Nice Guy Turns Out to Be “The One”

Minoru (Toby) and Millie Wakana walk down the hall at Valley Terrace in Wilder, Vt., on Feb. 20, 2014. Toby lives at Valley Terrace, and Millie in Lebanon, N.H. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
Minoru (Toby) and Millie Wakana walk down the hall at Valley Terrace in Wilder, Vt., on Feb. 20, 2014. Toby lives at Valley Terrace, and Millie in Lebanon, N.H.
Valley News – Jennifer Hauck

By Elizabeth Kelsey

For the Valley News

Friday, February 21, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, February 22, 2014)

Sunlight streams through the window on a winter afternoon, and a Brahms sonata plays on the radio as I have coffee with Millie Wakana in the Lebanon home she shares with her daughter Janet and grandson Tyler. Millie, 85, has lived here since her husband Minoru, also known as Toby, 88, developed dementia four years ago and moved to Valley Terrace Assisted Living in Wilder.

Millie tells me how she met Toby in 1954 when he arrived in the U.S. from Japan on a Fulbright scholarship to study medicine.

“He was an intern, and my sister — we’re identical twins — was a resident at a hospital in Harlem,” Millie says. “She had a car and she used to take a lot of the foreign doctors for rides since they didn’t have cars. I’d join them sometimes.”

One afternoon, Toby asked Millie’s twin if she would go with him to Washington, D.C. for the weekend. “She couldn’t make it, so she told him to ask me — so that’s when we really got going,” Millie says, biting into a brownie and giggling like a young girl.

Millie has a boisterous, infectious laugh and a sweet tooth. When talking to her, it seems hard to believe she was part of the Madmen era of the ’50s and ’60s. She seems so modern. Her perspective certainly does.

“Wasn’t it daring of you to run off to Washington, D.C. with a guy in those days?” I ask her.

“I wasn’t living with my parents, so that helped,” she says. Her eyes get wide behind her bifocals.

“Well, I shocked my kids when I told them this part,” she says, “but we got engaged a week later.”

To Millie, there was no need to wait any longer — the answer was simple:

“I was 27 and had dated a lot of guys,” she says, “and he was just much nicer than anyone else I’d gone out with.”

Millie_wedding_1955
Millie and Toby at their wedding in 1955

 

Millie and Toby got married in a time when there was residual rancor against the Japanese from World War II. She says that while she never experienced anything “really nasty,” the pair faced some discrimination — at first, from her own mother.

“I never got along too well with my mother and she was the type that worried what people thought, and she was horrified that Toby was of another race,” she says. “My father was kind of a weak person so he didn’t say much. He probably didn’t mind, but he probably didn’t want to say anything.”

Still, Millie invited them to the wedding, a small event in a Japanese Methodist Church on West 108th Street on a day when torrential rain soaked Manhattan.

“I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t come,” she says, chuckling. But her parents did show up, and Toby went right up to his new mother-in-law and shook her hand, winning her over with his graciousness.

Millie and Toby went on to have two children, and lived in New York, Virginia, Maine and New Hampshire during Toby’s career as a physician before they retired in Hartland. Millie had been a bookkeeper but became a homemaker once she had a family.

She met her in-laws nearly 10 years after her wedding when she and her family traveled to Japan for the first time. “They were lovely,” she says. “His father was just like him. He would go down the slide with my son. He had a good sense of humor. And his stepmother was very nice, but they couldn’t speak English.”

Although Millie always tried to learn Japanese through books and tapes, she struggled. “Languages were always my worst subject in school, so it was hard for me,” she says. The Wakanas would continue to visit Japan over the years, even living on the island of Shikoko in ’88-’89 when Toby accepted a job there. The first month they arrived, “I never knew what was going on,” she says, since few of the islanders spoke English.

Eventually, she discovered the English station on the TV, found international newspapers and met a Canadian teacher who introduced her to her English class. “They treated me like a queen because they wanted to speak English,” Millie says. “They took me out to eat, gave me a front seat in the car. I kept in touch with them for 15 years.”

In terms of challenges in her marriage, only one incident stands out in her mind:

“My son’s a good kid, but he’s not studious, and my husband wanted him to be a doctor. I think that was a cultural thing,” she says. “It would have been hard for my son to be a doctor, and I knew that. Finally, he decided he was going to go into teaching, and my husband wasn’t happy, even though it’s a noble profession. We argued. And it took a while, but now my husband realizes our son is a happy person and he has a good family. I heard Toby tell someone the other day, ‘You know who a happy person is? My son.’ I felt so good to hear him say that.”

To Millie, it’s her compatibility with Toby that stands out in her mind more than any differences. She and her husband both enjoy baseball and classical music. “And we agree on a lot of things,” she says, “including social issues, even though he’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat.”

Although they now live apart, Milly and Toby see each several times a week. Despite his dementia, Millie says, Toby still remembers her and the rest of his family, “but he’s not the same person, and I miss the person he was.” For the first time in our conversation, she sounds wistful, but her mood seems to shift when she adds: “I’m lucky I live with my daughter because my daughter takes after him a lot — she’s got his same sense of humor.”

I ask her what that humor was like and she tells me, “Well, one time I was in a restaurant with him and his stepmother, and they were laughing so hard at something, I was embarrassed. I mean, I almost got up and left.” As she’s telling me this, her own laughter spills into the next room, and I imagine how she and Toby together must have been able to fill their house with mirth.

Lebanese Cuisine

Mickey Alafat in the home he shared with Barbara Alafat and his stepchildren on Lebanon's Povery Lane in 1979. (Family photograph)
Mickey Alafat in the home he shared with Barbara Alafat and his stepchildren on Lebanon’s Poverty Lane in 1979. (Family photograph)

 

When Odile and Brian discussed their different dining styles in my last column, I couldn’t help but reflect on the culinary contrasts in my own relationship. While I’m  a food snob who who won’t eat anything that isn’t certified USDA organic, Maroun has a penchant for meals of Tuna Helper and Great Value brand Spam—tastes he acquired when he first arrived in the States as a grad student. It is his comfort food.

Maroun's American comfort food
Maroun’s American comfort food

But he has another favored cuisine that is easier for me to accept: I look forward to “mezza night” at home, when he sets out the delicious hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ganouj he learned to make from his mother. In fact, people who’ve tasted Maroun’s delicacies tell him he should open a Lebanese restaurant, since our area isn’t exactly known for its “ethnic cuisine.”

The Upper Valley is a gourmet’s paradise in some respects (we have wonderful farms, decent diners, sharp cheese makers, and a renowned producer of ciders, for example), but it’s true that Lebanon, New Hampshire doesn’t have any Lebanese restaurants.

But I was fascinated to discover this wasn’t always the case.  Last Monday, The Valley News ran a remembrance of Mickey Alafat, who died at age 80 in January. A photo of Mickey, taken in the ’70s, ran with the story. I spotted something familiar in the man’s name, and his thick dark hair, and learned that he, the son of Lebanese immigrants, once co-owned a popular restaurant called Landers along Rt. 120, on which I now drive to work every day.  According to the news story, the restaurant had  “an oriental feel” to its interior design, and was known for its Lebanese cuisine.

I read on and learned that Alafat’s parents had owned a Lebanese-style diner that burned down in the city fire of 1964. It was located near the pedestrian mall where I take my afternoon walk.

A popular Lebanese restaurant and diner—all well before our time.

mezza
My mother in-law’s mezza

The thought struck me that Lebanon, New Hampshire may have been open to multiculturalism long ago. And I wondered what sort of experiences this Lebanese-American family may have had in our New Hampshire town. Did the Alafats expertly crack pumpkin seeds between their teeth, as Maroun (and just about every other Lebanese I know) does? Did they sprinkle sumac on their hummus? Eat tabbouleh “the right way” (not with utensils, but stuffed into romaine leaves)? Did they also enjoy the confusing irony of our town’s name?

In my imagination, I overhear pretend-conversations Maroun and I would have had with Mickey over a plate of stuffed grape leaves. And in reading his remembrance, I felt nostalgia for places and people I had never actually known. Food I would have liked to have tasted. People I would have liked to have met.

Maroun and I raise a glass of arek to Mr. Alafat, take a bit of pita, and acknowledge that Lebanese tradition is still being carried out in Lebanon, even if only at our own dinner table.

Allah yerhamak. Rest in peace, Mr. Alafat.

The French-American Connection

french_connection

Brian Hampton, his wife Odile Clavier, and their children, from left, Eloise Hampton, 10, Juliette Hampton, 8, and Cecilia Hampton, 13, pose at their home in Plainfield, N.H., on February 5, 2014. (Valley News – Will Parson)

By Elizabeth Kelsey

For the Valley News

Saturday, February 8, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, February 8, 2014)

Lunching on burgers at Lebanon’s Salt hill Pub, Odile Clavier and Brian Hampton of Plainfield discuss how they first met: It was at a New Year’s party in 1988 in Miami when she was an exchange student from Paris. The two teenagers liked each other, had friends in common, but realized they were interested in a relationship only a few weeks before Odile returned to France.

“At the time, I thought that was it,” Odile says of the budding romance, speaking with a barely discernible French accent. At 42 years old, she is tall with a confident demeanor, and hair so dark it brings to mind her black swan namesake in Swan Lake.

As she dips a carrot stick into some hummus, she tells me that she and Brian did stay in touch. A year after she went home, he visited her at her parents’ house in Paris. They attended a Pink Floyd concert together and roamed the streets of Paris. When Brian returned to the States, they corresponded. Or rather, Odile did.

“I wrote him 300 letters and he wrote me maybe one total,” she says, turning to him with a smile.

“That was before email,” Brian, 44, answers, chuckling. He has gentle eyes and speaks in an easygoing manner.

It wasn’t until Odile returned to the States on a trip for her 18th birthday that the two became serious. From then on, they made transatlantic visits to see each other until Odile came to the U.S. two years later to finish college.

Brian_Odile_n
Odile and Brian at their wedding in France in 1995 (family photo)

They lived in Florida for a couple of years, then moved to California to study engineering (he at Berkeley; she at Stanford). They married in southwest France in 1995 and settled in Plainfield in 2003 when Odile accepted a job at the engineering firm Creare. They have three girls, ages 8, 10, and 13. The entire family still travels to France for vacation every summer.

When I ask them about their cultural differences, Brian says he was initially struck by how different Odile’s large, stable family was from his own: he was raised by a single mother, had step-siblings and had lived with his grandmother for a while.

“But Odile had three brothers that were really her brothers and three sisters that were really her sisters,” he says, setting down his burger. “I always like to see a different perspective on life.”

Getting to know Odile’s family appealed to Brian because “it looked like it was built to last.” He adds that his relationship with his French in-laws is positive, but notes the media in France and the U.S. cover topics, such as war, differently: “We don’t see the U.S. the same, so talking to them can be interesting,” he says.

Odile notices this disconnect too: “I think there’s some sort of competition between France and the U.S.,” she says. “People here make jokes about the French, and I wonder where they’re coming from because I feel like ‘I’m not like that and I’m French,’ and then, French people don’t understand I’m American, too.”

Because Odile has spent decades in the States, for her, there isn’t much of a language barrier. Early in their relationship, Brian took French classes at a community college. The couple would have a “French-speaking Wednesday” to practice.

“But it would get frustrating,” he notes.

“A one-sided conversation,” Odile says.

Now, when they travel to her country, Brian tries to stick to the few key phrases he has learned. It is difficult for the children, too, to master a language without constant exposure: Odile spoke French to all three of them until they started speaking English back to her by the time they were in preschool. “They couldn’t really have conversations with me that made sense once it got a little more abstract than a ‘brush your teeth,’ ‘pajamas,’ ‘go to sleep’ kind-of-thing,” she says.

If any barriers exist, they are of the culinary variety.

“A few times when I went to see Odile, with her big family coming together, they would sit at the dining table from 2 in the afternoon till 10:30 at night,” Brian says. “The food would keep coming, and I couldn’t deal with it. In my house, my mom will be having dinner in her room, and my brother will be having dinner in his room, and my sister will be having dinner in her room, and they’ll all be watching the same show on a different TV.”

But Brian sees the benefits of a French-style meal: “I’m no longer opposed to a dinner and talking, and I think it’s real valuable for our kids as they grow and try to make sense of the world.”

“And it doesn’t have to take forever,” Odile concedes, placing her napkin on the table.

And as we finish this meal, I consider maybe it is that attitude — their openness, their flexibility — that led to a happy union. More remarkable than hailing from opposite sides of the Atlantic, they’ve been together since they were teenagers. Twenty six years of amour éternel.