We’re standing out at the edge of the hot, hard, beautiful, quiet South African world, when he says it,

“Most families only look peaceful on the surface, you know.”

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It’s day four since we touched down at Johannesburg International Airport after 48 hours of travel. And we face the daunting task of squeezing two and a half years’ worth of catching up into three weeks. It’s not enough.

Relationships need to be nurtured to thrive.

My boys have been counting down to this trip for weeks  but now they keep mixing up the names of my brothers.

We drive out in convoy – all 20 of us – to a remote stretch of red soil where a river cuts through the rocky cliffs and spend three days together. There’s no WiFi, no electricity, and no one on their cell phones in the evenings. So we talk and play charades and then talk some more.

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We take turns cooking meals over the open fire and at least three people get stung by wasps. But I sit out in the rain late one night and listen to my younger brother’s year. These are the seeds of replanting the relationship. So small, stolen, deliberate moments of catching up. Sometimes clumsily.

The river runs on ahead of us. A week before it had been a small trickle. But there’s been rain and the bush is in bloom and the water flowing hard and fast, a welcome respite from the heat. We linger there, by the edge of what’s cool and the boys all ride mini rapids with inflatable rafts and a green dragon that never could have imagined itself swirling here amidst the Klipkuile.

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Families are work. Don’t let the Hallmark or Kay commercials tell you differently.

Because when we pack our suitcases full of presents, and the Christmas dress and extra pairs of underwear and socks and maybe a folder of left over homework and that pair of black corduroys that flatters the holiday hips we also bring with us a whole set of expectations.

Folded in between the shirts are past hurts and desperate hopes. We bring home all the bits and pieces of ourselves that got banged up by the year and we unpack them into the conversation with the people who love us the best and sometimes know us the least.

It’s beautifully hard and worthwhile work, being part of a family.

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But over the next week, someone will surely say something you wish they could take back as you sit around the tree or pass the cookies or exchange gifts and greetings and Christmas cards.

Someone will misunderstand.

Someone will make you wish you hadn’t just driven 14 hours straight with the crabby kids and drive throughs and stops to scrape snow off cold, crusted wind shields.

Someone will make you wonder why you came.

This doesn’t mean we stop coming.

This means we get to practice – grace and forgiveness and so many extra, heaped helpings of the benefit of the doubt. We give these gifts so that anything else we’ve wrapped under the tree is simply icing.

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We go home.

It requires action. Cars, planes, that complicated coordination of rides and drivers by college students who leave on the wings of finals and fumes of sleep.

We go.

We pack and drive and fly and show up weary at the ragged fringes of the year and it’s easy for worlds and wild words to collide.

But by the end of the long weekend my sons have learned to tell my brothers apart again and they know which one has a scar in the middle of his forehead and which one is the taller, younger brother. Jackson has appropriated Joshua’s hat and we’ve watched the new baby in reverent amazement. There are gingerbread houses in 100 degree heat and two little girls who love each other like these brand new three day old sisters.

Two years feels too long to have lived apart.

But faith, it only needs to be mustard seed small – just the right size for starting over. Again.

 

 

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