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Old-fashioned romance Young at Heart

Story : Kucharee Tansubhapol

Pictures : Yingyong Un-anongrak

When it became known last September that well-known writer and businesswoman Khunying Chamnongsri Rutnin, 57, and Loxley executive Dr. Jingjai Hanchanlash, 55, both widowed, planned to marry, Thai society gasped in surprise – and delight.

Now, four months after their wedding, the happy couple thee Outlook in their own words how they met, and become for each other “the pieces of the jigsaw that fit together perfectly.”

How long did you know each other before marring?

Dr. Jingjai: Ten months.

During the years when you were a widower/widow, did you think you would marry again?

Dr. Jingjai: Not really. I didn’t feel any need to.

Khunying Chamnongsri: For me, absolutely not.

Why is that?

Khunying Chamnongsri: Grandmothers don’t usually remarry, you know – after all, who’d be mad enough to marry a grandmother!

Seriously, I was quiet happy being single again with the children grown up. I liked space and independence. Even as a child, I often enjoyed being completely alone – solitude, you call it?

Well, now and again I did feel twinges of envy when I saw couples attending functions together – but only very few and very small twinges.

I had done serious study of Buddhism and practiced meditation for several years. In fact, I spent weeks, even months taking solitary retreats in forest monasteries. I wanted to continue living a self-sufficient and useful life – ending with a serene old age. A husband wasn’t a part of the scenario!

How long was your widowhood? What was it like?

Khunying Chamnongsri: Five years. All in all, it was a busy, interesting and challenging period. There was no loneliness.

At the time, my oldest daughter was already married and had a son. The other three children then started coming home one by one, got jobs and got married. My children have always been like friends, so our relationship was warm, full of arguments and fun. We could discuss any subject. All the in-laws were so good, too.

I had all kinds of interests, and so many different things came up for me to work on. Then, there was the responsibility for the Rutnin Eye Hospital which was not easy, and the responsibility for Harbour House Foundation which shelters, educates and trains young girls aged 12 to 16 to prevent them from being drawn into prostitution, building their self-worth in the process.

They are northern girls from families with problem of drug addiction, abuse, broken homes. The work has plenty of difficulties – funding being one of them. There wasn’t much time left for writing which is what I love to do.

Dr. Jingjai, a childless widower of your status and qualifications is sure to be popular with ladies. Why did you choose to marry a grandmother when you must have had several other choices?

Dr. Jingjai: To start with, I didn’t choose to marry a grandmother. I chose the woman who is very special to me. (Laughs) To use a metaphor befitting Valentine’s Day, I’d say we are like the right pieces of a jigsaw that fit together perfectly.

I think there are people who have the versatility and freshness of youth along with the experience and wisdom of age. Chamnongsri is one of them. She has so many talents and unexpected qualities – marrying her is rather like marrying five different women of many different ages.

Khunying Chamnongsri: (Laughs) Now we know he is polygamous at heart!

Dr. Jingjai: The grandmother is the value added. I have always wanted children. She has given me an instant family – very warm, very lively – four married children and three grandchildren! I had a wonderful time spoiling the kids last weekend when we were all together in Hua Hin. There was a lot love and humour, and no generation gap. I think they all like me.

Khunying Chamnongsri: (Laughing) You know very well that you have become a real favorite. They are still laughing about Grandpa Jingjai taking charge of the five-, four-, and two-year-olds, and the dog.

Dr. Jingjai, from your own experience, do you think our society allows widowers to have a much better time than widows?

Dr. Jingjai: Yes, definitely. As a widower I was free to go back to enjoying a bachelor’s life… had plenty of opportunities to meet and date beautiful, interesting and eligible women. All this, and much more, we could do without being looked upon badly or starting nasty rumours, while it would be quite different for widows and divorced women. Unfair, yes, but that’s the norm of our society. It should be changing though. I think many outdated norms in Thai society are slowing evolving with the inevitable globalization process.

What was your life like before you married Khunying Chamnongsri?

Dr. Jingjai: (Laughing) Worked hard, played hard. My work as First Senior Vice-President in charge of the international portfolio for Loxley Public Company which is a major Thai conglomerate is quite onerous in itself. I also continued to be very active in international development works and NGO activities. Fortunately, my chairman at Loxley allows me to continue to pursue these activities which I have been doing for 30 years before becoming a businessman. All these things entailed a lot of travelling and meeting with a great variety of people.

Then there were close friends and different groups with whom I went out with, dining, drinking – all the usual things. I also played a lot of sports – mainly tennis. And yes, dating – within reason.

What was your first impression of Khunying Chamnongsri? How did things lead to marriage?

Dr. Jingjai: It began with just a formal introduction in passing. She struck me as very pretty, charming and attractive. Having already heard about her I was very surprised by her youthful looks.

It was sometime after that I had an opportunity to help her on a project of the Harbour House Foundation. That was when we really got acquainted. Watching her go about her work, seeing her handling of the girls and her relationship with them, I felt that I would be very happy if I could have spent my whole life with her.

In the months that followed we had discussions, arguments and plenty of laughs. We also had daily e-mail conversations because some things conveyed better in writing than in speaking. (Laughing) That’s how I came to relies the depth and perfection of the jigsaw!

The decision to remarry was obviously easy for Dr. Jingjai, yet difficult for you. Why?

Khunying Chamnongsri: it’s because of my – age not my status nor fear of people’s opinions. Life in my fifties had been the best period of my life – I had intended to go on enjoying my work and my life in my own way.

I also wanted to remain free of attachments – being old enough to realize that attachment is like… (laughs) like fly-paper, that sweet sticky paper people used to catch files with in the old days.

Besides, there were doubts and uncertainties, the kinds women feel in this situation – I mean, women who are, what you politely call, “elderly”.

What made you come to the decision?

Khunying Chamnongsri: (Laughs) Jingjai, the person that he is. The completeness of the jigsaw that he has told you about. The feeling of happiness and strength whenever we were together. In short, the fly-paper has caught the fly!

It is not usual for a widow to remarry so late in life. Khunying, what was the general reaction of the news that you were going to marry Dr. Jingjai?

Khunying Chamnongsri: Mainly surprise, especially from younger people. They expected Jingjai would marry a much younger woman – he was known to be pretty popular. One of the most surprised was my brother, Dhongchai, who was wrongly accused of being the matchmaker.

Most of my friends and relatives were happy for me. Some of those who didn’t know him were worried … until they got to know him. My children had no objections – they only asked me to take time to think carefully. Now they are really happy to have him in the family.

There were people who thought I was silly and ridiculous. You know, the ingrained idea that remarriage is not respectable for widows who are middle-aged and older, especially grandmothers.

How did the disapproval affect you?

Khunying Chamnongsri: It is natural for people to have different views. It is interesting, though, that after the story in the Bangkok Post and the social news in Thai Rath, we were flooded with congratulations. Even people who didn’t know us personally sent words that the news cheered them up at a time when the headlines were so depressing.

I am not sure whether it is a positive sign of more open-mindedness, or the unusual romance being like a bright spot against a dark background. Both, I’d like to think.

What do you think, Dr. Jingjai?

Dr. Jingjai: I think times are changing. If older women are healthy, besides being young physically and mentally, why shouldn’t they be respected for making the best of their lives the way they choose. These days, you can find a few 50-year-olds who are more youthful than some 35-year-olds in just about everything but years. I firmly believe that the trend of older women, widowed or single, to marry will increase as one of the changing norms of our society.

Do you think love is necessary in marriage?

Dr. Jingjai: Yes. It is the essential foundation for a happy and meaningful marriage, especially when it is complete- the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. As this is your Valentine’s edition about us elderly people who dare to get married (laughs), shall we call the love that accumulates between two mature people who complement each other “complete and rational romanticism”?

Can marriage survive without love?

Dr. Jingjai: Yes, of course, plenty survive. You can see it all around us, only you can’t really tell if the couples manage to keep up what I call a “correct relationship” for social or other reasons. Without love, marriage is just a relationship of responsibility and commitment and, at best, companionship isn’t refreshing; it is dry and cannot give true happiness to either partner.

Khunying Chamnongsri: At its worst, it can be cruel, unhappy and dehumanizing.

Do you have any expectations from your marriage?

Khunying Chamnongsri: I don’t believe in expectations. Jingjai and I agree that we shall try not make demands on one another.

Marrying so late, we realize the shortness of our time together. The good thing about this is that each of us tries to give all the happiness we can to the other. If both are the givers, then both automatically are the receivers. There is so much to be gained and no need for demands. We grow to be appreciative of all the positives and tend to overlook the negatives. So far all this has worked well. Of course, being human – we don’t expect our relationship to be anywhere near perfection.

But we shall always keep in mind the shortness of time, together with uncertain and transient nature of things – that really give value to our time together and everything that we try to do for one another. We seem to have more energy, more ability to help others when we are a happy team.

Jingjai and I also practise Buddhist meditation together whenever we can. It does much to enrich our lives and our relationship.

So, where is the need for expectations?

And you Dr. Jingjai – any expectations?

Dr. Jingjai: I confirm all the Sri said in answer to this question. Like her, I have no expectations because I am fully content with the … what shall I call it … the mellow depth and warmth of the love between u … such contentment I have never before experienced in my life.

Maybe it is the privilege of age, or perhaps the reward for some good things I have done, or perhaps it is something only we who are nearing our old age are capable of feeling. The only thing I’d like to add is that I would be very glad if our story proved to be an encouragement to elderly people like us, especially women, that they should be free to find happiness in life should they find someone they love – provided it isn’t immoral, illegal, or irresponsible. This may be one of the constructive contributions we give to our society before we are gone.


From: Outlook, Bangkok Post, February 14, 1998

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