words and images: Jessica Sowards
Summer days start early. Roosters begin to crow at five in the morning, and the toddlers begin their cry of “Breakfast!” soon after. Then the kettle whistles and the tea brews and some days, venison sausage pops in a cast iron pan. Some days, though, it’s cereal for breakfast. Most days we pray and meet with Jesus before chores, but occasionally, the tasks are demanding and the mornings rushed.
The farm life is wildly romantic if you like that sort of thing. It’s a beautiful, beautiful life if you’re enamored by fresh eggs with pumpkin-colored yolks and dirty hands and rows of tomato plants and squash plants and proud corn stalks reaching up toward the sun. If you don’t mind the smell of earth and animals, and you don’t mind hard work, this is an unthinkably lovely way to live.
Most of the time I’m thankful, but sometimes my gratitude slips through the cracks. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve had chickens in my yard for a million years and I simply forget the way I used to pray until I cried for God to give me a farm. But there’s one thing that stirs up remembrance in me, like a shock to my heart reminding it to beat again, and it’s always, always on time. The reminder? It’s when Maliah comes.
We have a blended family. When my husband and I began dating, he brought a daughter to the table, and I brought two sons. She was four; they were four, and three, and they were great friends. I remember sitting in church while we were dating and the preacher saying, “Statistics say it takes seven years to blend a family.” The funny thing is, I still remember that single line of the sermon, but I can’t really remember my response. I can’t really recall what I thought it would be like, endeavoring to make a family out of the torn remainders of first attempts, but I am certain that I had no idea how hard it would be. I had no idea how much grace we would need.
We are just starting our seventh year together. Jackson and Asher, my oldest boys, spend the majority of their days at our home. I am able to homeschool them, and they are accustomed to the rooster’s crow. We have sewn our family together by welcoming our three younger sons, Tobias, Ezra and Benjamin. They are farm boys by definition, with dirt in their veins and any city life so far removed, I doubt they remember it.
But Maliah lives 600 miles away, in a San Antonio neighborhood with her mom and stepdad. Every summer and rotating holidays, we drive for hours under the big Texas sky and pick her and her pink suitcase up. Then we drive hours back under that huge expanse, back through sprawling fields, through the hills and into the Arkansas woods, back into the driveway of our farm.
As soon as she gets here, the atmosphere of our family shifts. Usually, the farm is just an ordinary part of life, but when Maliah comes, there is an enjoyment about it. When she comes and unpacks her pink suitcase and all her wonder, excitement is rekindled in us all.
She names all the chickens. We have a lot of chickens. A lot. And she names all of them. Names like Charlie, and Rosie, and Annie, and John Luke. She loves running with the baby goats and holding all the bunnies. When the chicks are hatching in the incubator, she checks it a dozen times a day and carefully carries the tired and wet babies to the brooder. She begs to be included in every market trip, every feeding, every task. When the boys would rather watch TV shows or play video games, she responds with indignation. How could you want to do anything else? There’s a farm outside!
When we picked her up last November for Thanksgiving, she had started to change. Her legs had grown into long willows and the next season of her life had begun to show in her shape and the leanness of her face. I saw how it grieved my husband to see the evidence of time on her, and to see how much he missed. But after being here for only a few days, she woke up before the sun with him and layered on the camouflage clothes that belonged to Jackson. They bagged two deer while she was here, and she rolled up her sleeves and helped her dad clean them. He was so, so proud.
At spring break, her legs were impossibly longer. Just a few months had changed her even more. She was thrilled to stop in Dallas on our way home and pick up a few dozen hatching eggs from a friend’s farm. We went to Bass Pro Shop and bought her some new Muck boots, as her feet had grown along with the rest of her. She picked out camouflage. When we arrived at the house, as usual, the excitement stirred. We hiked our thirty-five acres every day, even the days it rained. We told her all of our plans for the future, for new barns and pastures, a herd of cattle and expanded chicken houses and gardens. And in her excitement, ours was rekindled.
Even though I can’t take any credit for her genetic makeup, I take a certain pride when I see her running across the yard in cut-off jean shorts and rubber boots, a chicken under one arm, a dog and a brother hot on her heels.
When the pastor talked about blended families on that Sunday so long ago, he said, “Jesus has a stepdad.” I think it was that single line that evoked such optimism in me. If God entrusted His son to a couple of broken people who were willing to say yes, surely He would give us the grace to raise these kids together. It’s been hard. Truly, harder than I ever imagined it would be, but He has poured abounding grace upon our family.
Being a mom to five sons is such a cool and fulfilling role, but I’ll be frank, there is something very special about a daughter. Even though I can’t take any credit for her genetic makeup, I take a certain pride when I see her running across the yard in cut-off jean shorts and rubber boots, a chicken under one arm, a dog and a brother hot on her heels. I see myself when I was eleven and all I wanted in the world was a farm. When she looks through my closet and equally compliments my long white bohemian dresses, my leopard print heels, and my Carhartt overalls, I am tickled to be an example of what beauty is. Most important, when she’s feverishly scratching notes in her prayer journal and eagerly watching me while I preach, I am amazed at the weight of having a hand in the shaping of a woman.
Of course, we wish it was different. It would be ideal not to have to be assaulted by the way she’s grown when months go by between visits. We wish she was closer, and that being blended wasn’t such a challenge. Ultimately, we have placed her in the hands of our Father, thankful for the way He moves us to appreciativeness when she comes. We may have taken on blending a family without the realization of the struggle it would be, but now, as we dig into year seven and have watched these children grow together like a grafted tree, I can say surely, it’s been worth it. Being blended gave me a daughter, gave me a hand in raising a woman of God, and gave me a chicken named John Luke. What a beautiful life I live.
Follow Jessica on her blog @thehodgepodgedarling.blogspot.com