A stranger in my permanent memory

I kept bowing to the woman, as she was doing the same to me. Studying Japanese for hardly a month, I felt so powerless when the most profound thing I could say to the woman was “domo arigatou gozaimasu” (Thank you very much), while what I wanted to say so desperately was “I will never forget you.” I, then, said bye to her and left the store feeling extremely unsatisfied, and I never hated the language barrier so badly.

The woman owns a shop selling stuffs drawn by her husband. Her passed away husband. He was an artist, a good one. He invented his own comic character- probably his lifetime signature as an artist- that was portrayed in essentially everything in the shop: postcard, keychain, T-shirt. I never got to know what kind of person he was, nor what charm he’d got, but one thing I know for sure was that his wife loved him dearly.

The shop was not very well-lit. It was part of the shopping complex built on mostly bamboo and wooden materials after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan last year. The city’s name was Onagawa  (The picture below was a garden work that said “We Love Onagawa” (Ona = “woman”, Gawa = “River”), one of the region hit hard by the tsunami. Local businesses that got destroyed by the disaster gathered together and built a new shopping center (of roughly 30-40 small shops) to sell mostly handmade stuffs. The term “shopping center” may be misleading, because at the time we arrived there was no shopping going on. We, 20 people, were the only customers at the center at that time, and most shop-owners seemed to be sitting around idly. This is not surprising, considering the fact that demand is extremely weak in this area, due to unstable employment, and most citizens no longer know what to do now that the disaster is over, debris is everywhere and all their boats (fisheries was their main source of income) were destroyed. Therefore, the shops at the shopping center did not seem very promising, and their daily income lingered just as much as their hope for the future.

The wife of the artist was no exception. I don’t know how it used to be when her husband was still alive, but upon my visit her business did not look fine at all. When I arrived, most of the lights in the shop was turned off, probably to save energy bill, except for the little light right above the desk where the woman was sitting. She sat facing the wall, continuously writing as if there was no expectation for anymore guest to the shop for the day. She probably had called it a day, before I entered.

She noticed as I stepped in, and right away she ran to greet me in Japanese. All I understood was “welcome to the shop,” and the confusion started. She soon figured out I did not speak any Japanese, nor understand it; but she didn’t care. She kept explaining to me what the comic figure was, and that her husband created it. Her husband at the time remained only as a picture sitting on the chair, so it didn’t take long until I understood that her husband passed away. She talked much about things that I did not understand, but as she pointed at from one picture to another of her husband and her, I knew that she was missing him. I, accidentally, may have acted as an emotional trigger that opened up her memory of him, the memory that was so desperate that she had to tell someone regardless of whether that someone would understand her or not. Language barrier did not matter, love was the absolute priority. I could not do anything besides trying my best to show my honest sympathy.

I spent a good amount of time listening to her, because I thought she needed it. When she seemed to have settled down with her story, I offered to buy five postcards (that were sold for 500 yen). I loved how the postcard looks when it is put inside a photo frame, so I also offered to buy a frame. Through a mix of words and actions, she conveyed to me that she would sell the postcards to me as a normal customer, but the she would give me the photo frame as gift. I was confused by the question of what I did to deserve such kindness, so I refused. I intentionally bought the postcards just to give her the mental reassurance that there are still people who like her husband’s drawing, and I know well my 500 yen would barely cover the photo frame, let alone the postcards. Her insistence, however, suggested me that it would be rude if I kept refusing her present. So I took it. She further offered me to sit down, have nice candies and offered me a cup of coffee. I listened as she talked for another while. After a 15 minutes, when she has settled down with her stories, I found an excuse, saying that my friends were waiting for me, and I left the store.

As I said before, I was trying really hard to tell her that I would never forget such a kind woman with such a big heart, but my Japanese did not allow me. After I left the store, I took out one of the five postcards I bought to write a message, asked Eno-sensei (my Japanese teacher) to translate my message into Japanese. It said “I hope you will always be able to keep your smile and kindness to people” – those words couldn’t express fully what I felt, but that was the best I could do. I ran back to the store, gave her the card and said bye again before she could read the card.

The last thing I know, when my car started departing the shopping center, she was standing behind holding up my postcard and waving good bye until the car turned around the corner and no longer in sight.

So this is the drawing of her husband, contained in the photo frame she gave me. I met millions of stranger on the streets, but this woman may have been the one I’m most committed to remembering.

 

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