What They Art (for 40 Years, and Counting)

August 20, 2005 | 19 comments
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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.)

19 Responses to What They Art (for 40 Years, and Counting)

  1. Tony on August 20, 2005 at 6:26 pm

    Congrats to your brother and parents on their special day, but I have a question…does eyeryone your family go by three names? You know, most assassins have three names as well, e.g., John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray…

    j/k!

  2. Melissa on August 20, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    Beautiful tribute, Russell. Your folks are lucky to have a son like you.

    Your post reminds of a recent experience I’ve thought of quite a bit since it happened.

    In preparing for my upcoming move I’ve been slowly sorting through all my old boxes. Due to my packrat tendencies, this has been no small job. In fact, it’s taken me most of the Summer. Besides being chagrined by the sheer volume of (mostly worthless) stuff I’ve schlepped around with me all these years, I’ve also been delighted to find a few treasures I’d completely forgotten existed. A few weeks ago at the bottom of one of three big apple cartons marked “high school,” I found a small decorative box. I opened it to discover a stack of letters from a dear friend with whom I’d lost contact more than a decade ago. It was a sweet experience to re-read his long lost notes. In vivid detail, he described the construction job he took the summer after he graduated to save money for school, the successes he faced his freshman year at college, the few weeks he spent in the MTC, his entry into the field, his growth as a missionary, and so forth. Long before his mission letters, however, his communications were brimming with his testimony of the Savior, the joy he felt in living the Gospel, and his zealous desire to always be true. These letters recalled his faith, his purity, his kindness, and his Christlike love. When I finished reading his words,I felt supremely grateful to have had such a friend. As I sat there basking, I was struck quite forcefully by the impression that he should have these letters back.

    So, I hunted down his parents’, who’d long since moved, and gave them a call. In sorrowful tones, my friend’s stalwart father (who, after raising a gaggle of children, is getting ready to leave with his wife on yet another mission) related the decade’s worth of heartache that my dear friend has known. At the last, his good father sighed, “he’s no longer active in the Church, Melissa.”

    I ended up sending my friend the bundle of letters along with the copy of George Pace’s _Our Search to Know the Lord_ he’d given me himself years ago. Inside the front cover he’d written as beautiful a testimony as I’ve ever read. After much prayer, I also attached a little note that read among other things, “I remember who you are.”

    Russell, your post effectively points out how necessary it is to know who thou art in order to do properly act thy part. I whole-heartedly commend your parents for never questioning who they are.

    Might I suggest, however, that questioning, and even forgetting, who we are is not always the result of rampant individualism, selfish explorations to find oneself, or thoughtless rejection of our place, position or purpose. One’s identity is as much a product of what is reflected back, believed by others, and validated (or not) as it is something that we create out of whole-cloth. Identity is a dialectical and dynamic creation. Your mother knows who she is, at least in part, because your father knows who she is and reminds her of herself in countless unspoken ways. Your father knows who he is, at least partly, for the same reasons. Your father knew that he should stay until the boys were found—-because your mother expected nothing less.

    When no one who loves you is there to remind you who you really are, it is easy to forget who you are. Some may never even come to know.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on August 20, 2005 at 9:43 pm

    Melissa,

    “One’s identity is as much a product of what is reflected back, believed by others, and validated (or not) as it is something that we create out of whole-cloth. Identity is a dialectical and dynamic creation….When no one who loves you is there to remind you who you really are, it is easy to forget who you are. Some may never even come to know.”

    This is so true, and so beautifully put. You’re absolutely right, and in fact your comment points to a big hole in my story. Did my mother and father come to be who they are by drawing solely upon themselves? Certainly not–there were the scriptures, and stories and examples and parables handed down over the years, and the examples of their own parents and others whom they respected and had been influenced by. Did they come to who be who they are all at once, in a single moment? Certainly not–they shaped each other over the years, and were shaped by others, through both word and deed. My point is that I cannot think about my parents without seeing them as embodiments of roles which they never seemed to question were their own; yet I left out the second, just as important, half of my point: that one cannot easily realize who one is if there is no dialogue, no tradition, no loving community, from within which such realizations may be made (and re-made, as the years go by).

    Because “being what one art” is, as you say, dynamic and dialectical, it does not and cannot proceed in accordance with abstract principles. There is no factor X which my grandfather passed on to my father, but didn’t pass on my aunt, thus explaining the difference between our familes. Life happens to all of us, and there is no predicting it; heaven knows I’d never presume to subject your friend’s difficult path to easy analysis. I’ve sometimes wondered how my parents would have responded to a situation which truly and utterly traduced their presumptions of the way things are. Maybe it would have shattered them. But then again, given that my parents strength seems far more a matter of confidence in the received context by which they encounter the world, than any particular content which they expect about it, perhaps they’d be able to talk and work and love their way through anything, relatively unpreturbed. They have each other. For some, obviously, even the love of a devoted companion isn’t enough to enable one to see who one is clearly. But for my folks, it’s been more than enough–enough, in fact, to spread around to all of us.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on August 20, 2005 at 9:51 pm

    Tony,

    Using middle names is a personal affectation, I’m afraid; I use it all the time in my formal writing. No one in my family talks or writes that way, especially not amongst ourselves. On the contrary, as in many large clans, shortened forms of address predominate. I’ve asked my father and siblings for years to please call me “Russell” instead of “Russ,” and still none of them ever do.

  5. Jim F. on August 21, 2005 at 12:34 am

    Russell: very nice and affectionate post. Thanks.

    My parents finally gave up on “Jimmy” when I was a teenager, but many of my relatives have yet to do so.

  6. Robert C. on August 21, 2005 at 10:45 am

    Russell Arben,

    There are two common phrases in addition to this one that have significant meaning to others, but make me a little uneasy: “Don’t forget who you are” (usually parents to teenagers headed out on the town) and “to thine own self be true.” I’ve always thought the emphasis is a bit misplaced in these sayings, esp. when the phrases are said to someone who is “struggling to find himself.” Your post helps validate my concern, in a way that lowers my defenses enough to truly appreciate the meaning of these phrases. Thanks–

    Your post has unleashed the meaning of these phrases for me.

  7. cooper on August 21, 2005 at 11:44 am

    How very interesting Bro. Fox. My nephew was married yesterday also. It was his grandparents on his father’s side 57th anniversary! Both temple marriages too.

  8. Melissa on August 21, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    Jimmy? You don’t strike me as a Jimmy at all! Then again, I didn’t know you when you were a little boy. Perhaps you just haven’t been explicit enough about your preference? Everyone called me Missy when I was a little girl. At 13 or 14 I just wouldn’t put up with it anymore. It didn’t seem a grown up enough name for the adult I thought I already was. With only one exception, no one would ever dare call me Missy now. In fact, I don’t think most people even remember my childhood nickname.

    Nicknames can stick though. I know a woman, now a grandmother, who is still called “chick.” I’ve never known her given name. I think it even says “chick” on her checks. Her family called her their baby chick because she was the youngest. Good thing they didn’t call her something else.

  9. Greg Bell on August 21, 2005 at 5:12 pm

    Piercingly beautiful! You have captured and the greatness of your wonderful parents so finely. Interestingly, it’s a greatness they themselves will no doubt be unable to see. It’s a greatness that doesn’t show in the mirror. You have given them a lovely tribute and identified so clearly what it is that makes great: acting well their part. There numbers are unfortunately few.

  10. Rusty on August 22, 2005 at 1:02 am

    Wonderful post Russell. As said Jesse was my best friend in high school and your dad was my bishop through my teens I know your parents all too well and can only echo your adulation. Your father is one of the most important examples and teachers in my life (and as a bishop he acted well his part).

    Hey man, my name is Russell but have always gone by Rusty. Good thing because everyone here would be so confused…

  11. manaen on August 22, 2005 at 3:31 am

    Beautiful sentiments expressed beautifully. Thank you.

    Pres. Kimball ties to who we art in helping people to repent: “Our method is one we think would be approved by the Savior. We remind the person of his likeness to and affinity with God…” (MoF, p. 83). Covey, in his “6 Events,” says a starting point is the understanding that we art children of our Heavenly Father.

  12. D. Fletcher on August 22, 2005 at 8:50 am

    I’m going out to SLC on September 1, to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary (married September 6, 1945).

  13. alamojag on August 22, 2005 at 10:58 am

    To follow the nickname threadjack,

    There is a woman in town who goes by “Toots.” It is not her real name. Her real name is a guarded secret, known to few. Yet Toots is one of the most powerful people in town. She was a state representative for many years, remains active on the Chamber of Commerce, and was one of the founders and was the CEO of one of the credit unions in town until she retired a couple of years ago. As a member of the town’s community relations committee with the Air Forcer Base in town, she has been given the unofficial rank equivalent of one-star general. And she is Toots.

    To the original thread: I also believe that “finding yourself” is often an excuse for not meeting your responsibilities. I have seen too many mothers or fathers who use “finding themselves” as a reason they don’t have to be responsible for taking care of their children. More often than not, we make ourselves, rather than find ourselves.

  14. Tatiana on August 22, 2005 at 11:56 am

    What a great tribute! I wish I knew your family, Russell. They sound like awesome people.

    “When no one who loves you is there to remind you who you really are, it is easy to forget who you are. Some may never even come to know.” Melissa, this is such a wise observation.

    It may even be that our biggest impact upon others is our unconscious reflection to them of whom we feel them to be.

  15. Abraham on August 23, 2005 at 10:33 pm

    Russell,
    Not that it is that big a deal but Baden is Baden Joseph Fox, and Philip is Philip Young Fox.

    Excellent Tribute!!

  16. Russell Arben Fox on August 23, 2005 at 10:50 pm

    Aaargh! I can’t even remember my own brothers’ names! My apologies Baden, wherever you are.

  17. Rosalynde on August 23, 2005 at 11:46 pm

    Abraham (Russell’s brother, I presume): Did you attend a rather nerdily-themed BYU summer camp sometime around, like, 1990, with a cousin by the last name of Jolley? My otherwise very faulty memory has mysteriously archived an “Abe Fox” and said cousin at that camp, which probably means I had a crush on one or both of you. Anyway, even if it is you, I’m sure you don’t remember me, mercifully, but hi.

  18. Abraham on August 24, 2005 at 8:31 pm

    Rosalynde!

    LONG LIVE …..SUMMER SCHOLARS’ ACADEMY!!

    Tyler Jolley (my, and Russell’s for that matter, cousin) and I attended and had a complete blast. Hello again. I enjoyed reading your little T&S bio.

    Thanks for reminding me of a very fun, if slightly nerdy, summer experience.

    Abraham Fox

  19. Russell Arben Fox on August 24, 2005 at 8:39 pm

    Ye gods, but the Mormon world is small–and the Fox family large. And now it turns out that Gordon is related by marriage to Mary Ellen’s family. What next? Will it turn out that Kristine’s aunt dated Dad back at BYU? Or perhaps Greg Call’s sister-in-law was one of Marjorie’s mission companions? Stay tuned!

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