Lifelong Friends-to-Be?

Mom grew up in Roanoake, Virginia in the 30’s and 40’s. Granny was a stay-at-home mom like every mother in those days. My grandfather was a hard working blue collar guy who worked long hours to support eight children. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard Mom and her siblings say, “The only toys we had were each other.”

It was apparent to me from a young age that those eight siblings were close. We spent many Sunday afternoons at Aunt Vergie’s laughing over repeatedly told (and embellished…smile) stories of family life in rural southwest Virginia. Most of my 25 first cousins lived within an hour of each other; when we got together food and laughs abounded.

Most days when I was growing up I overheard Mom talking to at least one of The Sisters. I could hear her laughing from wherever I was in the house. And sometimes I could also hear her fussing over something that had happened in the family. Mom’s three brothers were all younger and two of them spent a lot of time at our house eating, living there temporarily and yes, laughing. My Uncle Alvin once showed up with an anteater he won in a card game. I don’t think my brother Randy ever forgave Mom for not letting him keep it.

I was twelve when Uncle Alvin was severely burned in a house fire in the late 60’s. Mom spent day and night at this side watching him suffer an agonizing death. One night after the funeral I found her sitting alone in the dark crying. It’s my first memory of Mom telling me how important it was to stay close to my siblings.

“Honey, friends will come and go. I know you think your friends are really important but someday they will probably all be gone. But your brothers and sister will be there for you all your life.”

Mom didn’t know then that my older brother would break his neck in a swimming accident at age 21 when I was 16 — just when I started learning what she meant.  When Randy died six years later I knew I had lost a lifelong friend. Three years after his death, our first miracle baby was on the way. I started praying that Benny and I could carry on Mom’s legacy of sibling closeness while I was growing our firstborn son. God knew then what I didn’t: this medically infertile woman would become the mother of seven.

Our seven J’s in 1995

The youngest of the seven that I once looked down to is now eighteen and before long her oldest brother will be 35.  As I typed this post over the weekend, three of them were sitting in the family room playing some old Nintendo 2 game. Yesterday a bunch of us watched the Redskins game together (while Benny texted with Jake about two hours north at law school) after spending the morning serving and worshiping together at Redeemer Church. Living within five minutes of each other has been a meaningful expression of the kid’s desire to stay connected to each other —  and allowed Josh and Rach to ask Jaime to expand her little home school to include their two school-aged kids.

People regularly ask us what we did to foster closeness between our kids. That’s the reason for this post today; the first of several in a series on sibling relationships. They see the love and loyalty between our seven J’s and wonder what they can do as parents of younger kids to create a culture of family affection amoung siblings who fuss and fight more than they hug and kiss.

Benny and I smile.

What people don’t know is about the time I called Benny at the office to inform him that toddlers Jesse and Joey were having a fist fight over matchbox cars. Or the night Janelle was in tears (again) over mean things her brothers said or did, resulting in Rachel confronting her adolescent brothers-in-law. Or the damage arrogance and unkindness between Josh and Jaime produced in their teen years. Or the times proud, insensitive or angry comments have required apologies between adult siblings as recently as this past weekend.

In addition to the common challenges our large family has experienced over the years, there have also weighty trials through which we have walked when sin (ours and others) threatened to tear our family apart, but became the Spirit-born glue that miraculously forged a deeper bond between us.

I think there are things parents can do and not do that help create a culture of loyal love between siblings. I will share some of those things over the coming days, not because our family is perfect or we’ve discovered a formula for making sure we stay close. Honestly, I think we have some things to offer for the very opposite reason: we’ve messed up, hurt one another, asked forgiveness and found hope in gospel-reconciling truths available to every Christian. A couple of readers suggested that I involve some of our kids to share their thoughts and experiences. I’ve invited any of our children who desire to weigh in to talk about whatever is on their heart — good, bad or ugly — that might help parents of still-at-home kids to prize one another as lifelong friends. So far three of them have said they would love to talk about the joys and struggles of being raised by parents who “made them” love each other.

Our seven J’s in 2011

But let me say this: there are two things to which I most attribute the warm relationship between my kids today. First, the advice a mother gave to her 12-year-old daughter over four decades ago; advice I watched her live out all her life with my uncles and The Sisters. And, second, God’s faithfulness to answer the prayers of some young parents who dared to believe that kids who said and did mean things to each other would end up carrying Mom’s legacy into a new generation.

I once heard someone say, “If you aim at nothing you’ll hit it.” Encouraging close relationships among your kids requires having a vision; something at which you are willing to aim and then pray your heart out that God will empower your efforts to do your part. Mom gave me that — and I hope to pass it along to you.