words and images: Jessica Sowards
November mornings all start the same. The alarm screams at 5:45 in the morning. Slippers and a sweater lie next to my bed to build my bravery and challenge my excuses. I rise and beeline to the stove where a pre-filled kettle is put on high heat. There I wait.
One of my husband Jeremiah’s brothers, Noah or Elijah, will usually pass me at my tea-making post on their way out to tend the farm. I start the coffee pot for Jeremiah and his sister, Mikela. And then, with tea in hand and bravely be-slippered feet, I make my way back to my bedroom where I sit in the soft chair next to the lamp with warm, yellow light and have a cup of tea with Jesus.
Our house is full. When we bought it in 2014, we filled the extra rooms in the basement with junk we didn’t need, just using it as storage. We dove head-first into homesteading and a newly revived relationship with the Lord. I look back at that season of our life and marvel at the faithfulness of God. Because while we were working hard on fences and coops, struggling to homeschool with four boys and a pregnancy, we were praying the whole time. Sure, we were asking for direction and help but even more than that, we were praying for our lost and hurting family.
Jeremiah is the third of nine kids. He has five brothers and three sisters, and since I’ve known their family (long before I’d ever laid eyes on Jeremiah), they have always been incredibly close. There was so much hurt, though. When I came into the inside by marrying Jeremiah, I learned of the great dysfunction and pain swirling just under the surface, and I saw a family that wanted so desperately to love each other, but just didn’t know how.
Being a family with so many kids and very little money for gifts, the Sowards never really celebrated Christmas in a big way. Thanksgiving was their holiday, and when I joined the family, I quickly learned that the Sowards’ way of doing things was very different than what I was accustomed to. My family was broken growing up, so holidays like Thanksgiving were often sectioned into different houses, traveling and spending slices of time on Mom’s side and Dad’s side. We always had great holidays, but Christmas easily took the show and Thanksgiving sort of just puttered out the older I got, as grandparents no longer hosted and aunts and uncles began to focus on their immediate families.
Then came the Sowards. They may have been broken under the surface, but they had managed to stay together. Sometimes out of stubbornness and sometimes out of fierce love, they clung to each other with a sheer refusal to give up. And in their family, Thanksgiving was a week-long event, with siblings traveling in from all over and giving their best efforts for convention. I jumped right in. Always eager to host and absolutely loving to cook, this family’s big heart for Thanksgiving and each other was a dream come true to me. It felt like fertile ground full of weeds, and I felt like maybe if I worked hard enough, I could see all my desire to establish healthy traditions come to fullness.
Within a few years, Jeremiah and I had the designated house for the holiday festivities. I would work myself ragged cooking, and everyone would come together with great anticipation. Footballs were thrown, cards were played, turkey was served, then the old hurts and grudges would surface and even despite their great love, the Sowards’ family would often leave the holiday weekend even more bitter than they came. It was textbook dysfunction when wounded souls tried for normalcy and fell woefully short.
Then in 2014, we moved onto our farm, and everything changed. While we were working hard on our fences and praying fervently for healing in our family, it felt like the divide between Jeremiah and his siblings couldn’t get any greater. That Thanksgiving was so strained. We had more friends than family at our house. There was muttering. Everyone left early, and I cried over leftover dressing. It felt like following God had cost us everything we knew. And even if it had been a mess, it felt like an awful lot to lose the mess I was familiar with in order to walk into unchartered waters.
The unchartered waters where we relinquish our mess is God’s favorite place to move. And He did. Shortly after the loneliest Thanksgiving ever, our family started to change.
The unchartered waters where we relinquish our mess is God’s favorite place to move. And He did. Shortly after the loneliest Thanksgiving ever, our family started to change. By the next year, we sat around the turkey with a completely different dynamic. Over the course of a single trip around the sun, the veil had been torn off. All the hurt had a light shined on it and God, with His completely inconceivable plan, began to heal the Sowards’ family.
We saw one brother delivered from a decade of drug use, saw one sister walk away from a long string of abusive relationships, and saw another brother repent of years of destructive behaviors. Testimony after testimony, story after story, miracle after miracle, much like a tapestry is woven, our family began to come together. And when they needed a place to land, to gather their bearings and recalibrate the compass of their lives onto Jesus, we cleaned out the junk in the basement and said, “I can make room for you.”
In that year, we had five different siblings pass through our spare rooms. Two brothers have gone on to establish their own homes. Mikela, Noah and Elijah, the youngest of the Sowards’ nine, are still with us, having found their place and calling here for now. This year, we started our family business. Jeremiah and four of his brothers work for Sowards Services, remodeling homes and doing lawn care. We all serve in the same church. This fall, multiple members of our family have traveled to India and Africa on missions, and even more have traveled the United States ministering the gospel. Once or twice a month, we all get together for Farm Day, pouring manpower into the farm to see it grow.
And now Thanksgiving is upon us again. I’ve approached this year’s holiday season with something that feels a little like veneration. It’s almost like this holiday, meant to embody gratitude has taken on its true meaning for me in the last few years. I’ve gone from having something, giving it up and gaining something I didn’t even know was possible.
Honestly, on a surface level, you might know that absolutely everything has changed. You might focus on the areas of our lives that are still rough around the edges or the parts of our family that haven’t yet answered the call. When I look at us, though, I see a family full of prodigal sons. I see rich tradition and the most stubborn, fiercest love I’ve ever known.
I see it all the time. When we’re working on pulling a tree down on the farm, three brothers pulling a rope tied to its branches while Jeremiah cuts the trunk with a chainsaw, I nervously laugh while I take pictures of how they work together. When we stand at the altar and pray for damaged people, I watch them and how they love together. These wild and hilarious people, this family that God gave me, I see the Jesus in them.
And Thanksgiving at the Sowards’ house? Mama Jana and I will wear ourselves out cooking. We will make dressing from chickens out of our yard, pies from apples saved from a friend’s tree, everything will be from scratch and the most perfect balsamic and fig-glazed turkey will grace the table. It will be an extended gathering, coming and going with breakfast and lunch and leftovers, with football tournaments in the yard and card games until midnight. Our door will be open to families with no place to go. It will be unthinkably loud. There will be tears from laughing so hard, and there will be heartfelt prayer.
It won’t be a group of broken people grasping at tradition; rather, it will be a group of mending people living it. I cannot imagine how Thanksgiving will continue to change. Year after year, as our family grows and matures, I know it will get even better. I don’t even try to think about it. I’m already walking in territory I would have never been able to imagine. It truly is a beautiful tapestry. And we may be scarred, we may still be healing, we may live in a house full to the brim with the Sowards, but even still, we have Jesus. Every morning, every holiday and in everything we do, and I am so thankful.
Follow Jessica on her blog @thehodgepodgedarling.blogspot.com