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Cathy “Cat” Toyohara

Cathy Toyohara, 1956-2017. Photo from Toyohara family.

By David Yamaguchi

FOR THE SECOND TIME in as many months, I am writing here of the death of a former schoolmate. Many readers would remember Cathy “Cat” Toyohara, as she was widely known and liked. This was obvious at her celebration-of-life service, which filled the small church of Grace United Methodist, near 30th Ave. S. and S. Jackson, on Mar. 11. For despite the event intentionally not being listed in the paper to keep the attendance manageable, Cathy’s friends went, some informed by email, others purely by word-of-mouth.

Cathy attended Mercer Junior High, Cleveland High, and the UW before starting work with U.S. West—which later became Qwest, then Century Link. Beginning as a 4-1-1 (Directory Assistance) Operator, she worked her way up to Technician before retiring after 35 years. On finding that an idle life did not suit her, however, she began working anew, part-time in retail, at Walmart.

As explained at the service by emcee Victor Yee, a friend since Mercer, Cathy was a person who did things in a full-spirited way, yet did not always fully grasp what was behind the activity. To illustrate, Victor told a funny story of having posed a question to her as a high-school cheerleader, over 40 years ago.

“How many yards are needed for a first down?”

Cathy had thought quietly, before replying with a well-known yell.

“First and Ten, Do It Again!”

”So it must be ten yards.”

Victor went on to describe how later she would dig razor clams, heedless of ocean waves. She was going to “get the clam,” regardless of whether she got soaking wet or not.

Similarly, Victor related how Cathy played on a darts team, but could not make the darts stick.

Yet, the kind of aunt Cathy had been was obvious from the stricken faces of four nieces and nephews who took the podium together, first to read a verse, then later to read a poem. A nephew was unable to speak for a full minute. A niece was crying.

Perhaps the deepest insight into Cathy’s character, however, came from Edwin Hernandez, a young man from Puerto Rico who worked with her at Walmart. All in attendance could guess he had something important to say as we watched him struggle from the first pew up the few stairs to the pulpit. He walked with extreme difficulty. Yet, he wanted to make the effort for Cathy.

Mr. Hernandez began by explaining that he is still fairly new to Seattle, and had gotten to know Cathy through restocking shelves and the like with her. He had been surprised at how petite Cathy would help him carry the heavy, 50- and 60-inch TVs, fully bearing the weight on her end. Also he would watch in amazement when she staffed the stressful customer service desk. She would whittle down a line of 20 waiting customers until there were none. He explained how Cathy was admired by the entire staff owing to her competence. But the main thing he described was the depth of the friendship she offered.   

“She was my best friend.”

Cathy had kept in touch with him, even after his health had made a turn for the worse, and even though he has not worked at Walmart now for two years.

“She taught me to be positive.”

Caring for others and being their best friend is how many people will remember Cathy. She was known as a dear sister, a favorite aunt, a best friend, and one of the most empathetic people around. Some called her “mama” because she gave so much to so many others. She provided rides to the airport, fed cats, and bought groceries. She even watched over birds and squirrels with bags of peanuts that filling her trunk.

WHILE I DID NOT KNOW Cathy well—the enduring image I have of her is that of the quiet, cute girl in the Mercer band room who was daily surrounded by boys—perhaps I write for many Sansei when I say that what is the most unsettling about Cathy’s unexpected death is the way it strikes a nerve.

For Cathy was one of us, a person of the Asian-American village of our youths, whose boundaries had been circumscribed by the real estate redlining encountered by our parents.  Accordingly, we all knew Cathy from our shared bonds formed at neighborhood public schools, from the era before that system was ravaged by busing and white flight.

Moreover, unlike Grover Yamane, who moved away, Cathy was a person we continued to see, as she hung out in the adjacent International District. Commonly, she would be sitting demurely, waiting for her good friend, Junko Ishii, to get off work at Sun Ya Restaurant, today’s Ocean Star.

Throughout, owing to our school days, Cathy was among those to whom we could always easily say “Hi!” and converse, cutting across the decades without pretense. With Cathy as with all, little needed to be explained, for the contexts for most conversations were already understood. We had watched each other grow up. We knew each other’s siblings and could inquire of them. We could share funny stories because we knew the people, the places, and the times.    

For us, Cathy’s death signals two things. The first, and most immediate, is that from now, there is simply one less person with whom we can share such conversations. Further, Cathy’s passing, following Grover’s in Dec. and that of Diane Taniguchi—a few years older than us near Cathy’s age—in Nov., makes it clear that Sansei death is a reality now. The median of our generation has passed through a door, beyond which there will gradually start to be fewer of us.

A new “light bulb” clicked on for me over these past few weeks.

“Oh, this is how Dad and Mom must have felt when their friends began to disappear, and they were spending their weekends attending funerals…”

“Death Be Not Proud,” a memoir about a college-bound student who died of brain cancer, is a title that many of us read at Cleveland. Yet, in those distant days, Death was a concept we could not grasp. It did not apply to us. We were too busy listening through our long hair to the upbeat sounds of “The Jackson Five,” “The Stylistics,” and “Kool and the Gang.” We would always be young.

Death seldom crossed our minds. Until now.