Today, August 20th, the youngest of my eight siblings, Baden Joseph Fox, married Mary Ellen Smoot in the Salt Lake temple. We weren’t able to attend, which was doubly unfortunate, this being a particularly notable day in Fox family history. You see, on the same date their last child was married, my parents, James Russell Fox and Kathleen Jolley Fox, were married in the Salt Lake temple, 40 years earlier.
This post is for them.
In 1965, when Mom and Dad married, David O. McKay was president of the church. He had been president for nearly fifteen years, and would remain president for five more. I don’t know if anyone has ever called those years the “David O. McKay era,” but that’s not a bad name for them. From 1951 to 1970–the years during which my mother and father grew up, were baptized, got an education, got married, settled in the church and started their family–American society, and much of the rest of the world too, went through profound changes, some good and some bad. How did my parents navigate those years, and become the sort of people who could stay happily married for 40 years, which they are as of today? There’s no simple answer….but I think an experience of President McKay’s may be the key.
The experience I’m thinking of is a well-known one. In 1889 McKay was in Great Britain, serving a mission, and one day he was feeling homesick and discouraged. While out walking, he noticed over the doorway of an unfinished house a stone arch bearing the inscription “What-E’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part.” That phrase struck him hard, and he adopted it as his motto. The meaning of the phrase is obvious: whatever your position or responsibility or duty may be, do it the best you can. Trying to “act well” one’s part is much more important than wasting time in bitterness about how you would have preferred a different part–instead, you should take what you have and fulfill it to the utmost: that is the route to a happy and successful life.
What is not so obvious is that there is an assumption hidden within that meaning. Of course we should act well our parts: everyone should do their best at their jobs and callings and family duties. But as important as that advice may be, embracing the phrase as McKay did requires one to have also already accepted that jobs and callings and family duties–in other words, one’s “part”–are part of oneself. That is, to think about doing one’s part well ought to involve affirming, in one way or another, that one has a part–or even better, that one is a part. I’m talking about the first half of the motto here: “what-e’er thou art.” The rest will not follow if you refuse to accept that you are something, that you are defined by that part, that it marks you.
Of course, no one denies that they ought to do certain things: jobs, callings, family duties, whatever. But what McKay instinctively acknowledged, and what so many other young people coming into their own between 1951 and 1970 often forgot (and thus have not been able to teach their own children and grandchildren), is that those jobs and callings and duties come as part of what one “art.” He simply didn’t think that some things were a matter of choice. Unlike today, where so often we see people go to church, or not, depending on if they like their pastor or not; or spend time teaching their children, or ignore them, depending on how much they think the kids crowd into their own personal space; and so on and so forth. This isn’t a new complaint; indeed, it’s a very old complaint–probably every generation fears the next one is becoming less focused and responsible. And such talk is hardly a denial that unfortunately there really are frequent and painful choices that must be made between different aspects of one’s life. But I’m talking about something different. I’m talking about a perspective that came to dominate much of American society while my parents were growing up and becoming adults. It is a perspective which says that growing up, and being an adult, could mean pretty much anything you wanted it to mean, or could mean nothing at all. You didn’t have to be anything–in fact, you never are anything except that which you agree to be, and you could always change your mind, and in the meantime no one could fault or judge you, of course. Under this perspective, McKay’s motto fails, because however much people may want to do well, they reject the original assumption: they reject they are the sort of person for whom there is something they have to do simply because of what they art.
McKay’s motto did not fail my mother and father. On the contrary, from what I can tell, they never doubted its truth: so much so that it probably never occurred to them to wonder about it, in the same way that President McKay probably never wondered about that motto, for of course he always accepted that he was something, and that he needed to act well what he was. The same for my parents. My father is a very good father–he provided for his family, he taught us well, he loved us and played with us and disciplined us (especially that last one). And my mother is a very good mother–she sheltered us and encouraged us and loved us and taught us and made a home for us all. But what is more important than any of that, I think, is that so far as I can recall they never gave us any reason to doubt who they were. Mom knew she was a mother; she was always our Mom, her love was always present, never tempered by or filtered through other priorities or concerns she’s been in possession of during her life. And Dad knew he was a father; his counsel and example and expectations never slackened, so matter how stressed he was or how worried or how weary. That is who they are. For them, their roles are simple and total and true. More than anything else, more than all their ups and downs (and they’ve had more than a few) what mattered is they know who they “art.”
I remember a skiing trip with Dad and several of my brothers. Two of them–I think Abraham and Jesse–were late meeting us back at the lodge. Night was coming on, the lodge was closing, the park rangers were called, search teams were sent out. Dad had a bunch of us in the car, and we were all waiting, cold and hungry, as the time ticked by, hoping Abe and Jess were okay, and wondering what was going to become of us. One of the search team members told Dad there was no point waiting around; he’d contact us immediately if there was any news. I wondered if that meant Dad was going to take us home, and I asked him if we were. He said no, we were going to stay. He said it simply, at a time when we were all scared and praying and wanted to go home. And then he looked at it me, with just the slightest grin on his face. “Besides, your mother wouldn’t let me in the house if I didn’t bring all of you with me.”
Abe and Jess were fine–they’d gotten lost following some old ski path. The scare was over and soon forgotten. But I’ve never forgotten that, even if I don’t remember all of the details. Dad was going to stay–even if he couldn’t go out and search himself, he’d be there, as a presence, a guide, our model and our leader. Mom was at home, and expected nothing less than the perfect safety of all her children: no compromises, no excuses, no half-way measures would be accepted. That’s the way it was, no matter what the cost or the cold. Dad and Mom knew their roles, they embraced them, they lived them. They knew, and still know, who they art.
Such inflexible self-knowledge has costs; it can rub people who do not or cannot live or even quite see their place in the world the wrong way. My parents are private people, having long since realized that their resoluteness makes them, in the minds of many around them, more like pillars of the social landscape than likely friends. They work in the Spokane temple, and people often whisper to them, sometimes tearfully, sometimes accusatively, wondering how they did it: nine children (with thirty grandchildren, including Tessa), all returned missionaries, all married in the temple, all active in the church, all friends with one another. It’s not quite that perfect, of course; there was a difficult divorce along the way, and some touchy relations that took years to overcome, and some that may require more overcoming yet. (The Fox family has hardly been immune to all the complications that time, marriage, money, in-laws, distance and politics can bring, as Melissa and I know well.) Still, that doesn’t satisfy my parents’ interlocuters: they want to know the secret, or they want to hear that it was all dumb luck. And my parents cannot explain anything to them–how could they explain habits of life which came to them not through choice, but through submission? Mom knew, to her own satisfaction at least, what mothers are supposed to do. Dad knew, well enough I guess, what fathers are supposed to do. And so that’s what they did. To be sure, the roles they embraced were nonetheless shaped by self-interpretation, fitted to their own environment and instincts. And many elements of that fitting can be criticized (as we implicitly have–we don’t run family meetings, or discipline our children, or make rules about sleep-overs or zillion other things the same way my parents did, which is as it should be). But their basic approach–their unspoken assumption that certain things “art” a certain way, and thus they were obliged to make their “part” their own as best they could? About that, I have no criticism at all.
Today, when Megan or Caitlyn ask me why they have to go to church, I say it’s because we’re Foxes, and that what Foxes do. It’s not primarily a matter of trying to figure out the best way to do something, though that is relevant; more importantly, it’s a matter of knowing what it we have to do because of who we are. This is the finest compliment I can pay my parents: that we Foxes know who we are, and what we are to do, because we were blessed with a father and mother who also knew, and knew from the beginning, who they were. Of course they did their part; they’ve performed their parts the best they could for 40 years (and they’ve gotten better at it over time, as they’d be the first to admit). But it all began, as it began for David O. McKay, with what they were.
Some people talk about “finding themselves”; too often I wonder if that is an excuse to avoid just being oneself, wherever one is, and taking up the roles and responsibilities which follow accordingly, as children and parents, homemakers and breadwinners (or both), friends and Saints, husbands and wives. On August 20, 1965, two people found themselves in a sealing room in the Salt Lake temple, and they took up who they would be; with few exceptions, they have not had to do much searching ever since. Perhaps they were incredibly lucky; perhaps they were unaccountably blessed. Or perhaps they just somehow knew, as David O. McKay apparently knew, that the difficulties which God has allowed into this world are not ones which demand a particular concern for the self. Either way, though in talents and temperament and testimony I am not much like either of them, I am essentially who I am because they art who they art. I thank God daily for that–and for them, of course, as well.
Happy 40th anniversary, Mom and Dad! (Oh, and Baden and Mary Ellen–congrats.)