Happy Thanksgiving, Bros

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

(Note: this is going to be another one of those boring family posts. So best read it now, rather than after dinner, so as to avoid any indigestion.)

Marjorie, like her older sister Samatha, is a long-suffering soul. She was raised, obviously, as a Fox, meaning she was raised while surrounded by seven reliably loud, frequently contentious, occasionally violent, always opinionated brothers, and while being led by a undeniably charismatic, unapologetically authoritative, firmly patriarchal father. It was, in short, a very male family, and she knew it. As a child, there was one particular conflict or argument, the specific provenance of which is lost in the midst of time, which required her equally long-suffering and blessed mother to ask her what was troubling her. She wrinkled her nose. “The boys” was all she said.

That would be us.

In the beginning, there was Daniel and me. We had our older sister, who was beautiful and smart and would boss us around mercilessly and whom we would ignore as often as possible. She was the princess who at first lived much the same way we did in those days–she helped milk the cows, collect the eggs, and shovel the manure right along with Dad and us two boys, and explored the woods and fields around the farmhouse our family moved into when I was in first grade, right beside the both of us–but then eventually came the day she was a young lady and that sort of thing just wasn’t for her any longer. That was okay. Daniel and I had a routine. We could divide up the chores, the toys, the roles which our imaginations demanded of us, with no remainder. I would read the hard words in books to Daniel, and he would make sure I wasn’t picked last when all the kids lined up to play kickball at recess. Dad was in a bishopric, and he was working long days and often Saturdays too, and there wasn’t a lot of money to go around, but we didn’t care, not so long as we could go digging in a swampy gully near our house and pretend that we’d discovered gunpowder, creating our own private wars and victories. It was good.

But then there was Stuart. Three kids, born in three years (1966, 1967, and 1968), and then a break of three years, and then another son, a red-haired strategic genius who quickly realized that Daniel and I had laid claim to the territory and had to be reckoned with. Since we’d made ourselves almost entirely dependent upon each other, that presented a good target; but it also meant we could put up a strong, united front. There were some bad times; lots of fighting, angry and irresponsible words, with occasional real physical damage done to one another and our environs. (Sorry about the sprinkler system, Dad.) I sometimes like to style myself the black sheep of the family, what with eschewing the family business and voting for Democrats and all, but I wonder if Stuart wasn’t cast into that role without any choice on his part from the beginning, having to define his relationships and build an identity for himself in a family where his two other brothers, perhaps, if we are honest, saw him as a mere extra, playing a lowly bit part.

Well, he succeeded, not the least reason for which being the arrival of Fox Family Part 2. Three boys born one after another: Abraham, Jesse, and Philip (1975, 1976, 1978, the last two born exactly two years apart nearly to the day), each one progressively more distant and more foreign to Daniel’s and my mind, and to each one of whom Stuart became something of a benevolent taskmaster, watching over them, sometimes hands-on, sometimes hands-off, setting the pace. Dad was out of the bishopric and then into a stake presidency, and we’d moved from the farm into the house the family would call home for twenty years, and Samatha was dating, and Daniel was already making financial plans beyond the small income we boys made milking cows and selling calves, and I was attending an expensive private school for a year (which didn’t help me figure myself out much at all, I’m afraid) and had my nose buried in George F. Will’s latest. They didn’t care; they could get along just fine on their own. Stuart and the younger boys developed habits of work and play, forms of imagination and discipline, relationships and alliances, that Daniel and I kidded ourselves about, deriding them as mere knock-offs of what we’d had (hey, we actually played first edition Dungeons and Dragons, not that knock-off “adventures” crap you kids are into!). But that was a lie, of course. They had a rich, fantastic, intricate world, granting them deep wells of memory that they can and do still draw upon today. The ping-pong tournaments, the goofball adventures with Dad’s early video-camera (you were never cut out for VH-1 stardom guys, but not for lack of trying), the rough-housing over who gets to play the pinball machine next, the friendships and social interactions with others at school and church which Daniel and I, whether for reasons of unconscious choice or simple nature, were never nearly as expert at: this was the world these four knew, and I envied it (though I’d never tell them so, of course).

Not that FF Part 1 and FF Part 2 were kept separate, even if they were so inclined to do so; that’s not the way it worked. Dad had a uniform code, and while details and applications varied over the years, core principles never did. My parents were–and are–settled people, almost miraculously so, and from their firm places they kept every single one of us in orbit. Of course, we had advantages aplenty, with so many unfairnesses and injustices which randomly (or divinely?) our family avoided, or at least apparently so. The brothers came forth and grew up, and there were no physical, mental, emotional, sexual, spiritual or psychological departures (well, okay, no serious departures) from the stereotypical American and orthodox Mormon ideal to be found amongst us, which meant that there was nothing besides the usual orneriness and sins of fallen human boys to complicate Dad’s teachings, or invalidate our parents’ examples, or resist the obligations they placed upon us. There are many ways one could attempt to reduce it all to a formula, but to Mom and Dad’s credit they never did (or at least not any that ever stuck): they simply made it clear what they felt God had given our family, and what all of us–especially we boys–were supposed to do in return; not as repayment, of course, but as duty. Attend church? Check. Keep the Word of Wisdom? Check. Graduate from seminary? Check. Earn an Eagle Scout award?


Check. Everythings seemed to be going according to plan.

And then: a girl, Marjorie, born in 1981. How neat–a child who wasn’t a boy! She was like a little doll; wind her up, and see what she might do. Mainly she would do pretty much anything this obedient-yet-unruly, increasingly testosterone-soaked band of brothers wanted her to do (like bark like a constipated daschund, constantly, on camera, which we found endlessly entertaining, and which I’m certain we will all be punished severely by a just God for someday). The family had some money by then–Dad had sold the feed mill, and the family was moving out of agriculture, as Dad explored (and reaped the rewards of) business opportunities in restaurants, real estate, mortgages. Our parents had the opportunity to learn once again how to raise girl, in much more comfortable circumstances than before. Forget Samatha; Marjorie was the real princess as she grew up, and the younger boys were mostly protective…though sometimes not, and Marjorie, learning quickly from her older sister that you had to give as loud as you got if you wanted to flourish in the Fox family, held her own pretty well as she grew up. Then Samatha was gone (first BYU, then later a mission, then eventually marriage), and Daniel was gone (same thing, mostly: BYU, mission, marriage, but his road was rougher than his older sister’s), and I followed (again: BYU, mission, marriage), and then, well, wasn’t the family pretty much all done? A girl, then our big male mob, one after another–Dan, Russ, Stu, Abe, Jess, Phil–and then, fifteen years later, another girl; shouldn’t the story end there?

But it didn’t; God had one more Fox held in reserve, Baden, born in 1982. In retrospect, it mixed things up: we couldn’t decide who he belonged to, FF Part 1 or 2. Did he and Marjorie form a unit, lumped in with the younger boys, or were they their own thing…or was, perhaps, Baden entirely on his own? He must have found–and probably still finds–this kind of speculation ridiculous, and hopefully dealt–and deals–with it with the same smarts and good humor which enabled him to tolerate the condescending way we would toss him around, call him “B” (excuse me: “BEEEEEEEE!!!!“), and basically treat him like a baby. He picked himself up, learned what we all had learned in years gone by, did everything we did (missions, yes, marriage, yes, though the BYU tradition had mostly come to well-deserved end with Jesse…though I guess that depends on if you think Rick’s College–excuse me “BYU-Idaho”–counts, which I think all reasonable people would agree it doesn’t), and often as not bested us at it as well. It confuses me and impresses me, to be honest. I look back, and the whole family is different. I leave home, having survived the public schools, and Mom decides to start home-schooling the kids. The stake presidency is dissolved, and Dad comes home on Sunday afternoons with the family for once, and then he’s made bishop. The old homestead is ripped apart, renovated, rebuilt, and then abandoned for a big log cabin on top of a tall hill, designed for returning children and grandchildren (a design which has been well-fulfilled many times over), but wherein Marjorie and Baden ran around like royal heirs for years, all but having entire floors to themselves. Baden learned business (all the younger brothers had gotten their feet wet working at the mortgage office, or at the property office, or cleaning apartments for rent: the chicken, cows, and manure were long, long gone), but he also devoured history, politics, literature on his own. He played role-playing games I’ve never even heard of. He formed his own rock band, for heaven’s sake (Mom even let them practice upstairs). What is this? Well, its family–it’s us boys, of course, busy with this or with that, trying new things, re-inventing old ones, changing the details but keeping the details the same, moving on but always coming back; that I know. Whatever more than that it may be, though, I’m just not sure.

Well, that’s not true either. I’m not sure what all of it may be, but I am sure of some of it. I’m sure that in all our growing and learning, all our trusting and fighting, all our coming and going, we’ve become a living example of the molding power of familial love, and of a forgiveness (or, at least, a hope for such) that rarely needs to be spoken because it’s woven into the passage of time. We’re all different, every one of us, and it’s unlikely that most of us would consider any of the others our best or closest friends, yet our sharp edges have been worn smooth, and we fit together–generally, anyway–like peas in a pod. There’s not one of us, just as there’s not one sibling in any family, that can’t reasonably see themselves as the one that doesn’t fit in, that doesn’t belong (is it the one who had a lousy mission? the one who lost a child? the one who went through a divorce? the one who watched his financial plans collapse and had to start all over again? is it the one who mastered the piano? the one skilled in photography? the one who has become a needed bread-winner and responsible patriarch to his extended family and fractured in-laws?). And yet it doesn’t take away from those diverse unique histories to acknowledge that, still, there is something shared there. A context: the shared experience of being one of the Brothers Fox.* It’s a context of memory, of good times and bad, wild plans and boring family meetings, childish adventures and mature realizations, personal triumphs and collective pains. The content of what we do and what we think doesn’t matter nearly so much, I think, as what we are.

Of course, we are more than brothers now: we’re all husbands and fathers, and those other, more important ties can sometimes make us forget the context we share. Sometimes, but not always–or at least, not yet always, anyway. Different jobs, different homes, different politics, different priorities, different relationships: we could easily see ourselves as separated from our shared context and memory, separated as Abram and Lot were–or thought the were, until the day they once again came face to face. “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee…for we be brethren.” So far we’ve all been able to say the same, when everything else (and rest assured: sometimes there is a lot of “else”!) is said and done. For that, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful…and, of course, I’m thankful for them, too, each and every day.

[Taken July 26, 2000, at Philip and Katie Fox's wedding at the Salt Lake Temple, shortly before we lifted Phil in the air and started to parade him around the grounds, after which security came and threw us out for making too much noise. (Excuse me? What do you mean "it didn't happen that way"? I remember it happening that way. It's not my fault you don't remember all the good stuff. Pppttthhhbbt.)]

* Obligatory musical number.

Comments

  1. Russell, WOW. I’m so impressed by this family culture you’ve described so vividly and skillfully. You and yours are blessed, indeed.

  2. Wow – let me get this straight. 9 kids – 1 girl, then 6 boys, then 1 girl and a boy. Your mother is a saint. I find this post fascinating. I have four sons and just got my daughter. There is something about having so many sons. When you have a bunch of boys together, they feed off each other into chaos. I don’t know if I am going to survive. I don’t know if they are going to survive. I suspect that there will be a lot of things I just don’t know about. But, I wish I could talk to your mom and glean knowledge. What fantastic parents you have. 9 kids in 16 years. Holy cow. I want to faint just thinking about it.

  3. I have the blessing of knowing several Foxs. No offense RAF, but Marjorie is MY favorite. ;)

    Thanks for sharing, RAF.

  4. A couple more thoughts on boys:

    I thought that I could prevent that “violence” that happens between brothers. I was able to for a while, but now that they are a little older (the oldest is 9), I am realizing that it is inevitable. They LOVE to pummel each other and do it with glee. Black eyes seem to be a badge of honor.

    I see the same thing with my third boy that you experienced with Stuart. The oldest two are buds and frequently exclude or make fun of #3. As a result, #3 is just about the most self-reliant go-getter of the bunch. He holds his own pretty well.

    Boys need hard outside physical labor. They just do. I hate the fact that we live in the suburbs where the only chores are to mow the lawn, work a small garden and clean the house. My boys will be master house cleaners when we are done, but I wish we had a little farm or something for them to work. With DH’s occupation, we never will, but I can see how that was so beneficial in raising your brothers. Oh, and I wish we had land the boys could go explore. Give boys an acre with trees and a creek, and they can busy themselves all summer. For us, a trampoline, swing set, fort and sandbox in a tiny yard have to suffice. (But it’s still a pale comparison)

    Your saintly mother. I wonder how she felt about your dad being gone in the Bishopric and SP so much with so many young kids. I don’t handle it well, but I hope I don’t poison my kids with my attitude.

  5. This is delicious, Russell. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Abraham Fox says:

    Another wonderfully descriptive tribute to the family. Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving, Russell.

    And I don’t know who came up with “BEEEEEEEEEE!!”…..(Daniel??)….. but it sure wasn’t anyone from the younger half.

  7. Kathryn, Tracy, Kristine: thanks very much for your kind words.

    Abe, I’m pretty certain it was Daniel who came up with Baden’s nickname. He has phrases for all of us, have you noticed?

    Stephanie, I agree: our mother is a saint. And you’re also right about the chaos and violence; we weren’t nearly as bad as many other sets of brothers I have known, but that’s just the way the majority of boys and young men are, and neither we nor your boys will escape it. Good luck in dealing with it! My younger brother Philip and his wife Katie now five boys, without a single daughter in sight, and they’re saying the same things I hear you saying.

    Good observations about the third son syndrome, though I suppose the same could apply to any child born following a tight-knit pair or group of others. Stuart’s strength and self-reliance is, I think, very much a product of him having been shut out by Daniel and I.

    What you say about opportunities for exploration and physical labor is so true. No doubt there are other ways to handle these kinds of pressures, but for us, I can’t imagine what we would have done if we hadn’t had fields to ramble around in, trees to build tree houses in, and farm animals requiring our constant attention. Still, don’t under estimate the creativity of children. Our four daughters get a tremendous amount of the empty field right behind our house in our neighborhood, and the run-off creek across the road.

    Good luck also handling a father who allows his work and priesthood responsibilities to keep him away for days at a time. I wish I could say my mother had some recipe for success, but she doesn’t; it was very, very difficult for her, and those years affected her health in more than a few adverse ways. She’s come through a loving person though; I hope that you’ll be able to do the same.

  8. Tremendous!

    This really gets at what it is to be a brother among brothers.

  9. Thank you, Russell. In an odd way, I find it comforting to hear that it was difficult for your mom and affected her health. That is my experience so far, and I think that instead of meaning I am failing, it shows that I am normal! Having a bunch of boys and a husband rarely home is hard!

  10. Samatha Fox Call says:

    Yep, I actually read your blog, Russell. Scary, I know!!!!! I do believe it was…. I….. who originally started calling Baden, “B.” And mind you, I still slip and call him “BEEEEE.” Thanks for sharing, I loved reading your blog, we had a crazy childhood! I wonder if one of Micheal and I’s children will be an author, as you, who will describe our wild upbringing. Bravo, Russell

  11. I grew up in a family of only sisters so the whole boys and brothers thing is very foreign to me. And I only have one son of my own.

    But since I’m in the mode of helping that son get his Webelos badge and Arrow of Light, and feeling a bit overwhelmed with scouts still (esp never having any exposure to it at all), I sorta just look at that scout picture alone and say WOW.

    I agree with Stephanie. I’d love to talk to your mom and learn from her.

  12. RAF,
    I always remember the reason your mom gave for having so many kids, “because I was just so curious what the next one would look like.” Behold, the indomitable Sister Fox!

  13. That’s the same reason my mom gave! (But she only ended up with 6. She would have had more if my dad hadn’t have left. He didn’t want any more.)

  14. I don’t have that excuse, though. All my kids have the exact same face – even my girl.

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