Let me introduce you to an inspirational couple of Austinites, who turned their normal existence into an intentional adventure in the Capital City of Texas.
Our acquaintance with Johnny and DeNise Merritt goes way back.
DeNise’s sister is married to the fine man who was our pastor in Muleshoe, Texas for 7 years.
DeNise hosted a luncheon at her house for me to meet some women in Amarillo when we moved back there after living in the Home of the Mighty Mules.
We attended the same church.
Johnny was an attorney in the firm where Mike was an administrator.
But our friendship is basically a whole new thing.
We moved to Austin.
They did, too.
They considered it a big adventure.
We did, too.
They felt like newlyweds again.
So did we.
Things are so different now.
In the old days of our acquaintance, we knew very little real life anything about our Amarillo friends. Now that we are four Texas panhandlers transplanted into the very irregular world of Over Fifty Austin adventure, we cling together in our regular meetings of the minds. In the new days of our friendship, we’ve learned a lot about Austin, and even more about each other. We found Austin’s best flan together. One night we had coffee and dessert at a West Austin bistro they had discovered. Another weekly adventure involved Thai ice cream from the Holla Mode truck on Barton Springs Road.
They were small town high school sweethearts.
“When did you and Johnny actually meet?” I asked Denise one night at dinner. “I can’t remember not knowing Johnny,” she said. Growing up together in Dimmitt, Texas, where people know their neighbors, neither one can remember not knowing each other. They went to school with the same friends year after year after year.
Johnny’s family farmed. DeNise’s dad owned a printing company. Life was simple, and life was good. Go to school, play with your friends and siblings, work on the farm, learn to cook and sew and clean, play sports, twirl a baton, sing in the choir, go to church every time the doors were cracked open, and plan occasional Saturday excursions to the big cities of Lubbock and Amarillo.
Invaluable skills were learned during these years of small-town upbringing. Skills like manners, how to give a firm handshake and look people in the eye while carrying on a conversation. They learned how to live life with people who weren’t your family, but might as well be. DeNise’s mother still patterns her daily to-do list around whether a bereaved someone needs a casserole.
You can’t beat that quality of life with a stick.
They could have been happy in that small town cozy cocoon forever. There was just one catch. Johnny didn’t want to be a farmer when he grew up. He wanted to go to law school and be a lawyer in a firm of more than one. DeNise also envisioned a little more of the city life for herself and whatever children were in their future.
So, off they went to Texas Tech, where Johnny completed law school and DeNise became a CPA. After graduation, they moved to Amarillo, where two beautiful kids were born and life went on… pretty much like it does for most people. Work, school, church, kids’ activities, decorating the house and then remodeling it. Life moved at a slightly faster pace in Amarillo than it had in Dimmitt, but it was still fairly simple. Ahhhh.
Then came a big bump in the road. A rather high hurdle. A true test of faith.
Johnny noticed over a few months’ time that something just wasn’t right. He was uncharacteristically angry, moody and sluggish. DeNise had lots going on with the kids and her job and life, and as most wives would, she thought maybe her husband was hitting some kind of weird slump. She dealt with it, but this was not the same guy she had known since childhood, and she wondered if their marriage could withstand this drastic change in behavior. Or if she even wanted it to. For the first time, their relationship was hard.
And then a trusted doctor suggested to Johnny that his problems could actually be the result of a very serious physical situation, not a mental or emotional slump. He suggested testing, and his hunch was right.
There was a tumor.
It rested on Johnny’s pituitary gland and was responsible for the personality changes wreaking havoc in his marriage. Surgery was planned, medication was prescribed, and very slowly, DeNise began to recognize her fella once again.
That was 2014. Johnny will tell you how grateful he is for the doctors who helped, for the friends who stood by. He also enthusiastically shares how close God was to them during that difficult time, and how their faith was strengthened.
But here’s the thing. There’s nothing like a huge life change to make you examine it all. Like, all of it.
After they had come through so much, did they want things to return to their pre-brain-tumor normal? No matter what, it was going to take some hard work. Some relearning, some readjusting. An idea took root, and Johnny began to think outside the box.
What if they worked on their marriage in a new adventurous way? Would a brand new common goal and an exciting change of scenery be just the boost needed to energize their tired marriage?
The answer? You bet.
After lots of dreaming and scheming, they hit on a plan. Johnny could take care of his clients a little more remotely that he had been, and DeNise was already working from home. The kids were situated in their own work/college lives. As they looked around at the big house with all its rooms full of stuff, and as they took stock of what had become more important than ever, they realized something monumental.
It was time for a move.
It was unexpected. Bold, exciting and adventurous. It was all-in, no holds barred, every step intentional. They sold their house and their stuff, moved to an efficiency apartment in the heart of Austin’s thriving downtown, started walking to Whole Foods for groceries, and acted like newlyweds. Well, after all, they felt like newlyweds.
Either their friends would think they had gone completely nutty, or they would be insanely jealous.
After 33 years of marriage, this Austin Over Fifty couple has returned to the simplicity of their early days together. On most mornings before work, they hike or bike or run together on the trail at Lady Bird Lake. After work, they zip around on their Vespa, finding new places to explore and enjoy together. They discuss the messages they hear at church on Sunday, and they pray together more than ever.
On moonlit nights sitting together on the small patio of their compact downtown condo, overlooking the skyline of the city that has become their new home, they enjoy a glass of vino from a hill country winery. And the restaurants! Johnny says people are always asking him what is his favorite Austin eatery. His response? “The last place I ate.”
Back in the days of our acquaintance with Johnny and DeNise Merritt, I thought they were happy, but over the months of our new friendship with them, I’m now absolutely sure of it.
Encouraging the making of an intentionally adventurous marriage,