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Starting Point

Mr. Cato’s kamikaze kindness


They’re an interesting couple -- upright, solid and very quiet. The man has a pointed, black beard that falls just above the two hands he folds in front of him. The woman wears a familiar smile.

I’ve known this pair for nearly 35 years. I’ve found a place for them in every home I’ve ever known since high school. They’re here today -- with my husband, son and daughter in our one-story, four-bedroom house.

And I don’t even know their names.

Call them “Stan and Gladys Hokkaido” after the island in northern Japan where they originated. An artist carved them from a piece of wood stained a dark mahogany. Two black dots mark the spots where their unblinking eyes peer out beneath heavy brows. Their oversized heads take up about three inches of their total 12, and each wears a hat and a kimono decorated with flourishes etched deeply into the wood. Stan has always been the more serious of the two. Try as she might with that goofy grin of hers, Gladys has never been able to get him to crack a smile.

The unforgettable way they came into my life has compelled me to keep Mr. and Mrs. Hokkaido close these many years.

In August 1967, it is another hot and humid night in Seto, Japan. For the three weeks, I’ve lived in the home of the Mizuno family as part of a summer high school exchange program.

My Japanese “sister,” Noriko and I had just come home from our evening class in Japanese dance. Noriko, 15, has studied this stylized art form since she was 3. Poised and accomplished, she and the teacher move through the studio with dainty grace. With my previous dance experience limited to doing the Watusi at sock hops and the polka at weddings, I provide an interesting study in contrasts.

An old man I’ve never seen before is visiting Noriko’s father tonight. Noriko’s father motions us over to them and introduces me to his friend.

“Sue-san. Mr. Cato. Mr. Cato. Sue-san.”

I bow. “Dozo yoroshiku,” I say. The phrase means, “I am very pleased to meet you.” My knowledge of Japanese is limited. I’ve been muddling through with a book called Conversational Japanese in Six Weeks, a gift from my host family. Its first chapters have been largely devoted to the topic of the whereabouts of assorted dogs. “There is the dog.” “Here comes the dog.” “See the dog.” Idealistically hoping to foster international good will through communication, I’ve found myself wishing that a creature with a wet nose and wagging tail would happen by. In the meantime, I make do with “Dozo yoroshiku.”

Mr. Cato’s eyes open wide, then disappear into a crinkly grin. He seems enormously pleased at this American’s attempt to speak his language. I can’t help but wonder how he might have responded if only the Mizunos had had a puppy or two underfoot.

Noriko and I politely take our leave. We pass through the entry hall just off the living room. There on a low shelf stand two wooden statues of a man and a woman. I’ve been intrigued since I noticed them the first day I arrived. I’m drawn to the sure and simple craftsmanship that created them. They are as sturdy and real as they are exotic.

Using a system of pantomimes and a Japanese/English pocket dictionary, I ask my Japanese sister about these artifacts. Using the same system, she tells me they came from the island of Hokkaido, a place well-known for this kind of carving. The wooden couple has been here in their home as long as she can remember.

I catch a glimpse of Mr. Cato’s face in the next room. He has the shy look of an eavesdropper. “Oyasumi nasai,” he calls over to us both.

In Japanese, I echo his “good night.”

The morning of my last day in Japan, I lug my suitcase down the stairs. It’s heavier than when I arrived, crammed with souvenirs -- ceramic tea sets, paper fans, kimonos, wooden sandals, lacquer chopsticks. I set it down under the shelf where my favorite wooden figures preside.

There’s a good deal of farewell commotion. Deep bows to my host-family father and mother, to my sister Noriko and brother Yukio. There are more than a few tears, and sayonaras that sound too final to a 17-year-old on her way back to Wisconsin.

I turn toward the door and notice, just off to the side, a large box. A box with my name on it -- “Sue-san.” My Japanese father picks it up and hands it to me. I lift the cover and inside find two wooden statues, a man and a woman, each carved from a piece of wood stained a dark mahogany.

“From Mr. Cato,” my Japanese father says.

Mr. Cato? I don’t recognize the name. Mr. Cato? Then I remember. The gentleman I met once for all of five seconds three weeks earlier.

It was a radical concept in gift giving -- in a realm beyond birthday and Christmas presents, beyond any expectations or sense of obligation. A present of the purest kind, Mr. Cato’s gift asked nothing in return. The giver didn’t even stick around to see a grateful smile or hear an arigato mangled with a Midwestern accent. Call it stealth giving. Hit-and-run generosity. Kamikaze kindness. Or just a foot-tall reminder of how lovely this world and the people in it can sometimes be. That is a souvenir worth keeping.

Sue Diaz lives in San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001