TAE CHONG: Loneliness became a part of my tradition.
Not being able to love was unbearable.
I had to break tradition.
KEVIN GALLAGHER: Back in the before times, people like me were considered perversions in society.
I refer to those as the good old days.
DIANE PARKER MULLENS: Then he says, "My third wife died from a blow to the head."
Well, I didn't see that one coming.
♪ THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "Match Made."
People are so unique and life can be super challenging.
Which is why making a lasting match can feel impossible.
But we're all matched in some way-- with our family, with a partner, or sometimes with a perfect stranger.
And those matches, when done right, they can change or even save our lives.
Tonight's tellers are bringing their stories of the matches that made all the difference.
♪ CHONG: My name is Tae Chong, and I live in Portland, Maine, and I was born in Korea and I immigrated to the United States in 1976.
I work as a director of multicultural strategies and markets for the Maine State Chamber.
And what that means is I just try to help Maine businesses hire and sell more products and services to people of color in Maine.
And I understand that you immigrated to the United States as a kid on Halloween Day?
Can you tell me a bit about what that was like?
You know, at first I thought it was great because kids got candies for free.
(soft chuckle) My aunt, before I left, she bought me about five pounds of candy because she knew that she wouldn't see me again.
And what ended up happening was my older brothers and I, we stayed at my cousin's house, and gave out handfuls of candy to kids.
And all the kids in the neighborhood figured out that that was the house to go to.
And so we ended up giving away all of our cousin's candy and my five pounds of Korean candy to the kids in the neighborhood.
It's a very quick education (laughing): on the American traditions of Halloween.
So what kind of stories do you like to tell?
I think everyone starts out with stories that they know best, which is your life.
And, you know, being an immigrant in the whitest state in America, there's all kinds of irony and interesting perspectives.
And so I try to put a lot of humor, but... but there's also a lot of emotion and, and sadness involved too, so... You know, my stories try to run all the gamuts, if it's successful.
♪ My parents were very strict and traditional.
They wanted my brothers and me to find and marry a Korean girl.
We lived in Maine.
I was a teenager in the 1980s and there were maybe four people I could date in the greater Portland area.
One was 30, another 26, 22, and eight.
Not disappointing my parents was more important than finding our own happiness and our own potential loves.
I never saw my parents say "I love you" to each other or I never saw them kiss.
Being romantic was something my brothers and I were never taught.
I only remember seeing my parents maybe hold hands once or, or hug each other.
I suspect their marriage was arranged.
They grew up in Korea in the 1930s before electricity, before plumbing, and free will.
I imagine my mother meeting a middle-aged woman, a matchmaker.
She would sit across a wooden table from her.
And the matchmaker would have a pile of white pieces of paper with names of potential suitors.
And she would flip over each paper and read the names of potential suitors, read their energy, and their Chinese horoscopes.
And she would put the ones that weren't a match on the left-hand side and the ones that were potential matches on the right-hand side.
It was analog Tinder.
By the time I reached high school, my brothers moved out and went off to college and they discovered girls.
Love has a way of finding and calling you when you're ready.
My older brother fell in love with a beautiful Italian woman from Boston.
They were perfect for each other-- except tradition.
Times were hard for my parents.
My father was the first one in to work and the last one to leave.
He would work six days a week and on Sundays he would pick up odd jobs to pay the bills.
My mother's job was also in jeopardy.
She worked in textile and all the textile jobs were in jeopardy then.
And my father had to borrow money from his friends to pay for my brother's tuition.
His life was in chaos and he turned to tradition and he forbade my brother from seeing his Italian girlfriend.
My oldest brother was upset and, and he broke ties with my family and he moved out, and he dropped out of school and he lived in a small town on the outskirts of Boston.
The message to me was clear.
If I disobeyed my parents, I would be disowned.
Loneliness became a part of my tradition.
Not being able to love was unbearable.
And I, I had to break out.
I, I had to rebel.
I had to break tradition.
And breaking tradition meant breaking my mother and father's hearts.
(exhales) I dropped out of school from a prestigious college in Maine.
I left home and I, I didn't speak or see my parents for four years, and I started dating other people, and I broke their hearts over and over and over.
And I broke our traditions.
My older brother came back to Portland about ten years later, and he reached out to me and he said he wanted me to come back home.
I missed my 60-year-old mother getting her driver's license.
She'd always been dependent on my father, and my father was patriarchal, something I didn't like, but she was finally getting her independence.
But I wasn't ready.
My family was evolving but I wasn't ready.
When I was 28, a beautiful, curly-blonde, blue-eyed woman with an electric smile came into the community center where I was working.
She was wearing a brown sweater, brown pants, and brown shoes.
And for some unknown reason I said, "You look like a Brownie troop leader.
Do I need to buy some Girl Scout cookies from you?"
And she laughed.
It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.
And I wanted to make her laugh forever.
It was supposed to be a short visit, but we talked for five hours.
And we listened to Sade's Lovers Rock over and over.
And we quickly fell in love.
Susan came from a traditional Catholic family and family and tradition were important to her.
And she wanted to meet my family.
I told her that my parents would be unwelcoming because they wanted me to marry a Korean woman.
"Okay," I said.
"It's not going to be easy."
I picked up the phone and I called my mother.
It'd been almost a year since I spoke to her.
"Umma, I would like you and Abuji to meet Susan."
"I'll make oxtail soup.
"Umma, Susan can't eat meat.
"She's a vegetarian.
Fish is okay."
"I'll make the best dinner.
Tomorrow at 6:00?"
When I hung up the phone, I realized I never would have called my parents if it wasn't for Susan.
I listened and trusted her.
We were both nervous when we went to my parents' house, and we held hands as we walked up my parents' steps for strength.
My mother was in the kitchen.
She was hovering over the stove and over a pot.
She had been cooking for two days.
The kitchen smelled of oxtail soup and I wanted to run away.
"Hello," I said.
And I introduced my mother and father and older brother to Susan.
I asked my mother what she was making and she said, "Oxtail soup."
And I told her that Susan couldn't eat meat.
She said, "I know.
No meat, just soup."
I turned to Susan and she gave me a look that it was okay.
My parents could see that we loved and trusted each other.
That night I broke my tradition of not coming home.
Susan broke her tradition of not eating meat.
And my parents broke their tradition of not having a curly-blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman with an electric smile over for dinner.
♪ GALLAGHER: My name is Kevin Gallagher.
I'm from Burlington, Vermont.
I am a psychotherapist by day and by night I like to tell stories.
What do you feel like you've learned about yourself through storytelling?
GALLAGHER: I think I've learned that I have a lot of resiliency.
You know, certainly I think of times, you know, growing up that were hard and I sort of think like that I, I hear...
I hear my own resiliency in my stories.
Mm... And the ability to pivot when things happen.
And I think I don't know if I learned that, but I, I sort of, I got confirmation of that from doing storytelling.
OKOKON: So, as a storyteller, what is it like for the people in your life to be part of your stories?
(chuckling): My mother almost always says, "That never happened."
Which is fascinating to me 'cause my sisters will even say, "Yes, it did, Mom."
It should be like, "No, no, I don't remember that at all."
That's one thing she does.
The other thing that she does is if I say, "Mom"-- like this story, she's heard this story before-- so if I say, "Mom, there's going to be a story on Stories from the Stage."
"The ring story."
"Yeah, I've heard it."
(laughing): So, so, so... And that's sometimes even when I'm on a stage, and then she'll say, "I know that one, and that's not how it happened."
You know, it's like... (laughing): Okay... ♪ Growing up gay and Catholic is pretty aspirational if you intend to stay gay and Catholic, which I intended to do.
And if you're uptight and Irish, that just makes the whole thing even more complicated.
Back in the before times-- not COVID, before that, the last millennium-- people like me were considered perversions in society and abominations unto the Lord.
I refer to those as the good old days.
Because there was something a little bit liberating about the dominant culture not knowing what to do with you.
Like, for example, being at a conference and someone saying, "Kevin, did your wife come along with you?"
It's like, "No, I left my boyfriend at home."
I'm going to go get some cheese and crackers."
That all changed.
That world changed back in 2000 when Vermont got the civil unions law and my partner Michael got inspired.
At that point, we had been together for 14 years, and had survived two mortgage closings.
Which in my mind a mortgage closing is a far more serious commitment than marriage.
My father was married nine times before he died, and never had a mortgage, and I have gone through two mortgage closings with somebody I wasn't even married to.
(chuckles): I actually remember the night before our first closing, he's sound asleep, I'm listening to him breathing, and I'm laying there awake like so anxious about this process.
And I remember thinking, "Kevin, you are going into thousands and thousands-- hundreds of thousands of dollars-- in debt with somebody who can't even pick his clothes up off the bedroom floor.
Well, 2000 was special for another reason.
It was my 40th birthday.
So on a nice summer afternoon, we went to a place called Shelburne Farms.
It's a big Vanderbilt-Webb estate on Lake Champlain and we walked around the grounds with our $25 martinis pretending that we live there.
And then Michael really surprised me.
He got down on one knee with the ring and everything and said, you know, "Will you marry me?"
I was shocked.
And like millions and millions of people before me-- actually millions and millions of women before me-- I do this: (sobbing): "Oh my God, I can't believe it.
"Yes, of course, I'll marry you.
I love you so much you've made me so happy."
(normal voice): And then I wanted to call my mother and tell her I was engaged.
So here I was thrown into this world I wasn't really quite used to.
Because, like millions and millions of people who aren't my people, in come the questions.
"Am I gonna be invited?
"Are you going to have it catered?
"Are you gonna have a band or a DJ?
"Where are you having the ceremony?
Where are you having the reception?"
And I felt so overwhelmed by all these questions that I just started telling people, "We're not getting married until our 20th anniversary."
Well, that six years flew right by and we didn't get married on our 20th anniversary.
We got another mortgage because that's what we do.
We bought this postage-stamp- sized camp on the lake and that's where we were gonna invest our time and our love.
The first spring we were there, we had a "fun task" of putting 70 feet of dock into a freezing cold lake.
If you want a visual of that, it would be two people fighting all day.
And when I got out of the water, I realized that my engagement ring was gone.
I guess my hands had gotten so cold, they shriveled up, and it just slipped off.
And it was a claddagh ring, it's a special kind of Irish ring, symbolizes loyalty and friendship and love.
I, I felt awful and Michael was pretty crestfallen.
But, again, not being part of the dominant culture, it's like, what does this mean?
Like, does this... in the straight world, does this mean that we're not supposed to get married if you lose your engagement ring?
Or am I supposed to buy my own replacement?
And you're not really supposed to buy your own replacement for a claddagh ring?
And does he buy it and then I Venmo him the money?
So we just did nothing.
Seven years later, we're putting the dock... taking the dock out of the lake and putting it on the shore for the winter on a lovely... another cold, lovely day.
And at one point Michael bends down and quietly says, "Oh, look, I found your ring."
And so I went over, and it clearly was my ring, and it wasn't silver anymore.
It was black and had crud on it.
But it was my ring and I'm thinking, "No, no, this isn't possible."
Because in those intervening years we had had the highest lake levels Lake Champlain had ever had.
We had tropical Storm Irene.
We had a drought that made it almost seem like we weren't going to be able to pull water from the lake anymore.
Sometimes we have five feet of shale on our beach.
Sometimes we have sand.
So that's how wild the lake is where we were.
And I said, "Did you plant that here?"
He looks back at me, "Yeah.
"Yeah, that's what I did, Kevin.
"Seven years ago while you were sleeping, "I wiggled that ring off your finger.
"And I hid it in a secret place for no reason.
"And then seven years later, for no reason, "I went to the secret place and I took the ring, and I blackened it up and I pretended to find it."
And I said, "Well, you don't have to be "that sarcastic about it.
But you do know what this means."
"It means our love is forever."
(groans) "I should have just found it, cleaned it up, "and put it in the bottom of your underwear drawer and you would just find it yourself at some point."
So, needless to say, (laughing): we're still not married.
A couple of months we'll be celebrating our 36th anniversary together.
So Beyoncé was right: if you like it, then you better put a ring on it.
But I'm still not sure if he's the one.
You know, there is still that problem of the clothes on the bedroom floor.
But one thing I have learned over this time is that it really is the journey, not the jewelry, that makes a difference.
And I have had one hell of a journey with Michael.
♪ MULLENS: My name is Diane Parker Mullens and I'm from Alexandria, Virginia, but I'm a Jersey girl at heart.
Originally from Freehold, New Jersey.
And I have both an M.A.
and a B.A.
I'm retired right now and loving it with my grandkids, and it gives me a lot of time to work on stories, and that's what I really love now.
Can you tell me about how you got started in storytelling?
I was actually very involved with theater from my teenage years, up through college, and even in community theater.
And it just got to be too much.
The egos got to be too much to deal with, and so I pulled myself away from it, and I really didn't miss it.
But about five years ago, I got that little twitch like I really need to do something, you know, acting again or performing again.
Mm... And I didn't know what.
But my husband found an article about storytelling, and he said, "I think you should do this."
Are there storytellers in your family?
MULLENS: I wouldn't say a storyteller per se, but my father wrote many, many letters to my mom when they were both in World War II.
He was in the South Pacific, and she was in Wales, (chuckling): so it's quite a distance.
And he wrote just about every day.
I'm just starting to go through them now.
So, yeah, it's... those are really valuable to me.
That sounds so lovely.
How many of those letters do you have?
He wrote every day for two years.
MULLENS: So-- yeah.
OKOKON: That is a lot of letters.
So, when you think about the story you're telling tonight, what do you want the audience to take away from your story?
Don't give up.
♪ After two divorces, multiple failed relationships, and a fling with a much younger man, I decided to step back from the social scene for a while.
I wanted to get to know myself.
To get to like being with myself.
So I binge-watched romcoms, ate pints of Ben and Jerry's right out of the carton, and I read a lot of books.
One of the books I read was The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr.
Well, I wanted Mr.
Right's heart, so I read it.
Turned out to be everything my mom had told me about dating.
"Be easy to be with, but hard to get."
Well, I was easy to be with, but I was hardly hard to get.
"Don't call him and rarely return his phone calls."
Well, because I guess if you call him, then you're the pursuer and that's against the rules.
"Never accept a date for Saturday "if he calls past Wednesday.
"You have things to do, even if it's just washing your hair."
So, armed with my rules, I jumped back into the fray.
I started going to singles dances again.
Now these dances are my own personal form of hell.
First of all, I was back where I was 40 years ago.
And there were twice as many women as men.
And I couldn't ask a man to dance because that was against the rules.
But I like music, and I love dancing, so I went.
One night I meet this interesting guy.
He has a serious look to his face like he's a policeman or maybe military.
But when he smiles, it swallows up his whole face.
It's like a Charlie Brown smile and it's so endearing.
He asked me out for the next night, but it was Friday night, his window of opportunity had slammed shut.
But then I thought, "You know, at my age, my only rule should be carpe diem."
So I seized the day and I said yes.
We went to a quaint little restaurant, sat in a cozy corner with candlelight, and romantic music, and oh, it was so romantic.
We started with the usual.
I told him I was from New Jersey and he didn't laugh, or make a joke, or even ask me what exit.
He said he was a local guy, and when he graduated from high school, he went into the Marines.
After he came home, he became a policeman.
Two for two.
During dinner he told me, "Both my brothers married Dianes."
Well, that was it, it was meant to be.
I was his Diane.
We'd get married, a small wedding, maybe on the beach and we... stop it, Diane!
It's that kind of Hallmark movie thinking that has gotten you in this place to begin with.
During dessert, he said, "Do you like Peter Sellers?"
"Why, yes I do.
I love Peter Sellers, he's hysterical!"
He said, "Well, I have a Peter Sellers movie at home.
Do you wanna go watch it?"
Well the rules are screaming, "No!"
So I say, "Yes, I'd love to."
We watch the movie and we laugh at all the same places.
And when the movie is over, we start getting to know each other a little bit better.
All of a sudden there's a break in the conversation, and he says, "I've been a widow three times."
Well, I didn't see that one coming.
I am speechless.
But not him!
"My first wife was a naturalist and she ate poisonous mushrooms."
Okay, well the hair on my arms is prickling just a little bit.
But I had a friend who was a naturalist pick some mushrooms, they turned out poisonous and he ended up in the E.R., so could happen.
"My second wife also died from eating poisonous mushrooms."
Okay, so now I'm measuring the distance between me and the door, and can I get there before he heads me off?
And why didn't I tell somebody where I was?
Then he says, "My third wife died from a blow to the head."
Well, now I'm paralyzed.
I couldn't move if I wanted to.
I'm thinking, "Why didn't I listen to the rules?"
I mean, if I had, I'd be back home watching my hair instead of in an apartment with a serial killer.
Then he says, "Don't you want to know what happened?"
No, nope, I don't wanna know.
But I say, "What happened?"
And he says, "She wouldn't eat the mushrooms," and burst into laughter.
In anger and relief, I smack him, and that's when he realizes I was taking him seriously and I finally get the joke.
Two years later, we were married, and I officially became his Diane.
♪ (voiceover): I think because I always saw myself as being in a relationship, and even with two divorces, I still felt like that's something I needed in my life to be special to somebody and have somebody that was special to me and it's just something was missing.
Do you feel like you found what was missing?
Yeah, I do.
(laughs) OKOKON: Watch Stories from the Stage anytime, anywhere.
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