There’s a story that my wife has been kind enough to let me tell all of the years we’ve been together. Some day, I’m sure I’d get a kick out of hearing it all from her perspective.
As you’re reading this, we are days removed from Marissa’s birthday and a couple of days shy of our wedding anniversary. As a couple we have been together almost nine years and this year, we celebrate four years of marriage.
I started my business in May of 2009. In April of that year, I had found the location where I wanted to open up which was inside a small commercial plaza in Hudson, Ohio.
I went around to my neighboring businesses to introduce myself and let those around me know that I was opening up in case they, or someone they knew, wanted to start training with me. At the time, I knew no one in the area so I was truly starting from the ground up.
There was a glass company in the plaza, owned and operated by Al and Amanda Montigney. I went in to introduce myself to them and noticed all of these pictures up around their shop of a rather striking young woman throughout different stage performances (most of which at Disney.) And as I like to tell the story, I remember looking at those pictures and thinking “Wow, she’s really hot.”
After some short conversation with the Montigney’s, Amanda said she’d love to be my first client.
I would come to find out, that Marissa was their only child. She was raised and groomed to be an actress from a time when she was not much older than Sebastian is now. She danced, she sang, she acted (what they call a “triple threat” in the musical theatre world.) And while she did attend a local university seeking a degree in musical theatre, she got her big break when she received a contract to be a full-time performer at Walt Disney World.
At the time, I was in the last stages of my dissolution with Jackson’s mom. All of those things would finalize by summer of 2009. Marissa had been in a long-term relationship with a guy down in Florida who her parents were not pleased to see her with. She happened to come up for the summer for a short visit and I got a chance to shake her hand, introduce myself as simply her mom’s trainer and that was that.
Shortly after my dissolution, I was back in the dating world but was hesitant to bring anyone into Jackson’s life. He would have been a little over a year old and I just didn’t feel comfortable introducing him to every person I had an interest in if it wasn’t going to be a long-term commitment.
That Christmas, Marissa came back up to Ohio to spend the holiday with her parents. She had split from the boyfriend that no one liked and she had just started talking to another guy before she came back up here.
I got to see her again and we said a quick hello before parting ways. Mandy came in to train with me the week of Christmas and she was a little bit frazzled.
“Marissa just wants to come and go and do all these things right now but we just don’t have the time. Al and I both have to work and it’s just too much to be out and about with her at the same time.”
So, I said “Mandy, I’d be happy to take her to the mall, or out for coffee or a glass of wine or something if that helps.”
And she relayed the message to Marissa, who in turn reached out to see if we could set something up.
That night, we decided to meet at a local wine bar and shoot the breeze. It was not a date per se because in my mind, I saw several things standing in my way: 1) She lived in another state 2) She was talking to another guy 3) I probably wasn’t her type.
Well, I was partially right on #3.
I was everything counter to who Marissa would normally be attracted to. I was much older (there’s a nine year difference in age between us), I was divorced, I had a child, I was not an actor, I had a shaved head, I had facial hair, you name it. I did not really have the deck stacked in my favor if I thought something could happen between us.
And, as memory serves, we just spent the evening talking. I even gave her some tips on things she might buy the guy she had just started talking to for Christmas. We parted ways for the evening, shook hands and I assumed that was basically it.
But, for her, she must have seen things a little bit differently.
The next day, I was at work and I got a text from her: “I’m going to Starbucks. Can I get you something?”
And folks, I was hooked right there.
“Yes, you can!”
She stopped by the studio and dropped off my drink and we had some more time to chat. All I could think was “How do I NOT screw this up?”
And over that Christmas weekend there would be more conversation, and a first kiss, and more conversation and then the ultimate thought of “How does this progress?”
I also made a big leap on my part and said “My son is going to be over for Christmas. If you’re up for it, I’d like you to meet him.” This was a big deal to me. No one had met Jackson, he was sacred ground as far as I was concerned. There was the feeling I had if Jackson gave the slightest notion that he wasn’t feeling Marissa that maybe we shouldn’t pursue any further. That wasn’t fair on my part but I also didn’t know how a long-distance relationship would work if it went that path.
It became little to worry over because Jackson warmed up to Marissa just fine.
So, over that weekend, I decided to unload all of my dirty laundry onto Marissa. Basically the conversation of “this is my past, can you accept it?” I knew I didn’t have to go down that road but basing all of my past experiences as perpetual failures, I knew that I needed to treat this relationship differently. Marissa listened attentively, asked the questions she felt were necessary to get answers to and accepted my claim that I was different from the person I used to be.
By the end of the holiday weekend, Marissa asked “Normally, my parents would be driving me back down to Florida. Would you like to drive me down instead?”
And we did. We drove 17 hours and 1000 miles to get her back home. I stayed the night at her place and drove back the next day.
When you’re cooped up in a vehicle with only one other person for 17 hours, you learn a lot. And I knew then, I was going to drop everything else to focus on building a relationship with her.
We maintained that long distance for the first 16 months of our relationship. We only saw each other once a month for about 3-4 days each time. Either she came to Ohio or I went to Florida. This lasted until her contract expired at Disney at which point, she moved back to here.
In the nearly nine years that we have been together, she watched me lose my father to cancer, I watched her parents go through a lengthy and difficult divorce, we had to put both my dog and her dog down within a couple of years of each other, we got married, have lived at separate times with both my mother and her mother and of course, we had a baby.
Our life has been anything but ordinary. And what the hell does ordinary look like any way?
Sometimes, when things get tense between us, it’s easy to look at other relationships and ask “Why is it not like their life?”
And the answer is always “Because no one lives the life that we’ve lived.”
If you follow me on social media, you know that I have no problem posting all sorts of things out there; some professional, some personal but it’s almost always the bright spots. That is intentional. I don’t believe in using social media as a platform for negativity.
But to give you a small glimpse of a part of our life that is not a highlight it would be our conflicts. Marissa and I have basically always ever had disagreements about two things: quantity of time together and disagreements about money.
We do not fight often, but there are fights. Ultimately, we know that the only person we want standing by our side through the disagreements is each other. That makes it at least a bit easier to sift through the chaos when it hits.
There is also that underlying feeling of change. As in, she and I not being the same people we were back then. And if you’ve been with someone for any lengthy period of time, I feel the only constant is change. It’s all in how you evolve with it.
I don’t spend a great deal of time waxing nostalgic but Marissa does. Her ability to remember things in her past has always amazed me. She can damn near tell me the meal she had on a vacation we took seven years ago and she could probably tell me what she was wearing then. I don’t have that gift. However, ask her where she put her car keys five minutes ago and she doesn’t have a clue. I, on the other hand, always put my keys in the same place because I am a creature of habit. This is a small illustration of the always entertaining and rarely boring life in the Leenaarts household.
I am reminded of a line I said when we were speaking to the pastor who married us on October 11, 2014. He was asking us questions about what attracted us to one another. And in my response I said “I am basically just a rough sketch. Marissa is the color to all of that.” He repeated that sentiment on our wedding day.
It holds true today.
I will side step from you faithful readers to address my wife directly.
Marissa, I love you. Thank you for every day of this journey you have committed to us and to this family. I am in your debt.
And I will slightly modify my tagline from it’s usual comment of “We Make Great People Greater” to something more appropriate while on this subject:
“We Make Each Other Greater”