anything about her life. She was reclusive, yet friendly when we saw her. If there was ever a need for her to ring our doorbell for something, she wouldn’t come inside, preferring to talk to us on our front porch. Likewise, when we wanted to check on her or needed to share something with her, it was done just outside her front door. We were never invited into her house. Assistance and help were rarely accepted from us, yet occasionally we would find a grocery bag of fresh vegetables from her garden placed inside our screened porch. It seemed she appreciated our efforts.
We lived in Grosse Pointe, a walkable community with sidewalks fronting neighborhood yards on both sides of every street; a grocery store and retail shops were just a few blocks away. Every day Corinne walked somewhere, often with scarf over her head and the ends tied under her chin to keep her hair in place. It’s a visual memory I carry about her and I always wondered where she was going. Sometimes she pulled a folding shopping cart behind her; most of the time she was without it. I later learned many of those walks were to places where she volunteered, something she did from the moment she reached retirement age. I’ve no idea if she ever drove a car as we never saw her behind the wheel, but given her past it is very likely she did at one time.
When we moved to Chicago in 2004, she wished us well and told us goodbye. That was the last contact we ever had with Corinne, and I just recently discovered that she passed away in 2015. She was ninety-four, and her obituary stated that “even as her health declined, Miss Smith resolved to live with as little assistance as possible.” It was her obituary that surprised me.
A journalist with a Master’s Degree, she traveled extensively in the 1940s and 1950s, served with the American Red Cross in such countries as India, China, Japan, Korea and North Africa; travel writing took her overseas, as well. In 1952, she became “one of the few women ever to ride in a jet plane,” according to a Detroit Times article. She worked as a writer and editor for the Wyandotte Tribune, Detroit Times and Detroit Free Press, eventually having her own column. Retiring in 1986, she was once quoted as saying, “I’ve been very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel all around the world. Not many people can list the countries they haven’t been to easier than the ones they have been to.”
When you’re a vital and active person walking through that door of retirement, hearing it slam shut as you cross the threshold might cause the outlook for the rest of your life to be a little sobering. This would be especially so for a woman who, as far as I know, never married and had no children. I often wondered how lonely she might be, yet she lived a healthy and independent life for twenty-nine years after retiring.
I wish I had known this information about her when we were neighbors, even though given her solitary lifestyle, knowing wouldn’t have changed much, if anything. It’s doubtful that any knowledge of her past would alter how and when she wished to interact with us, and it would not have modified her guarded privacy. As a former colleague once said of her, “She was a trailblazer…ahead of her time. She was a wonderful role model, a wonderful mentor.”
Saying such words to Corinne Smith would not have mattered much to her, however, having the opportunity to do so held greater meaning for me. I hope she at least knew of that trail she blazed, and the barriers that were dented due to her life. It meant something to women in general and to me; to the little girls who looked toward the future with promise and hope, wondering what they were capable of doing, she was a role model. How I wish I could’ve thanked her.