She was born Hideko Miyagi, but by the time I knew her, already twenty years the wife of a small town automotive factory worker, she was simply “Aunt Heidi.” She stood not even five feet tall, with a head of thick raven-black hair, skin the color of golden sand, and dark eyes that always appeared to be smiling. It never seemed odd to me, the product of generations of western European stock with my fair skin, blue eyes, and blond hair, that this woman should be my aunt.
She was simply my uncle’s wife, my aunt, whose lady fingers, nut rolls, and apricot drops showed up at every family gathering from birthdays to graduations. She was my aunt, who at Easter made separate plates of candy, full of chocolate crosses and peanut butter cups, for each of her nieces and nephews. She was my aunt that on Christmas Day handed out much anticipated envelopes with ten-dollar bills inside, and in her heavily accented English, wished us each a “Mel-ly Chlis-a-mas.”
But before she was my aunt, she was Hideko Miyagi.
Born on a small island in the Pacific, she was still a toddler when WWII invaded her homeland and turned it into a major battlefield of the war. To escape the firestorm, her family fled with their neighbors to isolated caves where provisions and medical care were minimal; when she contracted an infection so severe that it eventually attacked the bones of her face, there was nothing to do except move her to a separate part of the cave, administer meager doses of black-market drugs, and endure the shunning of the other refugees.
Once the war had ended and the US had set up permanent military bases, life took on a new normal for my aunt and her family. The lush tropical paradise they once knew had been destroyed, only to be rebuilt and repopulated by an ever revolving collection of American GIs. By her early twenties, she had adapted to it; and done so well that she caught the eye of a young Marine, far from his home in rural Pennsylvania. One whirlwind romance later, they were married and welcoming their first child, a daughter with the same dark eyes and black hair as her mother.
But war again interrupted her life when her American husband was called to serve in Vietnam. While he was gone, she had to be both mother and father to their young daughter, and every day, find a way to live a life that had no certain future. Finally her husband was discharged, and together they decided to return to his home in the States, hoping to find a quiet life as a family.
Saying good-bye to her tropical island home, she flew to her husband’s home in wintry Pennsylvania, only to be greeted by naked tree trunks stripped of all green life, brown fields of mud crusted with ice, and skies that forever changed from gray to black to gray again, but never cleared. She learned to exchange pots of rice and freshly caught fish for dishes that mixed rice with greasy ground meats then wrapped it in boiled cabbage leaves; fish was rediscovered in the form of frozen rectangles coated in yellow batter and plunged in hot oil. Despite her limited English, she found ways to navigate a continuous cycle of doctor’s visits, bus schedules, PTA meetings, and after-school practices. She became a faithful member of her church, mastered the pot-luck, and saw her husband become a deacon.
All this, seven thousand miles from where she had been born.
After her death, my uncle confessed his own misgivings about bringing his bride to such a foreign place. Early in their marriage, he had opened a bank account in her name and deposited $1,800 in it. He told her that if she ever found her new life too overwhelming, too lonely, or if she simply wanted to return to her family, she was to use the money and go.
She never went.
Instead she stayed and chose to be part of our family. She left her own mother, father, brothers, and sisters and embraced her husband’s mother, father, brothers, and sisters. She left her own nieces and nephews and embraced me and my cousins. She traded life on a Pacific island for life in rural America with the man she loved.
Growing up, it seemed pretty unremarkable to me that Hideko Miyagi was my uncle’s wife, my aunt. Today it does not.
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