A young wife shares what it felt like to be married in her favorite place in the world—and then leave.

It was National Cherry Festival time in Northern Michigan, and I was the current Cherry Queen. Having just moved to Traverse City for his first tour of duty, my now-husband Jim purchased a newspaper to get a sense of what his newfound community was all about. According to the legend of what has now become the story of how we met, Jim opened the newspaper, looked at my picture on the front page and said to himself, “I’m going to marry that girl.”

After meeting during a chance encounter one evening two years later, I knew very quickly that, indeed, I was going to marry this man. After Jim dropped down on one knee and asked me to marry him with the water of Tahquamenon Falls roaring in the background, my brother Ben and sister-in-law Kelsey held an engagement party to celebrate. As part of the entertainment for the celebration, Kelsey asked us a series of questions related to our relationship and our upcoming nuptials. One question she asked Jim was: “What is Maria’s biggest non-negotiable for the wedding?” His answer: “That we get married in Northern Michigan.”

Northern Michigan is a part of me: a significant aspect of my identity has been that of a small-town girl raised amidst the rolling hills and fragrant blooms of our cherry orchards. The ideals garnered from my upbringing in Leelanau County gave me a sense of groundedness that comes from the humble, hard-working family, friends, and neighbors by whom I was surrounded. To many of us who live here, it’s a place unlike any other; a place so cherished that leaving would be unfathomable.

Jim realized quickly how much of my identity was connected to this area, and as we fell more deeply in love, it began to mean something very precious to him as well. Our love grew while hiking in the woods behind his house in Holiday Hills; cuddling together during the many snowy months; renovating a home on Tenth Street; and navigating the beautiful terrain of the U.P. on camping adventures. When I look back at the nascent moments of our relationship, the background of it all is the brilliant, clear sky and the serene, restorative waters of Northern Michigan that allowed us to feel at peace with each other. The substantial, rooted earth we were traversing gave us permission to open up and truly uncover our genuine selves to each other, and we wanted our wedding guests to feel the incredible connection of people and place that only Northern Michigan can provide.

I never anticipated that falling in love would inevitably take me from the place that has shaped me, but life’s journey often leads in unexpected directions. Jim’s commitment as an officer in the US Coast Guard meant that marrying him would necessitate that I uproot my life and move with him throughout his career. The conflictedness I felt about this reality presented a significant stumbling block in our otherwise solid relationship.

Marrying Jim meant I would be leaving almost everything I’ve known and loved—my family, my friends, and my dream job teaching high school English. Before we met and fell in love, the idea of living anywhere other than in this magnificent community seemed absurd. However, while my love for my native homeland ran deep, my love for this man eclipsed my desire to stay in Northern Michigan, with one stipulation: after our time in the Coast Guard is complete, we will move back to raise our family. With this understanding and with trust that we would be able to navigate the challenges of life in the military together, we looked to the future and began planning our special day.

Our wedding would fall on a mild day in late June, just two weeks before we were scheduled to move to New Jersey. That meant that not only would this be a celebration of our union, but also a farewell to the people and place I hold so incredibly dear. Additionally, many of Jim’s military friends and his family from Ohio had never been to Northern Michigan, so we were determined that our celebration would reflect the beauty, dignity, and spirit of this remarkable area and our connection to it as a couple.

With picturesque landscapes at nearly every bend in the road, we felt compelled to hold our reception on the shoreline of Leelanau County’s fresh waters. While solidifying our union within the Catholic Church was our first priority for our wedding, an evening in the fresh air was what we wanted to follow such a beautiful, sacred event. Therefore, my family’s lakefront property on south Lake Leelanau would serve as our reception venue: the same waters in which I learned to swim would provide the backdrop for our memorable night.

Logistically, holding our wedding reception on our own property meant starting from the ground up, securing the necessary vendors to ensure a tremendous evening for all. Living in a close-knit community causes the roles of the people we know to change with events and seasons in our lives. Being connected to people in this area helped us to utilize the creativity and expertise of many: a former student of mine helped to masterfully coordinate our wedding; a family friend and neighbor was the priest who counseled us as we prepared for our marriage and also celebrated our nuptial mass; a fellow Coast Guard pilot assisted in conducting a thrilling helicopter flyover as we exited Holy Rosary Church.

Two years later, our friends and family still reflect on our wedding day with fond appreciation for what it meant to everyone—Northern Michigan residents and newcomers alike. While it was one of our last days as residents, it was a day Jim and I will carry with us, with gratitude for the place and the people who have truly shaped our marriage. To us, Northern Michigan is the place where we met, fell in love and married, and we feel fortunate to always be able to say it is where our story began.

Photo(s) by Eliza Jean Photography