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.

Love Without Borders: From Lebanon to Lebanon, N.H.

 

My first trip to Lebanon (the country) with Maroun in early 2009.
My first trip to Lebanon (the country) with Maroun in early 2009.

This is the first of a biweekly series on intercultural couples in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire/Vermont.

Today, there are more intercultural couples in the U.S. than ever before. Even our current president was born from an intercultural union. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of new marriages between spouses of a different race or ethnicity rose 15.1 percent in 2010, and the share of all current marriages that are either interracial or interethnic had reached an all-time high of 8.4 percent—that makes 26 million Americans in intercultural marriages, not to mention the millions who are dating, engaged, or cohabitating as intercultural couples.

By Elizabeth Kelsey For the Valley News
Friday, January 10, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, January 11, 2014)

I had just expressed my fear of flying to my husband.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

“The plane could crash. I could die,” I said.

“Aren’t there some dead people you’d like to see? Just think of all the catching up you could do.”

Coming from different cultures, Maroun, from a village just north of Beirut, and I, a military brat who grew up on American bases from sea to shining sea — are accustomed to differing perspectives.

Maroun lived in civil war while the only battles I knew were with bullies in my suburban Florida middle school. Maroun was devout in his Maronite Catholicism, while I was agnostic from an early age. And while he came to the States to pursue a Ph.D., fulfilling responsibilities as an only son, I followed my destiny as prodigal youngest daughter by spending my 20s as a vagabond in Europe.

Despite our different backgrounds, or perhaps because of them, we were drawn to each other when we met at a 5K road race in Tallahassee, Fla., six years ago when we both reached for the last beer in the refreshment cooler.

It was love at first sight, although it took some adjustment for our families. When my father heard I was involved with a Middle Eastern man, he gave me a DVD of “Not Without My Daughter,” the true story of an American woman who had to flee from her Middle Eastern husband, as a warning.

When Maroun sent his mother photos of me as an introduction, she phoned from her village of Nahr Ibrahim with the verdict, “She’s too blonde.”

But our families came around quickly: Maroun’s mom loved me for my hearty appetite; my dad sat for hours, enraptured by Maroun’s take on U.S. politics (my husband thought Obama and Palin should have run on the same ticket). And our siblings were our champions from day one.

When we got engaged in 2008, I joined Maroun in New Hampshire, where he’d landed a job and, where, to the confusion of my family, immigration officers and ticketing agents, we settled in the city of Lebanon.

Maroun and I traveled to his homeland for the first time a few months later. I gazed out the airplane’s window in a Valium haze at Beirut’s coastline, clutched his hand as we descended into my unlikely vacation destination, and knew I’d do anything for him. Once we arrived, I learned to belly dance, rode through treacherous traffic and ate my way through Maroun’s village. Oddly enough, I felt at home.

But just as I was getting comfortable in Lebanon, the country, it was time to return to Lebanon, N.H. The reality of cold, reserved New England was as bracing as the snow that showed no sign of stopping for months on end.

I settled into my new life and considered what marriage meant to me. I looked at other couples in the Upper Valley — they seemed to have so much in common: some went to church together, for example, and didn’t disobey U.S. State Department guidelines to visit in-laws. These other couples seemed alike and shared traditions.

Gradually, as New Hampshire began to thaw, I realized I wasn’t as alone as I had thought. Our state is statistically one of the least diverse in the nation, so finding fellowship was a challenge, at first. But gradually, while training with my swim team, attending a Fourth of July celebration and meeting people at work, I realized we weren’t the only intercultural couple in our area.

As I listened to my international friends’ stories, I found their tales so different, and yet so similar to my own. I met couples who reconciled Christianity and Islam. Who married despite a family’s opposition to someone from a different race.

There was one couple that struggled with a language barrier, and another in which an American wife didn’t understand the pressure her Japanese husband put on their son’s studies (in both cases, they found solutions). Differences in religion, dining, communication, educational styles … the intercultural couples I know have overcome universal obstacles.

Some of these couples will tell their stories in this column, which returns in two weeks.

…………………….
Elizabeth Kelsey is working on a memoir, “From Lebanon to Lebanon (New Hampshire)” and blogs about the topic of intercultural relationships.

If you are in a bicultural relationship and would like to share your story as part of her project, contact her.