In 1992, Sandi had a very shocking and public fall from grace after an infidelity scandal and subsequent divorce stunned the industry, devastated her family and brought her wildly successful career to a screeching halt. Humiliated and broken, Sandi left the road and began a long, painful process of biblical restoration and accountability through her home church in Indiana. In 1995, she married Don Peslis and entered the most difficult and rewarding chapter of her life as together they created a blended family of EIGHT children — three of his, four of hers and one of theirs! I recently had a chance to talk with Sandi and hear for myself her amazing story of the redemptive power of God’s love and grace.
“OK, let me give you the lineup,” Sandi begins with a laugh. “Anna is 27, the twins Jon and Jenn are 23, Donnie is also 23, Aly is 22, Erin is 21, Mollie is 19 and Sam is 15.” While I’m still reeling, she adds, “But just remember —16 years ago when Don and I got married, they were all under 11!” She pauses to let that sink in and then says with a sly smile, “Those were the years I used to tell my women friends that I could be their happy thought when they were having a hard day with their kids, because no matter how bad it was they could always say, ‘Well, at least I’m not Sandi!”
“You know, there weren’t a lot of resources out there at the time for blended families,” Sandi says. “We had to figure things out for ourselves by trial and error. We certainly didn’t do all of it right, but we learned some good lessons. The fi rst thing we learned, early on, was that every blended family is born out of loss. There is just no way around that. It will never be an ‘intact’ family in the clinical sense, where you share the same mother, father and siblings. That doesn’t mean it has to be bad, but you do have to acknowledge that reality.”
“The second big thing Don and I realized,” Sandi continues, “is that our relationship is really the anchor for our blended family, because we’re really the only ones who purposely chose to be here. The kids did not choose this, and we had to allow them the right to not be thrilled that they now had other siblings living on their turf. We basically had one rule at the beginning which was, ‘You don’t have to like each other, but you do have to respect each person and his or her space.’ Don and I always try to make sure that we see eye to eye, because if we’re OK, the kids are going to be OK. With a second marriage I think you realize that even more — the primary relationship is the priority, and it has to be invested in and nurtured.” Sandi pauses to think, then says, “I think the third most important thing is that you must always take the high road with your former spouse, especially in front of your children. I don’t care what they’ve done, they are still the parent of those children and you will end up being the bad guy if you badmouth them. It’s not always easy, but boy I‘m telling you, that is a HUGE one.”
Sandi’s dad was a wonderful example of the kind of parent she wanted to be. “If I were to give you one word to describe my dad, growing up, it would be ‘available,’ which of course you don’t really appreciate when you’re younger, but when you get to be older you realize how amazing that was. Don is really good with our kids that way; he gets right in and plays with them and we laugh a lot. Another thing I really wanted to do was to let them know there was a place to talk about their feelings,” she explains. “At dinner we’d say, ‘OK—give me the high/low of the day.’ When they were younger, the high might be they had hot dogs for lunch; the low might be they didn’t get picked for something at recess. But then when they got older, the high/lows became more meaningful. They knew that it was OK to have a hard time and talk about it, and share the good times, too. We want them to know that they can tell us anything,” Sandi declares flatly. “We may have a reaction, we might need some processing time, we may ask tough questions, but in the end, we’ll stand with you. I hope that we can model as parents that loving and supporting and standing by someone doesn’t mean you always agree with their decisions or condone bad choices. It means saying, ‘You’re never going to get rid of my love. It’s just there and it always will be.’ ”
Sandi’s husband Don was adopted as an infant, so the idea of adoption was on the table from the beginning. “When we talked about blending our lives together, we often talked about adding another one to the seven — and then we’d kind of slap each other back to reality!” she says. “But we’d always say it would be really special if we adopted a little boy, and we even had his name picked out: Sam.” Sandi and Don finally decided that if God wanted them to adopt, He’d just have to drop a baby in their laps, and then they just kind of forgot about it — until about six months into their marriage when they got a call from this doctor friend of theirs, telling them there was a newborn baby whose adoption had just fallen through! Still hesitant, Sandi decided to just go see the baby. She says, “So they wheeled a little bassinet in with this 4 lb. 11 oz. life inside of it, this perfect little African-American boy, and up above his head was a heart-shaped cutout with writing on it. That’s usually where they put the nametag, but they don’t name children who are going to be put up for adoption. But for ‘some reason’ this time they did. And they named him Sam.”
Sam is 15 now, a handsome, amiable young man whom his siblings call the Mayor because he makes friends wherever he goes. He and his dad, Don, share the bond of being adopted and the family often quotes their friend Nicole C. Mullens’ comment about her own bi-racial family: “Our color is meant to describe us, not define us.” Sandi says when she’s asked to fill in the box for ‘race’ on any official form, she always writes the same thing for all eight of her children — “human.” So what’s the best part of “‘life in the blender” as Sandi calls it? “The biggest blessing of my life is to see the closeness of my children,” she says with great satisfaction. “We’ve come so far. I love to observe their relationships, their enjoyment of each other. When we all get together as a family, it is just a sheer delight.”