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Smile, or You're in Big Trouble

Pictured left to right: Jim Leonard, Alexis Leonard (12), Katie Leonard, Elaine Wenger, Patrick Leonard (9), Sam Wenger, Charlie Wyse (6), Eliana Wyse (7), Redmond Wyse (3), Kimberly Wyse, Rick Wyse, and Adam Wenger - Thanksgiving, 2020

It was raining and cold in our rural farming community on this day, but we had the whole family together and that was a major undertaking. Covid-19 meant that we weren't able to go into most buildings without masks, and there's no place in my home with enough light and space to handle this group. So, we fixed ourselves up and dodged the raindrops on a covered bridge in one of the fastest photo shoots in our family's history to commemorate this time in our lives.

This year we didn't tell the kids they'd be in big trouble if they didn't smile, but there have been other years... I remember the day I realized the irony of that statement and started trying to make them laugh instead of threatening punishment. Parenting. It's the best, right?

Over the last few years of tests, unwelcome diagnoses and hospitalizations, the loss of beloved family members, and personal trials we never dreamed we'd face, we've learned how important it is to appreciate the time we have together.

I live pretty far from these precious people and for the first time ever, they came to see us this year. We crammed 12 of us and a 105-pound dog into our little house, thankful that we finished those bedrooms in the basement a few years back. Typically, I would have made plans to get us out of the house, but with the pandemic, we pretty much stayed put. I kept us busy with a hayride, cookie decorating, and crafts.

We cooked a feast and ate leftovers for days. The kids ran around and played. Grandpa took the boys out to explore the woods and climb trees. The girls did a little Christmas shopping. It was a very nice visit.

But like all families, there are topics we avoid or tread on lightly. There are sensitivities and things that are sure to cause a fight. I look at this photo of us all dressed up, smiling at the camera at the same time, standing close - and it says so much more than what anyone can see. Don't all family photos?

After nearly 50 years of marriage, these grandparents have endured years of sacrifice to stand together with their children and grandchildren. They have chosen to love one another over and over again. They have chosen not to give up or walk away. Choosing to stay and fight, to stand together and face the winds that have tried to knock them over, must not have come easy. The example that they've been to us as we've navigated our own relationships, imperfect and messy, is a beacon to us and others of what it means to take other another's hand and weather the storms.

That's the unspoken truth of this family photo.

All three of the marriages pictured here have struggled through enormous challenges. We've all stared at one another in bewilderment at times, wondering who we married and how we'll ever survive. But we have, partly because of the two who stand with us (and the other two sets of grandparents not pictured here.) We've found out the truth that we didn't believe, whispered to us on our wedding days - things will get hard, then they will get harder, and then they will get better.

Savor the good days.

We are a family - standing together despite the challenges and the hurts, choosing to forgive and love, showing mercy and compassion, cheering one another on, and celebrating together. We are willing to be inconvenienced to get this photo - to drive through the night and take time off work and away from other families, to sleep in strange beds and deal with one another's strong opinions, and come together in the middle of a pandemic. We laugh at the inside jokes only we know. We cry over one another's broken hearts. We complain about each other. We encourage one another. And sometimes we fight, because that's what families do.

I am desperately trying to share with you that although I think we all look pretty good here, there are scars you can't see. There's a fierceness that doesn't show. We are so very human and flawed, but we are also loved. The love is what holds us together and makes all the difference. The love is always a choice and sometimes it's a feeling too.

I Corinthians 13:4-8 says, "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails." (NKJV)

If your family photo doesn't look like this one, don't compare your worst with our best. Hear me when I say that we are messy and sometimes strange. The thing that makes this photo so special is that we are all together. That is something to celebrate.

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