Midge’s House: Midge Ayukawa (nee Ishii) June 26, 1930 – October 24, 2013
by Terry Watada
Cassiopeia bends her stars
and melts light on the roof
of a house in the middle
of Victoria’s woods.
alone in her retirement,
in the antiquity
of a university degree.
Her walls are full of memory.
the wild one, the pretty one,
the one in Japan,
are captured in childhood photographs
flowing with rebellious paisley hair.
died not so long ago.
He had (movie star looks)
a smile full of blessings.
comforts her still.
I met Michiko “Midge” Ayukawa at the Powell Street festival in the late 1980s. We hit it off immediately with her no-nonsense approach to life and my deepening interest in Japanese Canadian culture and history. So much so she invited me to visit and stay at her home in Victoria.
I took her up on her invitation in 1990 when I took my new bride to the west coast to share my enjoyment of the festival, to immerse her in JC culture and history and to meet Midge, a brilliant and extraordinary nisei.
Midge’s home was a ranch style house surrounded by a verdant forest with an array of stars above at night. So many that I swear I could see Cassiopeia – the constellation with one star that disappeared in the late 1500s. It was enough to inspire the poem above and below.
I learned a great deal from that visit. She gazed proudly at the pictures of her children. She told me of her grief and pain when her husband died. His ghostly voice she claimed gave her comfort and strength in facing the challenges of the funeral arrangements. She illuminated for us the lives of the Hiroshima immigrant women she was studying. She spoke of the one who unknowingly married a mentally handicapped man; the one who discovered her fiancé was twenty years older than he claimed; and the one who endured a fifty year marriage to a man she hated.
Midge, according to her obituary, attended Strathcona Public School in Vancouver, and during World War II, was interned in Lemon Creek. After the war, the family moved to Hamilton, Ontario, where she completed high school. In 1952 she graduated with a degree in Honours Chemistry from McMaster University, and in 1953, with a Master’s Degree. In 1955, Midge married Kaoru “Karl” Ayukawa and worked at the National Research Council in Ottawa until 1956 when she started a family. She later taught at a chemistry laboratory to undergraduate students at Carleton University as well as at the University of Victoria after the family moved to Sooke, BC, in 1980. Following the death of her husband in 1981, Midge studied Japanese history and language at the University of Victoria. Her Master’s and PhD (1997) focused on the lives of Japanese immigrants. She authored and edited numerous publications. Her most notable, Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada 1891-1941, was published in 2008 and later published in Japanese.
These of course are the basic facts of the woman, but there is so much more to her. I was privileged to see a few sides to her personality: her kindness, her generosity and her boundless curiosity. She had a voracious appetite for reading. As a girl, she spent many hours alone reading in the neighbourhood library. Her own collection in her home groaned on the shelves. She thought of herself as a “rebel”; she never did what she was expected. “Everything shows in your face,” her mother once claimed and apparently that was a bad thing. But all these characteristics carried her through her life to realize all her tremendous achievements.
Midge was one of a cadre of Nisei intellectuals, including Tom Shoyama, Dr. Irene Uchida and others, who demonstrated the best qualities of being Japanese Canadian and therefore Canadian. I will miss her; I will think of her with great affection in my heart; I am extremely grateful to have known her.
bends a corner
to listen to the voices
emanating from the house
where Midge sleeps
dreaming of Cassiopeia
whose eye went blind
in the burn-out
of a falling star.
For Midge, the star who burned so brightly in her descent.
Excerpts from Midge’s House, A Thousand Homes (Mercury Press 1995), a collection of poems by Terry Watada