CLEVELAND — In a year when connecting with anyone has been a challenge, finding love is seemingly impossible.
But Jennifer Gardner and Jeff Harnden from Cleveland found that even a pandemic cannot stop fate and found each other when they were least expecting it.
“We’ve known each other, I guess, as acquaintances for a while,” Harden, a Cleveland-based accountant, said.
Both have been members of the Playhouse Square Partners, the young professionals group for Playhouse Square for years, but never really talked until a focus group in January 2020.
“I think that night with the focus group, it sort of started an ‘oh wait, there's something really interesting there,’” Gardner said.
And the annual Jump Back Ball fundraising event in February sealed the deal.
“We were sort of both there on our own with friends but not with dates, and the rest is history,” Gardner said.
“You know, magic kind of happened there,” Harnden said. “It was a magical evening.”
“It was indeed,” Gardner said.
They consider that day their anniversary, but their first date came weeks later on March 14, just a day before restaurants were ordered to shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We went to Bar 32 at the Hilton, and we went to Osteria for dinner. It was a lovely evening, but it was also starting to be a little surreal, like there were very few people out and about,” Gardner said.
Then came the stay-at-home order, and their dates turned into watching movies on the couch, lots of takeout dinners and even some a little more unconventional.
“We knew that one thing we could do was go grocery shopping, so on a random Tuesday night we went grocery shopping,” Harnden said.
“We went grocery shopping. We might have kissed by the ice cream section, which is typical,” Gardner said.
They also spent a lot of time walking around Edgewater Park, growing closer while the world was distanced.
“It was the two of us. There was no distraction, it was just a different level of intimacy, I guess is the best word for it,” Harnden said. “There was no, oh let's go to an Indians game or a Cavs game or something or hang out with friends or any other sort of event where there's a distraction going on with it.”
“It was the two of us on my couch, just talking and so I think as Jen likes to say this was either gonna really work or really wasn't — and really worked,” Harnden said.
The time together also helped them align their relationship goals.
“I have a son, I'm divorced and I, I think, no matter what… whoever I dated next was going to be, it was, it was playing on a different level for me,” Gardner said. “And he fit the bill.”
Then came Zoom meetings and distanced outdoor gatherings with friends and family, including Gardner’s six year old son Jeffrey.
“When he first met Jeffrey, we went to Top Golf,” Gardner said. “They did great, and they hit it off immediately. After Top Golf we went to get food and Jeffrey was like, I'm going to sit next to Jeff, and I was like chopped liver. So yeah, they've been great buddies.”
Over the months, they reached milestones many new couples have found difficult to do with COVID restrictions.
“It is possible, it might look a little different, you step into it in a different way, but I think we've checked all those traditional 'ding ding' boxes as well at this point,” Gardner said.
And just weeks ago, they checked off the biggest one yet.
“So we just got engaged on Feb. 17. So yeah, that's exciting,” Gardner said.
Harnden popped the question during one of their date nights at home, bringing their love story full circle.
“And I just got down on one knee and said, You know, this is where I fell in love with you and this is where I want to ask you to marry me,” Harnden said.
“And I said yes,” Gardner said.
But even though the pandemic played a huge role in how they fell in love, Gardner and Harnden said it's not the reason why they fell in love.
“This is, it's just too right,” Harnden said.
“We may have been a few months behind. You know, those distractions may have slowed things down a little bit, but they wouldn't have altered the course,” Gardner said.
Gardner and Harnden are planning a wedding for next year because they want to have a huge party where their friends and family can safely gather and have fun.
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