Kaity, Jenna and Hannah Spangler
DEDICATION: Kaity (left) and Hannah (right) drove hours (and possibly broke speed limits) to beat Jenna’s date to our house and get their annual Homecoming picture together.

Independence day

What can you learn about a child in 16 years? Here’s a look.

Sixteen years ago this month, I wrote about a tiny baby joining our family and changing our world. All for the better.

For the life of me, I don’t know where the last 16 years have gone. Except that I do.

With our Jenna Louise, they’ve been filled with moments and memories, Bitty Baby hugs and big hugs, barn kittens and bottle calves. Bigger calves and big wins. Big losses and hard days of grief. Friends and fiercely loyal cousins, and lessons every single day.

I watched that scene from “Father of the Bride” the other day — you know the one, where Steve Martin plays basketball with Kimberly Williams and she grows from 9 to 19, right before his eyes — and I all but burst into tears. That’s exactly how I see the last 16 years. Slices in time. Twinkles in her eyes as her dad teases her.

Today, she gets her license.

For Jenna, who’s craved independence since before she was born — stretching to her full body length in some kind of sincere effort to bust out — it’s the biggest step toward independence she’ll yet take, short of moving to college. I’ll never forget the first time I drove away from home on my own (legally). The possibilities were exhilarating. Sure, I was going after feed in Dad’s pickup, but I could’ve gone anywhere. I didn’t. But I could have, and that was the point.

Grit and persistence
When the kids were babies and toddlers, I had this idea that it would all be easier when they got in school. Really, someone should have smacked my naïve little head, because nothing gets easier. Their lives get bigger and more complicated. The world comes rushing in at a pace you can’t possibly control, and you lean hard on grace and prayer and sincere apology.

But my word, these people they become are actually the best ever. We watch them become who they are. Their turn of phrase, the tip of their heads. Nathan’s nearly 14, and I watched him turn back to me with a gentle smile this fall when I had to apologize for an over-reaction, and I saw it: the man he’s turning into. Gentle in spirit. Quick to forgive. His dad, all over.

We see it in Caroline as her eyes flicker between scared-out-of-her-mind and the determination not to let a thousand-pound heifer get the best of her. Steely resolve.

Future Jenna has made regular appearances for a couple of years now. Grit is hers, in spades. Passionately persisting is how she read the entire Bible in 33 days. It’s also how she works right up to a deadline on a paper, nods at me and says, “I work best under pressure.” Yes. I nod back and finish another last-minute story.

Years ago, when she lost her first student council election — a possibility that simply hadn’t occurred to her — her cousin Hannah told her to look on the bright side, which led her to memorably exclaim to me, “There is no bright side!” She wasn’t wrong.

And yet, today she’s serving on a student council that actually gets to do things. Passionately persisting, she found the bright side. 

Family first
But here’s the real truth in all of this as our girl marks such a big day: Who she is has been shaped by the people around her — by the cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents who pour into her.

Last spring, as she prepared for the FFA Creed contest, her cousin Kaity put her through “Creed boot camp.” (I’m still not sure what that was, but it scared me.)

She and Hannah talked each other off many a ledge as they competed with creeds and speeches. Now, they stay up late nights talking, and we celebrated Hannah’s departure for college with an epic summer trip, in what can only be described as something we’ll all remember forever.

Another slice of time to capture before the hands tick forward, and lives change again.


MOMENT: We look back on this epic summer 2018 New York City trip and know there will never be another time like it again: just before Hannah left for college, just before Jenna turned 16. The inside jokes will live forever.

It’s all good. Growing up is good. But so is remembering. And celebrating.

Here’s to the farm kids. May they live well — and drive safely.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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