It’s about love, actually

Four stories about finding love and learning to love better

Marinda Sessoms

Marinda Sessoms

Photo courtesy of Tia Gemmell

Joey Garcia writes the “Ask Joey” column for SN&R. She’s also a certified life coach and author of When Your Heart Breaks, It’s Opening to Love.

Valentine’s Day suffers from arrested development. Stuck between its origins as a fertility fest and its third century reboot as a Catholic holy day, Feb. 14 only knows one way to express itself.

That’s unfortunate because there’s so much more to finding love—and staying in love—than romancing your boo with chocolates, flowers and candlelit dinners. As the stories of these four local residents attest, we only learn to love by loving widely, an experience that transforms who we are and what we believe.

Whether you have a Valentine, or are content to be your own, consider pushing beyond your own limitations this Feb. 14. Open up and let more love into your life.

Love found, lost and rekindled

“People are always looking for perfection and love is not perfect,” notes Marinda Sessoms. “But I was lucky enough to do a full circle back to someone who is perfect for me.”

Two years ago, the 39-year-old television producer married her childhood best friend. “I didn’t think you could find the love of your life at 10 years old. But I did,” she says.

Her story is one of love found, lost and rekindled after a decades-long separation that included a teenage pregnancy, her first marriage and her new husband’s 18-year incarceration.

Sessoms remembers walking home from fifth grade and noticing a boy her age loitering near a corner. Suddenly, he ran at her. She ran away. He did the same thing—for weeks.

“I would tighten my backpack, button up my coat and run,” she recalls. Her friends warned the boy he would never catch her. Sessoms says she looked backward once, trying to gauge the distance between her and the boy.

“That’s when it hit me. This fat kid is adorable!”

Tio Sessoms

Photo by Maria Ratinova

She decided to let him catch her. As she slowed down, he grabbed her coat. ’I’m Tio. Now you’re my best friend,’ she recalls him saying. “I thought: That’s it? That’s what you wanted?”

Tio Sessoms began dropping by her bedroom window at night to talk. By the time they were teens, he was shimmying through her window so they could hang out while she did homework.

If her mom came to the door, Tio would dive under the bed to hide. A big guy, he didn’t quite fit. Sessoms kept a stack of clean laundry in her room to pile over him. Her mom never caught on.

The teens made a promise to each other to be best friends forever.

“We said that if we got older and married other people, we would buy homes next door to each other and take down the fence so we could hang out whenever we wanted,” she recalls, laughing.

When they told Tio’s mom about their plan, she was horrified. The pair decided that she just didn’t understand.

In high school, Sessoms and Tio dated other people, but remained invested in each other’s lives. Then it all fell apart.

“I got pregnant at 17 years old. Tio said, ’You’re a track star. Why would you mess that up?’ He was so disappointed. He saw so much possibility for me. He said: ’You were the one who was suppose to be something and go somewhere.’”

She pauses, choked by emotion. “I was afraid I wasn’t good enough for him. He thought he wasn’t good enough for me.”

The teens drifted apart. Years later, Tio showed up unexpectedly at her sister’s apartment where Sessoms had been staying while separated from her children’s father.

“It was like no time had passed. We stayed up all night, talking,” she remembers. “’Do you want me to stay,’ he asked. I was always trying to make it work with my kid’s dad. I said, ’no.’ He said he was headed out of state to visit someone, kissed me on the forehead, hugged me. I didn’t know that was the last time I would see him for 12 years.”

Soon after, while Sessoms was watching the news, Tio’s photo flashed on screen. He and two other men had been arrested and charged with robbery and murder.

“My soul just dropped,” she says.

Sessoms’ yelled angrily at the TV: “Why are you associating with people like that? What were you thinking?”

She didn’t contact him, though. While in prison, he caught her name on a list of credits at the end of a TV program. He called to congratulate her. “We were our best friend selves again, even though he was on the inside,” she said.

He confessed that when placed in solitary confinement, he would pretend to be in her bedroom, hidden in a pile of laundry. Tio told her he had been unlawfully convicted. She believed him, and began to help with his case. Her marriage ended. Moving out of the friend zone with Tio felt like fate. Yet, everyone cautioned her against spreading the news.

“People would be like, ’I wouldn’t tell anyone that your boyfriend is in prison.’ But it’s not something I could hide because it’s part of our story.’”

After Tio’s release from prison in October 2017, Sessoms began to question what made her choose the men she had dated before him.

“I see who I am when I’m with him,” she said. “I don’t have that with anyone else. How did I not expect this out of every person before?”

As in any committed relationship, there are rough patches. “The difference is that, when he pisses me off, I want to work through it. He’s worth it,” she said.

The couple married on the anniversary of Tio’s prison release date, a conscious choice to create a fresh start. Sessoms says that although love is not perfect, the timing of this relationship is ideal. Her heart is open in a way it has never been before.

“God kept him locked away from me, until I could be my best self.”

Maheen Ahmed

Photo courtesy of Maheen Ahmed

Love is her religion

Maheen Ahmed wears hijab, a headscarf meant to signify modesty. It’s a simple expression of her Muslim faith, one that too often provokes an ugly response.

“People have assumptions about who I am as a Muslim woman. They don’t ask me things—they impose their assumptions on me,” she says. “Cultural humility is a skill that Muslims tend to have, but in general, in American culture, there is a lack of cultural humility. I will also say there is a lack of education and knowledge people have about Muslims, and a lack of willingness to learn.”

Ahmed says she’s been misjudged—and worse—since her teens. Most teachers at her Catholic high school behaved as though they were experts on her faith. “My religion teachers would tell me what my religion teaches and say that it is a religion of injustice and violence,” she recalls. “I was so young and of lower authority. I didn’t feel like I could push back.”

Outside of the classroom, she was bullied.

“In high school and college, students yelled at me about my headscarf, called me a terrorist, told me to go back to my country. I was born in Los Angeles. This is my country,” she says.

To find the strength to meet hate with love, she turned to the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

“To be a true Muslim and attain love of God, which is what I am seeking in my life, then I must serve all of creation and love all of my community,” she says. “To love your brother as you love yourself means not just Muslims, but everyone.”

While working at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ahmed found a way to serve. CAIR organizes “Muslim Day at the Capitol,” an annual legislative and lobbying event. While volunteering as a teen, Ahmed was struck by a realization: One day of lobbying and meeting legislators was not enough. Muslims need to be in positions where they can consistently influence legislation and policy. Justice and equality can only prevail, she reasoned, when Muslim concerns and contributions are taken into account, alongside those of other citizens, refugees and immigrants.

So Ahmed applied for a job in a legislator’s office, and was hired. She worked her way up and is now legislative director for the California State Assembly. She is the first Muslim to hold that position.

It’s an honor, she says, as well as a daily test of love for people who behave as though she doesn’t belong in her job or at the Capitol.

“I’m Pakistani so I’m a brown, Muslim woman,” she says. “The Capitol is predominantly white and not used to seeing anyone who wears the headscarf like me. I have no role models I can see myself in.”

Ahmed finds sustenance in social justice icons whose values align with hers. “I love Cornel West! His quote, ’Love is what justice looks like in public,’ encompasses my life mission,” she says.

Although West is Christian, Ahmed shares his obedience to the underlying call to love that exists within both of their faith traditions. And, like West, she braids her work and faith together seamlessly.

“My way of worship is to be grateful for what I have and to work for justice so those who don’t have means are able to attain them,” Ahmed says. “It’s embedded in Islam: Everything you do in your life should be of worship. Serving as legislative director, spending time with my sisters, all of this is serving God.”

Katia Kemmler

Photo by Joey Garcia

Sometimes love means letting go

Any unexpected loss is jarring, but when Katia Kemmler announced the January closure of Katia’s Collections, her East Sacramento boutique, she was unprepared for the push back.

“It was raw, shocking,” Kemmler said of the responses that flooded her email inbox.

“You can’t do this to me!” one customer wrote. Another lamented: “Your store is where I feel comfortable. Where else can I go?”

Over the next week, Kemmler read nearly 400 emails from customers whom she had dressed for galas, career moves, first dates and other special occasions over 20 years. “I love you!” dozens of women wrote, “I’ll miss you so much!”

Sitting in the closet-sized office at the back of her boutique, Kemmler’s eyes fill with tears.

“I had no idea they felt this way. Why didn’t they tell me before?”

Raised in Paris, Kemmler has lived in the United States since 1976. She has yet to grow accustomed to one particular American habit.

“I’m shocked by the people who say I love you. Is it just a phrase? Do they mean it? Americans don’t open up.”

Women did reveal their insecurities to Kemmler. She estimates that nine out of 10 of her customers have been critical of their bodies.

“It’s been a constant battle and education to show women their positive qualities instead of negative ones,” she said. “I tried to reinforce the beauty in them, to stop them from looking at a celebrity or magazine, and to look in the mirror instead and see that they are worthy.”

As her customers aged, they became more critical of their bodies, especially if they were looking for love, widowed or divorced. Kemmler says she encouraged women to make wise choices.

“Buy less,” she advised, “but buy what’s right for you.”

Loving her own 74-year-old body comes naturally.

“Keep in mind that I was raised in a different culture, where we pay attention to our body, we nurture it, beautify it,” she said.

In the end, love motivated her to close the iconic boutique. “I had been thinking about retiring, but couldn’t find the courage until my husband pointed out that I was always too tired to do anything.”

She had to admit he was right.

“If I stopped in front of a mirror and saw a wrinkle, I would add a little more concealer. I can face aging. But it was getting more difficult to face the obligations of running a business by myself,” she said.

For some, the closure of Katia’s Collections feels like a death, but for Kemmler it’s the start of a new life. She plans to cherish her body by sleeping in and enjoying more outings with her husband.

Susan Durst

Photo by Joey Garcia

A tail of true love

“Love me, love my dog,” isn’t a song on Susan Durst’s playlist, but its message is the soundtrack of her life. Durst, general manager of The Press Club and Barfly, says her Jack Russell terrier, Curly, will always be her first true love.

“I’ve spent 16 years with that little guy,” says Durst, 42. “We’ve been through everything. When I went to work at the bar, I took Curly with me every day. When my grandfather was taking his last breaths, Curly was with me. Curly is loyal. He taught me how to love.”

Through Curly, Durst met Jean Rabinowitz, a veterinarian and founder of “4 R Friends,” a nonprofit that provides free services for the pets of people who could not otherwise afford veterinary care.

Durst initially volunteered to foster dogs. She’s since added outreach coordinator, board member and clinic manager to her duties. Managing 4 R Friends’ spay and neuter clinics requires Durst to pick up dogs from people living in homeless camps and motels, drive the dogs to spay and neuter appointments and deliver the dogs back into the arms of their owners.

It’s an honor, she says: “I pick up the thing in the world that protects them, that loves them unconditionally, the one thing that matters most.”

How does she manage it?

“If you gain the owner’s trust, you gain the dog’s trust. Not lying.”

It’s something she knows from personal experience. Curly was a gift from a former girlfriend. When the pair broke up, Curly never left Durst’s side. He helped her heal and find love again, she says.

“On my first date with Stormiblu [Homdus], she told me: ’I’ve always wanted a Jack Russell. It’s my dream dog.’ That’s when I knew we would be together. Curly always brings me the best people.”

Now married, the couple shares a tasteful home with a pack of affectionate foster dogs. Durst estimates that she has personally fostered more than 200 dogs.

“I feel like I’ve spent my entire life looking for something I’m passionate about. The whole dog thing started and it kinda took over my life. I’ve never been happier,” she says.