She was born Hideko, but by the time I knew her, already twenty years the wife of a small town factory worker, she was simply “Aunt Heidi.” Standing not even five feet tall, she had thick raven-black hair, skin the color of golden sand, and dark eyes that always seemed to be smiling. And somehow, despite my western European ancestry, my fair skin, blue eyes, and blond hair, it never was odd to me that this woman should be my aunt.She was simply my uncle’s wife, my aunt whose nut rolls, lady fingers, and apricot drops showed up at every family gathering from birthdays to graduations. She was my aunt who at Easter made individual plates of chocolate crosses and peanut butter cups for her nieces and nephews. She was my aunt who on Christmas Day handed out much anticipated envelopes with ten-dollar bills inside, and in her heavily accented English, wished us each a “Me-ly Chlis-a-mas.”

But before she was my aunt, she was Hideko.

Born on a small island in the Pacific, she was a toddler when WWII invaded her tropical home and turned it into a major battlefield of the war. To escape the firestorm, her family and neighbors fled to isolated caves where provisions and medical care were scarce. When she contracted an infection, there was nothing to do but move her to a separate part of the cave, administer meager doses of black-market drugs, and endure the shunning of the other refugees.

She survived and eventually the war ended. But the lush paradise she once knew had been destroyed and rebuilt and repopulated by US military bases with an ever revolving collection of American GIs. By her early twenties, she had adapted to this new normal and caught the eye of a young Marine far from his home in rural Pennsylvania. One whirlwind romance later, they were married and welcoming a daughter with the same dark eyes and black hair as her mother. Eventually he was discharged and hoping to find a quiet life as a family, they left her Pacific paradise for his home in the States

But what she found there were the wintry hills of Pennsylvania, trees stripped naked of all green life, fields of mud crusted with ice, and skies that never cleared but forever changed from gray to black to gray again. Instead of pots of rice and freshly caught fish, she found rice mixed with greasy ground meats wrapped in boiled cabbage leaves. Fish was strange frozen rectangle coated in yellow batter and plunged in hot oil. And yet, she blossomed. She soon had a son and despite her limited English, quickly learned to navigate the continuous cycle of doctor’s visits, bus schedules, PTA meetings, and after-school practices. She became a faithful member of a 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 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 did.

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 was my uncle’s wife, my aunt.

Today it does not.