It was a small job. They hadn't gone into their home yet since the tsunami partly out of fear, partly out of dread. They wanted some help in looking through their things--not valuables necessarily. My take on this was they wanted company. They didn't want to be alone when they went back home for the first time.
I stood in the doorway trying to stay out of the way of the younger ones hauling things down the steep and cluttered staircase. I glance at the floor of the genkan (the front entry way) totally covered with muck and gunk except for one pair of shoes. I take a photo just because they seem so out of place. They're polished, clean and placed neatly in the corner as if they're waiting to be worn.
More youngsters go up and down the stairs. More stuff gets taken outside into the road for the family to sort through. I continue to stand in the doorway just sort of watching, making sure I'm not needed, fielding calls on the dreaded "white phone." (More on the white phone in another posting.)
There are three women who are from this house. A youngish woman and her teenage daughter and the mother. Three generations of women. I talk to the young woman making sure we're doing what she wants, who suggests we talk to "mother" and together we talk to the matron of the family to get her input.
Mother sees me, bows, thanks me profusely and we exchange gratitude, compliments and general goodwill. Out of the blue she changes the subject. "See these shoes?" she says. I nod. "They belong to my oldest daughter." She chokes up. I get it now. They're missing a family member.
The younger daughter, the one I'd been speaking to earlier says, "Mother said to put these shoes out for sister. We're waiting for her. These shoes are so she'll know to come home."
What do I say to this? Seriously. What do I say to this? I just looked down, fought back tears (and failed) and then when I finally looked back up, nodded to mother.