One day, I was at a Hmong funeral. It was late into the night when I decided to sit next to two Hmong elders; both were in their 70s. We started talking. I didn't know who the elders were but that didn't matter.
Talking to complete strangers at Hmong funerals isn't new. It has been happening since my ancestors' times, centuries ago.
Back then, being very busy individuals and living quite far from each other in the remote tribal villages in the jungles of northeastern Laos, many used funerals as an opportunity to meet family members, see old friends, teach life lessons and pass on family history.
The elders and I ended up talking for about an hour. We touched on many things, such as how they were related to the deceased, how funerals were back in their days growing up and how life has changed so much for everyone since arriving in America.
One of the topics we covered was love. And surprisingly, both were very receptive to talk about their love and marriage with me.
As a matter of fact, even at their age, they were quite enthusiastic and passionate about love. And it's been some 60 years since they first met their husbands and got married.
At the beginning of the discussion, I was quite naive, thinking that, by now, they wouldn't care much about love. Both were widowers; their husbands died when they were only in their 30s.
But neither remarried, citing that, with young children, they didn't want to sacrifice their children's well-being. Hearing that, I almost let out a few tears.
Both got married in their early teens, which was typical growing up in the highlands of northern Laos in the 1930s and 1940s. And also typical of their times, they got married to older men - their husbands were already in their early 20s.
For both, when they first met their potential future husbands, it wasn't love at first sight or anything like that. In fact, they didn't even date. Always busy with family chores, they didn't have time to date.
But by the time they had reached puberty, unaware to them, there were already many potential suitors who had been eyeing them. So, it became a matter of who was going to come and ask them for marriage.
One married a single man and the other became the second wife to an already married man. Eventually, both of their husbands married another wife. Being a polygamous society, that was common cultural practice.
For most of my life, I knew Hmong women have never liked it. Nevertheless, I had never dared to ask them about it. Well, on this night, I decided to ask. And, as I would learn, neither woman has healed from her polygamous experience.
Today, their hearts are still deeply scarred. Growing up as young girls, they had always hoped that, one day, they would marry a man who wouldn't marry another woman and would love them until the end.
As both women similarly told me, "When my husband married another woman, I bottled up all of my emotions and kept them all to myself. I had nobody to talk to. I pretended and lied to myself that everything was OK. But in reality, I was a wreck. In fact, I tried several times to kill myself, using opium. But for some reason, I didn't die. And when I didn't die, I figured there must be a greater reason why."
One told me that she was saved just in time. Family members found her overdosed and had to pump the opium out of her system to save her.
For both women, they found salvation and the will to live on because of their children.
Even at their age, their hunger and pursuit for true love hasn't been any less than when they were naive young ladies.
With Valentine's Day just around the corner, I thought I'd share this love story. Like an old saying goes, "Love is like a ghost; many talk about it but only very few have seen it."
The essence of love is elusive. Those who have it should cherish it, not just on Valentine's Day but while it's there.
- Pao Lor is a Kimberly resident and a Post-Crescent Community Columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org