Callie looked down at the folded paper grumbling in her lap and wondered if Laman and Lemuel had first exasperated Sariah by scribbling sour notes in church. Her own son Ted had decided at the age of ten that enduring to the end meant sacrament meeting and that he couldn’t. Within fifteen minutes of the opening prayer he was manufacturing audible sighs, stares at the clock, and notes.
“I’m bored!” The letters looked like angry exclamation points. Ted’s usually illegible hand was clear enough. “What is there to do? There’s nothing to do,” he wrote.
“Unscramble rophetp,” she wrote back.
“Prophet. I’m hungry.”
“Try to listen.”
“I do, but it’s BORING!”
“Reverence. When is it over?”
Callie looked around her at children, hers and others. All of them—except Ted—were being sort of reverent. She saw no contortions. She heard no growls. Other children seemed able to keep their restlessness average. But as she looked at Ted, he slid himself lower and lower on the bench, his knees up, his head frantically forward. Like an inverted insect kicking air, he suffered.
“Dear Ted. Daddy is looking at you. Make him proud. Sit up straight and try to pay attention and on the way home we will have a quiz about the meeting. Maybe you’ll win.” She laid the note beside him.
Ted read it while he took his shoes off. Struggling to a half-sit, he glanced toward the stand. His father gave him The Look, an ingenious combination of sympathy and stern expectation. Whenever George looked at the children that way, they repented. It was a temporary transformation, but better than nothing. Ted’s face became a study in attentiveness.
As Callie took the sacrament, she tried to settle her thoughts on the great sacrifice and agony. Beside it, her son’s discomfort seemed shallow and self-centered. But there it was nevertheless, and she watched him begin a game of ticktacktoe with himself. Despite his advantage, he lost, and when the meeting ended an hour later, he leaped and was gone. No jack-in-the-box ever wore a broader smile, and no mother ever felt greater foreboding.
That night when she couldn’t sleep, George would remind her again that Ted was just a boy at a tough age trying to make it through a meeting that, “let’s-face-it, is not usually programmed for ten-year-olds.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t worry if he were just bored,” said Callie, “but he’s miserable! Whenever he has to hold still, pain sets in.”
“What you need is one of those stories about the ward terror growing up to be stake president.”
“Stake presidents have sensible allergies, like chocolate or tomatoes! Ted can’t tolerate a speech anytime from anybody. Why is he like that?”
“Well, Callie, he’s young, and restless. He reminds me of your brother Andy.”
“As for acting bored in church, he’s probably somewhere between Tracy and Jeff.”
“Do they hate meetings too?”
“Chances are that whether they do or not, their mothers are worrying about what will become of them. And their fathers are trying to comfort their mothers so that their fathers can get to sleep. Let’s count our blessings and say ten times to ourselves: He’s a good boy.”
Ted is a good boy. Ted is a good boy. Callie made it to ten. It was easier than she expected. In fact, lying there in the dark she realized that Ted prayed with greater eloquence than any of his sisters. Even after balking at having to kneel down, he could remember and voice sincerely every blessing and every need. He could conduct family home evening with a professionalism that made Callie wish it were a public affair: Individual handwritten programs, elaborate introductions, exhortations, all delivered over a homemade pulpit that gave the whole meeting the kind of importance Callie knew it ought to have.
Of course George was right. At least Ted was not a bad boy. Callie convinced herself that she had never actually worried about any of her children, not really, not hard, except just now, just a little, about Ted. The evening’s experience at church had already taken its place beside other memories crowded into the worry department of her mind. As she went off to sleep she felt it lying there restlessly beside Ted’s tithing envelope full of IOUs. Next to the IOUs cowered the family prayers when Ted acted as if his dad had asked him not to kneel down but to break his leg in two places. Even if Ted was just a boy, and a good boy at that, he was worth some hard thought. Thank goodness next Sunday was a whole week away.
A typical Monday morning would have sent all thought reeling, but this morning was not typical. The children found their shoes without hysteria. They even finished their eggs. Hurrying to breakfast, Ted had whacked his head on the door and since hitting the door back meant getting hurt twice, he tripped his sister instead. But when George called on him to say family prayers anyway, Ted remembered everyone and everything. Then he went off to school without combing his hair or brushing his teeth. Seeing him like that, the teacher surely would not give him the benefit of any doubts, but Callie decided against calling him back. She could forgo that today. There was quiet for regrouping, disorder to vanquish before lunchtime. There was time for Ted. Work encourages healthful circulation, the books say, and thought. …
Ted is a good boy. Ted is a good, … young, … typical. … Upstairs, Callie found his rumpled Sunday trousers under the bed and a missing sock in the chandelier. The sun burned in, like hope, as she shut a drawer on the broken slingshot with its year’s supply of unslung spitwads. What she needed for thought was a windowless house with no child prints, no sun burning in, no distractions. What she needed was less worry burning pathways through her concentration. Walking those paths she would end up with a clean house but not a single idea.
Finally, the windows were to blame because leaning toward the light Callie caught a blur of movement as Junior, the neighborhood dog, leaped into her dooryard, wrestling a shoe with his teeth. Growling with superiority, he fought his prey while Callie rushed downstairs and outside to recover the shoe. It would be Ted’s for sure. He never took care of anything!
But it wasn’t Ted’s. She had never seen it before. Looking at it, standing there with somebody’s old, ragged, unfamiliar shoe hanging from her fingertips, a present, upstairs worry fading but clinging, Callie saw other shoes. Still tender to the touch of memory, a long-ago day came back. Her brother Andy had had a dog, a chewing dog like Junior who fought shoes and mitts and, these lacking, legs. Finally the dog had hurt someone, and Andy, all by himself, had called the sheriff and told him to come and take the dog. Andy had never seemed to love the dog, or feed it either (except maybe shoes). Like Ted, Andy the little boy hadn’t done much right except finally grow up and turn out fine in spite of everything. That single act about the dog seemed to Callie, remembering, the only really correct thing her little brother had done, but it had given them all hope, and Andy the man had not been a disappointment after all.
Surely Ted wouldn’t either. Surely there were noble acts in his young life. All Callie had to do was notice. Her hope would be verified, and all those boyish things would become insignificant. How old had Andy been? Callie couldn’t remember. But young, very very young. She would watch and wait and by next Sunday she would have a noble act to cling to.
The following week was not the best Ted had ever had. He painted his name on the garage with the last of a can of blue spray paint. He hid his bedspread in the attic because it complicated bed making. Wednesday when it was his turn to do the dishes, he hired his sister to do them with money borrowed from the lady next door. Thursday he cut up the new National Geographic, looking for animal pictures.
Callie kept watching. After all, the act she was looking for needn’t be dramatic. She must not give up, no matter what.
Saturday morning she began to practice her speech about Sunday and seriousness. If she had to use it, she would. After all, there would be other weeks.
Sunday morning came more abruptly than usual. Suddenly, there was Ted in the bathroom combing his hair. He always looked larger out of motion. His hair was thick. Combed or uncombed, it mounded like an old-fashioned haystack. The hair Ted couldn’t see crossed crookedly, but Callie resisted helping. Actually, he was doing pretty well considering his lack of experience.
Callie hadn’t intended to use her speech just then but Ted seemed so calm, so quietly in charge of himself, that she changed her mind. She took a deep breath.
He stopped combing and looked at her.
“Ted, life isn’t all fun. It’s serious business. Our comfort isn’t really as important as it seems to us when we’re young.”
“I know,” he said. “I think about life and what’s important all the time at school. I think, who am I? How did I get in this family? What about everything? Then I decide just to do the best I can.”
As Ted himself would say, bull’s-eye. Through the hoop, clean. Hole in one. Callie braced herself against the door frame. He had looked right at her, as sincere and earnest as Callie had ever seen him. Yet it was a casual, hair-combing moment, and she wondered if Abraham Lincoln on the way to Gettysburg had combed unruly hair with one hand while he wrote with the other. Had Nathan Hale, comb in hand, regretted having as little as life to give for his country?
“Do you really do that?”
Ted didn’t answer. It’s hard to comb a haystack. Callie walked into the kitchen to sit down, but Ted called her right back.
“Mom, can you compete in the Olympics while you’re on your mission?”
This time it was Callie who didn’t answer, although she thought she had heard.
“Well, can you?”
She needed to say something. “What in?”
“The marathon and track events.”
“Well, it hasn’t been done yet.”
“That’s what I’m going to do.” He ducked around her under his combed haystack and was gone.
Callie sat down by the kitchen table. Overdosed with joy, she had a hard time keeping her feet on the floor. Ted had combed his hair! He had assumed he would go on a mission! He had talked to her seriously out loud, mind-to-mind! Not noble acts exactly, like giving up a dog, but enough. And then she began to know that she had put Ted into a box with words all over the outside: Problem. Rebel. Worry. Doesn’t love what I love. Just now, for an instant, Ted had stood before her upright and right-side-up. Realizing he might at times be beyond her, but that she could grow, Callie sprang to the task of getting everyone to church.
A Mormon missionary in the Olympics? Of course it hadn’t been done. Yet.