Ellen Porter tells the story of Mitsuyo, a Japanese exchange student coming to live with her family. Her father had written and warned Ellen that Mitsuyo was a willful child, but she saw no signs of that at all. She dressed the same each day, was silent while eating at the dinner table and seemed neither happy nor unhappy. She tried to make her feel welcome, but she was reserved and unresponsive.
Her English was poor at first and trying to communicate was a great effort. Gradually it became easier not to try. For weeks, things went on quietly with Mitsuyo fading more and more into the background.
One afternoon, Ellen saw the china dog missing from her mantle. It was only a cheap souvenir but it annoyed her nonetheless. Then she remembered that Mitsuyo was in the living room for most of the afternoon. And then she remembered her daughter repeatedly searching for one item of clothing after another. She asked Mitsuyo about the dog, but she denied seeing it. But Ellen thought her eyes looked shifty and so when the girls went to school, she searched Mitsuyo’s personal items, everything except her suitcase which she couldn’t open. From that time on, she watched Mitsuyo closely and much to her surprise realized she didn’t like having a foreigner in their house. She told no one except her husband James who said she should be patient.
In December she agreed to become the decorations for the Church Christmas party which entailed making hundreds of Nativity figures out of felt, pipe cleaner and dime store jewels. They were to decorate the church hall and Christmas tree and then to be sold with proceeds going to the church. Her dining room became her workshop with church friends occasionally coming over to help. Ellen’s daughter and husband weren’t interested. Mitsuyo tried to help, but each of her figures looked deformed. One day as the Christmas party drew near, Ellen discovered that some of the figurines she had made were missing. She exploded and stormed into Mitsuyo’s room only to find the missing sheep and cow, Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus. Mitsuyo was in the act of placing them in her suitcase. Ellen shoved her out of the way only to discover missing blouses, t-shirts, tennis shorts, sweaters, scarves and even the china dog. She took the items in her arms and shouted, "Is this way you thank us for opening our home and lives to you? Is it? You little thief! I’m getting you out of my house."
She went downstairs to call the District Representative of the Exchange Student program. She realized how much anger had built up inside of her and paused to catch her breath and calm down before she called. In the silence, she heard weeping from Mitsuyo. She ought to cry, she thought. But then she thought, "What in the world could have possessed this girl to steal this worthless collection of things?" Looking at the pile, there was the holy family laying on top. She looked at baby Jesus who came to bring forgiveness, love and compassion to the world. Perhaps she should go up and ask her why she had done it. Then she realized that she didn’t really know Mitsuyo. When she got to the room, Mitsuyo was lying on the bed crying. She put her arm halfway around Mitsuyo’s shoulder and much to her surprise Mitsuyo threw herself into Ellen’s arms. "Why did you take these things Mitsuyo? They’re worthless." She replied, "I was not to keep them. I was only holding them awhile because they were something of you."
Ellen said, It hit her like a shockwave. She had given her food, shelter, gifts but she had not given herself. She just wanted some part of us that we had withheld--our love. "Always, you made my bed but you didn’t talk to me as you did Jennifer." Ellen thought, "She had always been a foreigner, someone I treated as a guest but never as a member of the family." Now all of Mitsuyo's hurts and fears poured out. She wanted to fit in at school but others thought she was strange because of the way she dressed. She wanted so much to be one of us--just for a little while--that she had taken out things as a symbol of us and a security blanket for the love she was missing.
Ellen dried Mitsuyo's tears and said, "I’ll forgive you if you forgive me." Mitsuyo laid her head against Ellen’s cheek. The church Christmas party finally came and it was a success. Ellen, Mitsuyo and Jennifer had a hilarious time making wisemen, sheep and the Holy Family. And then she writes, "Who was I to criticize if some were crudely made. We are all crudely made--we are not perfect, just forgiven."
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