By Elizabeth Kelsey
For the Valley News
(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 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.