She was four years older than me and a whole lot smarter. Maybe not “off-the-chart smart” but definitely calculus and rubrics cube smart. Maybe she got that way from all of the books she read. While most girls were in to dolls and dress up, Erin was in to libraries and bookstores.

Erin’s reclusive reading habits came in handy because when my parents were gone, she would predictably curl up with a stack of library books. The rest of us could wreak havoc as we pleased and Erin would get blamed at the end of the day. Because, after all, she was the oldest and was supposed to be responsible.

People sometimes confused the two of us. I never understood that because while we did have the same eye color, she was Erin and I was Danielle. We shared a room for years and that only brought out the differences: I loved to decorate and rearrange the furniture while she preferred the Spartan atmosphere. I liked the window open. She liked the window shut. And so on.

Somewhere along the way, Erin took an interest in piano. And when she was 14, she became our church pianist. Which, admittedly, was not so much because she was a child protégé as much as just the simple fact that she was the only person in our church that played piano. It was Erin or nothing. And Erin quickly became better. Than nothing.

Erin more than rose to the challenge, because that is what Erin does. She never met a contest too big; she never did things the easy way. If we were all making quilts, Erin made a king-sized, hand-stitched quilt with a million pieces to cut and four times that many corners to match.

Not me. If there was an easy way, I was going to find it and then make it even easier. Which I think is an under-appreciated skill. But I’m getting off track…back to Erin and the piano.

For years, Erin would get up at 5:00 in the morning and play scales and exercises on the piano. Allyson would be doing aerobics. And I was probably sleeping.

Erin practiced hard—four hours every day. She became very good. I know because she always went last at piano recitals. Of course, that might have just been because the “rest of the students” included me and a bunch of kids like me. But nonetheless, she did get good.

Toward the end of high school, Erin was selected to go on a short-term mission trip to Romania. Erin spent hours over the next year learning to speak, read, and write Romanian—all for a three week trip. Like I said, she was not one to just “get by” or do something the easy way.

After graduation, she decided to get a degree in piano performance—which figures, because as I understand, it’s one of the hardest majors. In addition to all of the regular studying a college student has to do, musicians have to practice for ungodly numbers of hours every day. Good thing she was already broken in on the 5:00 am thing.

After college, Erin went back to Romania for a few years as a full-time missionary. All of her hard work on language study was put to good use.

Then, she decided to come back and get her masters in piano performance. And because she is Erin, and because she never met a challenge too big, she decided to get her master’s in piano performance at Bob Jones.

Now, you may think BJ is good, bad, wonderful, terrible…all of that is beside the point. The point is, BJ is basically the mecca of conservative musicians. Kids in Greenville are born playing piano. They are proficient at violin by the time they are weaned. They do intensive music theory classes in Kindergarten. They have private tutoring sessions instead of recess. BJ is Julliard for the small but talented percentage of the world that doesn’t believe in the rock beat.

Majoring in piano performance at BJ is kind of like racing in the Kentucky Derby. Everyone is good. That is why they are there.

Erin was good, but she hadn’t had the support of a gifted music community like most of the BJ graduates. She hadn’t had all world-class teachers growing up. And, she had just spent several years overseas teaching. But once she had made up her mind, she went for it wide open.

If college piano performance was no joke, graduate level piano performance was probably the music equivalent of the Marine Corps. At the end of the program comes the “performance” part—the senior recital: an hour of memorized music that BJ professors deemed worthy of their stamp of music wizardry approval. Songs are picked a year in advance and then practiced until Fur Elise and Chopsticks feel like a nice break.

Erin selected her music and practiced literally until her hands couldn’t take it anymore. She is smart, and she worked hard, but I know that looming recital was not something she looked forward to. Even after years of church music and college classes ad nauseam, Erin was not a natural at performing. Perhaps it was become she is more the left-brained, smart analytic than the right-brain creative, artsy, performer. She is great at lot of things, and she had the skill and knowledge; she just wasn’t the showy type.

Somewhere along the line, I think it was suggested to her that she consider majoring in church music or piano pedagogy. Which, as I understand, was the same thing without the hour of music insanity known as the senior recital. But, as I understand, the difference between the two was also like the difference between being a college basketball coach and a PE teacher.

And it just wasn’t like Erin.

So she worked hard. Very hard.

Not all of my family could attend her recital. But I drove to Greenville the day before and spent the night with her. She is pretty even-keel, but like anyone, she was nervous about her recital. In fact, nervous doesn’t seem to be the right word.

The BJ standard is perfection. And most BJ students hit it or come so close that all but the pickiest of professors believe they did.

And even though she had poured her life into it the whole program, I think she knew she wasn’t going to be perfect.

Mind you, this wasn’t just a handful of family attending this recital. This was going to be a room full of professors and other piano performance majors who were required to attend. Many of them had ten or twenty years of lessons from world class instructors under their belt. Most were natural performers—because the rest had long since been weeded out. If you were just “one of the pack,” you went and found something else to do before you hit the senior recital for your master’s degree in piano performance.

Something else meaning home ec, elementary ed, or working at Chick-fil-A.   You ain’t nothing in Greenville just because you can play piano, violin, cello, tuba, and percussion. You have to be the next Dino Kartsonikis (who appreciates only Bach and Fanny Crosby).

And Erin, for all her virtues, was not Dino.

And the pressure would have put a lesser woman (me, for example) in the crazy house.

But not Erin.

I was very proud of Erin the next day. She looked nice. She had chosen difficult pieces. She played well.

And she made some mistakes. Several actually.

She just did.

But she didn’t make excuses. She didn’t blame the stiff piano. Or her hurting wrists. Or her years of service in Romania. Or her nerves. She didn’t make a point to tell everyone how long and hard she’s practiced. How many set backs she’s had. How many obstacles she had to overcome.

She had done her best. And she let it be that. She didn’t try to criticize herself just to hear people argue with gushy words of fake affirmation.

Erin told me she thought by BJ standards her recital was a disaster.

If anyone thought that, they were mistaken. Yes, if someone had come to nit pick or criticize, I’m sure they could have found something negative to say about the performance.

But not about my sister.

She was courageous. She was gracious. And I don’t know if I have ever been more impressed with her. Or with anyone.

Erin had just poured her heart into a goal because she believed that the process of working for it would make her a better pianist, a better music teacher, and more than that—a better worshiper. She went for it knowing it wouldn’t necessarily make her better than the people around her.

Erin worked to please an Audience of One.

I think she proved it that day. And I have every reason to believe that that One was pleased.

And I, for one, thought it was beautiful.

I could not have been more impressed. Not with Dino Kartsonikis.

photoShe had a temper growing up.  Of course, so did I.

The difference is, people who knew us then will believe it about me.  My sister was like a living Elsie Dinsmore—sweet, sensitive, and obedient.

I was more outspoken and more type-A, so I was often the ring leader even though she was two years older.  I was also a merciless competitor.  We ended up in the same grade homeschooling, and in my immaturity, I made it a point to finish first and be the best at everything.  The only game I couldn’t beat her at was Monopoly.  She could pinch a penny.

For a while, we shared a room.  Mom used to say of us that we were “enemies all day and friends all night.”  I don’t remember what we stayed up late chatting about, but I do remember some of our fights.  I thought she was messy; she kept entirely too much junk.  I also rebelled when she came up the idea of washing our clothes in the bathtub instead of sending them downstairs to the laundry.  Allyson was more than a tad obsessed with anything old fashioned, and the idea of washing clothes by hand appealed to the pioneer homemaker in her.   I was a lot happier limiting old fashioned ways to my imagination.

Allyson was blessed with a very keen sensitivity toward sin.  What was right was right and what was wrong was wrong.  If something was right, you did it.  And if it was wrong you didn’t.  For several years, she determined to carry her Bible with her everywhere she went.  And when she was twelve or so, she decided to wear only skirts or dresses; a resolve she has kept to this day.

Despite our differences, we called ourselves best friends.  Looking back, that was her idea, and she was a loyal best friend.  I kind of drifted a bit, especially when people started of thinking of her as “different”—carrying around her Bible and wearing skirts all of the time.

She was one of the most disciplined teenagers I’ve known.  She would get up at 5:00 am to do aerobics (to classical music).  By then, I shared a room with Erin, but Allyson would knock on our door every morning and ask if I wanted to do them with her.I would say: No.

After she graduated from high school, Mom and Dad let Allyson take over all the food preparation and grocery shopping.  I’m not sure that did a lot to generate peace in our home because Allyson’s primary goal was to save money and the rest of us didn’t have a lot of appreciation for that goal.  To put it mildly. Some of her “empty out the refrigerator” recipes were met with lower approval ratings than US Congress.

We weren’t particularly close anymore by this time; I was into all of the things I was into—debate, tutoring, Awana, computers, and whatever else that packed life full.  There was a lot I could have done to show gratefulness to her for the things she did for our family, but I didn’t bother.

Nevertheless, Allyson was a persistent homemaker.  She wasn’t intent on going to college; school wasn’t her love or her strength necessarily.  However, it still bothered her when people asked her the usual, “what are you going to do next?” questions in a way that sort of hinted that college was a prerequisite for heaven. I don’t think anyone meant to be harsh; they just took it for granted that the transition into adulthood should look a certain way.

But she was just gifted in other ways.  She sang beautifully and she took up painting china.  Allyson had—and still has—a tender heart that is often conscious of needs the rest of the world overlooks. Allyson looks out for the “uncool” people. She meets needs that are truly needs.

In the next few years, Allyson went through a difficult heartbreak.  Some would think that would be the time that having sisters would come in quite handy.  But I’m not sure we were any help.  It wasn’t that I didn’t care—I just didn’t know what to say or do besides give her space.

So she really surprised me when she gave me two hand painted china plates.  They had birds on the fronphoto (1)t, and on the back of each, she had written scripture in her elegant script—“Behold the fowls of the air…” She must have spent many, many hours tediously painting those beautiful plates. At the bottom of one she had written, To my amazing sister, Danielle.

When the opportunity came for my family to move from California to New Hampshire, Allyson was the only dissenting vote.  But we went anyway.

And the day we moved in, we met Kevin.  Kevin met Allyson.  And as his grandmother said, “I’ve never seen a young man more in love.”

Shortly after their wedding, Allyson was expecting.  And she just glowed.  She is a beautiful girl anyway– but she was even more beautiful pregnant.  And we were all very, very happy for her.  She was a wonderful wife and I was sure she would be an equally good mother. Her child would be the first grandchild on both sides as well as the first great-grandchild for the two set of great-grandparents that lived locally.  Yeah, a little bit of pressure there.

A few months before the baby was due, she went in for a check-up and the doctors became concerned that the baby wasn’t responding to pokes and prods. I was at work when I heard there was a good chance she lost it, and I cried so hard I got in a wreck on my way home. But the doctors were wrong, and this little baby was born healthy as can be—even if he came a few weeks late.

It has been a steady stream of beautiful little lives since then: seven in the past ten years. And Allyson has handled it expertly. The nine of them live in a 1500 square foot house and she keeps it clean, orderly, and entirely devoid of junk. She still cooks food from scratch and washes her dishes by hand although I imagine she has said thanks more than once for their clothes washing machine. They have no TV, and she home schools the older three kids. Somehow.

By contrast, I feel like I’m doing good when I can see the corner of my desk. And people have started asking me what I’m going to do when I grow up.

But what is most amazing is not what Allyson does, but how she does it. She has the beauty that comes from a quiet contentment; an authoritative grace; a contagious peace.  And I can lay claim to being a part of the test panel for her rise to low-budget cooking genius.

I think college has its place in this world, but it isn’t for everyone and it probably would have had nothing but debt to offer someone like Allyson. If homemaking is an art, she has mastered it. And she did it by faithfully applying the lessons God teaches best in His way and in His time.

With the score 7 to 0, I think it’s safe to assume that I’ll never catch up. Thank goodness, it isn’t a competition anymore. Just two sisters who love each other even though they live a thousand miles a part. It’s hard to believe that we ever shared school books, a bedroom, and shoes.

Happy Mother’s Day, to my amazing sister, Allyson!