by Tara T. Boyce
I went to Meridian, Idaho last weekend to visit my family. Meridian, where my parents and three younger siblings are now living, is a flat, suburban town with lots of cookie-cutter houses and sidewalks and traffic. Last year my family moved to Idaho from Central Oregon, into a small brown and red house with windows that face the neighbor’s fence. Let’s just say we’re all getting used to the view, and that we miss Oregon’s juniper trees and pine trees and mountains that frame the sky.
Last Sunday evening I sat with my family in their family room, the windows open revealing the fence and a dark blue sky just after sundown. We all sat scattered around the floor and couches, except for my sister Lissa, a senior in high school, who sat cross-legged in a chair near the window. She was wearing her gray sweat pants, working on an application she planned to submit to BYU. She began reading to us from the extracurricular activities check-off section.
“Have you ever . . .” Lissa read to us:
“Received a national award or talent scholarship for artwork?
Received a national math/science/computer science award or scholarship?
Held a management position for two or more years supervising five or more people?
Served as a student body president of the entire school?
Placed in the top three in a state-wide individual speech/debate contest?
Placed in the top three in a state-wide individual writing contest?”
The list went on and on and on.
I watched my kid sister become all overwhelmed at her lack of check marks. She continued reading: “Served as chief editor for the school newspaper?” She laughed, then said, “I worked on the school newspaper once, but my article never got published. Does that count?”
We told her no, that does not count.
Between our no’s and her laughs, Lissa shook her head and occasionally scratched her foot. Which makes sense: Though she spends her week days studying her books and her weekends working at Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza to pay for what she hopes will be a university education, my sister knows that she can only check off so many check marks without running into school-wide or national attention.
I’m thinking of my little sister now, small as she is, weighing barely over a hundred pounds. I think of her moving from Oregon to Idaho in the middle of her junior year of high school. Of her new tennis coach asking the first week of practice if anyone wanted to challenge a spot on the team and how she raised her hand, even though no one knew who she was. She raised her hand and when her coach asked who she would like to challenge, my little 5’1 sister said, “The number one single.” She won, perhaps solely on gut.
After the economy crashed, after our dad lost his income and his savings and eventually our Oregon home, Lissa learned to make homemade bread and wear sweats instead of turning up the heat. After the boating accident, when our older brother Dane nearly died on the other side of the country, Lissa stayed at home with her two little siblings and a working dad, while our mom stayed with Dane in the hospital for over a month. Occasionally I’d call Lissa from Utah to check up on her, to say, “How are you doing?” She’d respond, “I’m okay. How are you?” But her voice was tired and serious from cooking meals and folding laundry and cleaning bathrooms and running errands and worrying and praying even when her heart and lungs and throat hurt.
But there are no check marks for what you do not and cannot anticipate, plan for, or work toward. There are no congratulations for that which you cannot quantify, whatever that is—fearing, hoping, doing what has to be done every single day because you have to—into an achievement, into an accomplishment, into a little pencil box as if to say, “There, done.”
There is a small box of awards from over the years, a few certificates and plaques and ribbons beginning to collect dust in the back corner of my parents’ garage. Some of these awards are from my sister’s tennis seasons, others from basketball, or gymnastics seasons, which she did as a child. There are a few participation certificates from piano recitals, in which she never did stand out much, though she still plays us Christmas hymns in the winter. She tried volleyball; she tried track, but there are no ribbons for her trying. Neither are there any awards for her unpublished articles in the school newspaper or for non-participation in a district math contest, even though math is her best subject.
There are, however, a few rough sketches of Oregon flowers and trees in a book on her nightstand beside the Bible she reads every night. I know this because my sister offered me her room while I visited. I flipped through her sketches before I went to bed. Her flowers and trees and mountains and rivers were tentatively drawn with pastel-colored pencils, as if in an act of reverence my sister refused to force her hand into God’s. As if in between all her recent months and years she learned how not to.
And I wondered then, How do you check off this: a girl with a pastel-colored pencil in her hand, who spends her weekends making pizzas, making bread, making ends meet, making a bed for her older sister to sleep in? She will sleep on the ground, where she will also kneel before she falls asleep, whispering thank you for the new house, for the brother that’s alive, and for knowing she’ll be okay with or without the check marks.