When I first met the 11 Johnson children they were merrily joking around and splashing food as they passed their dinner around the small family table. Their demeanor was so comfortable and connected I could hardly tell which children were originally in the family and which were actually adopted orphans.
As integrated as they all appeared, I was surprised to learn that 11 years ago the Johnson children knew each other not as siblings but as cousins. They lived in different states and shared little in common. On the day before Thanksgiving one of the families was driving to a holiday feast when their van was struck by a semi truck, leaving the five young children without parents.
Planted in sorrow and grief, the five children came to Utah to live with their cousins. The two had no choice but to grow as one large, connected unit. Although the new life was undoubtedly difficult for the uprooted children, everyone had to adjust to a new lifestyle with twice as many loud voices and twice as many hands reaching for food at dinner time.
“Life changed for me at a time I didn’t want it to change,” said Kevin Johnson, the oldest of the Johnson boys and a senior studying computer science. “It was an overwhelming adjustment and it wasn’t fun for me to get ripped out of my world.”
Not only did Kevin have to change high schools and date new girlfriends, he had to sacrifice his space and attention to an unexpected family addition. The oldest daughter Catherine Johnson said the experience of welcoming five new family members was a difficult but amazing transition. She said the years of working out differences and building on each other’s strengths have blessed the family.
“All my friends expected my life to be so normal, but it was full of turmoil and chaos,” Catherine said. “Before it felt like we were holding on by the skin of our teeth, and now it feels normal, like we’re a family,”
The Johnson family has had a lot of practice forging the skill of welcoming others and including all personalities in the family. I felt this endearing embrace two years ago as I married into the family. Although the children’s’ personalities once clashed and their differences created family tension, they have found common strengthening ties.
“One thing we love to do together is to sing,” said Andre Johnson, one of two 16-year-old boys in the house. “We sing in church a lot, and we have put together a barbershop quartet. It has been our fun.”
Lane Johnson, the father of the home, is a music composer and he arranges music for the family regularly. They perform at weddings, funerals, rest homes and have even been kicked out of the nation’s capital building for singing “He is Risen” in the billowing halls.
“Every one of the kids on both sides are exceptional people,” Lane said. “We had to trust them to grow up and rise to maturity.”
Lane said watching the food bill jump from $600 to $1,400 a month wasn’t nearly as surprising as watching the children lift each other through such a difficult time. Although they recognize and remember their previous life, the Johnson children have welded a lasting family.
“I can’t imagine a better life for our family without all of us together,” said Michelle Johnson, a senior studying business management. “I know and love each of my siblings. We have opened up and learned to trust in one another because of the difficult trials we have had to overcome together. What a blessing my family has been to me.”