Do you know how hard it is to be perfect?
Notice I didn’t say “good.” I didn’t say “above-average.” I said “perfect.” Both of my wonderful parents cared about me, my siblings, and all of our friends. But Do you know how hard it is to be perfect?
It wasn’t always easy to be the child of Ancil L. Cox, Jr. In fact, there were plenty of times when it was damn hard. I spent many a day in my youth trying to gain our father’s approval in one way or another.
If you knew him, then you knew that whether it was in everyday life or in the practice of law, Dad was a perfectionist. Our home endured story after story about his days as the valedictorian of Shaw High School, and how high his grades were in school.
“Daunting” does not even begin to describe what it was like to be his child. I mentioned that Dad reminded us all his academic success at Shaw High and in college. Naturally, anything less than all “A’s” on my own report card led to some comment about me “not trying,” and I was generally then treated to a lecture about how I was not living up to my potential. His nightly newspaper reading would invariably give him the opportunity to point out some other student who was, in his mind, excelling at something or another in the academic field while I was still not applying myself. I swear to you– because of Dad, I knew my friends’ grades better than my own. At the age of 45, I am now ashamed to admit that the result of this behavior was a resentment/competitiveness in me as a kid and as an early adult toward Dad that is hard to describe with words.
It can’t be that bad, you say. Your father loved you. Of course, he did. I never doubted that fact for one second. But that didn’t mean that it couldn’t be difficult to be his son.
Here’s a great example. After I began playing tennis at the age of 8, Dad regaled me with story upon story of his own childhood tennis exploits and how he and his partner fell just short (no pun intended) of a state championship their senior year of high school. Naturally then, I worked incredibly hard at tennis as a teenager, and ultimately won the state title my senior year. When I called his law office (he claimed he was too nervous to go to Jackson to watch me play) to tell him my big news, I was shocked by his response.
“Dad, I won,” I remember telling him over the phone. “I won it all. I won state.”
“Well, they must have sucked down there,” were his next words. I found out years and years later that he hung up with me and called his friends to tell them my news. At the time, however, I didn’t know that. I only thought how it must kill him to have tell me that he was proud of me.
School was worse. As I said, Dad used to enjoy pointing out other people’s successes and achievements to his children. It was like a nightime routine with the newspaper, and I always hated the graduation season because I knew I would have to hear about someone else’s academic achievements.
When I started college, he saw a picture of someone in the newspaper who had been selected for membership in Omicron Delta Kappa, the leadership honor society. He pointed out their picture one night.
What’s that? I asked.
“That’s a leadership honor society for the presidents of organizations and those
types of folks on campus,” Dad explained. “I couldn’t ever get in when I was at Ole Miss because they were only taking the top guy. It always burned me that they never would let me in.”
Now fast forward this story to the spring semester of my second year at Delta State when I walked in the backdoor of our house one Tuesday evening and placed a gold key pendant necklace bearing the ODK Logo in front of him. That same necklace had been placed around my neck during our fraternity meeting not an hour before. I might have only been at Delta State for three semesters, but I had junior hours so I was ODK-eligible. I won’t lie– I was quite proud to have been tapped for membership in this supposedly top honor society, and figured I would get some sort of excitement from him.
Dad studied the necklace and thinly smiled.
“It must be easier to get in now,” was his response before picking back up the book he was reading when I came in the door. A week or two later at our initiation banquet, Dad made it a point to remind me that there were three or four fellow inductees with higher GPAs than mine.
It took me years before I realized that Dad wasn’t being a jerk of a father just to be a jerk. He wasn’t the Great Santini beating me every day and he wasn’t trying to put me through some sort of weird mental warfare. Not in the least. All of this stuff was his incredible need for perfection. That need drove him to push us like he did, and he just didn’t know any other way to live.
After I started practicing law with him, I quickly realized that it wasn’t just his family that he held to this impossible standard. Dad worked extremely hard at the practice, and he was widely regarded as a meticulous and thorough attorney who claimed that the only administrative staff person he ever trusted was my mother because she was the only person who knew “what in the hell she was doing.” (That’s high praise, by the way.) I say with all love and respect toward him that Dad expected others to meet his high standards and his standard was simple - perfection. Dad was a lawyer’s lawyer, and he would have made much more money in his lifetime had it not been for his burning desire to do things perfectly and the absolute best way. Anything less than his best effort was unacceptable, and no short cuts were ever tolerated. Nothing left his office without it being as absolutely perfect as Dad could possibly do it.
One day, Dad was looking for something or another in our local court records and noticed something in an open estate that he deemed to be a legal error. Please understand that he was not the attorney for this particular estate, mind you, but he picked up the alleged error when he was looking for something else in the county court records. The error, the particulars of which I don’t recall offhand, appeared to me to be relatively minor and wasn’t substantive at all, but it was probably an error nonetheless.
Like I said, another attorney in Cleveland had opened this estate, so Dad, in the spirit of trying to help out, picked up the phone number and called to offer some kind advice from an older lawyer to a younger lawyer. (As an aside, I would personally never, ever do such a thing but I think calling the other lawyer tells you how much mistakes bothered Dad. I tend to live by the “there but the grace of God go I” legal theory sometimes.) Dad explained the perceived error to the other attorney and the proposed remedy that would allow the other attorney to remedy his mistake without having to notify his clients of the issue. I actually can imagine what was going through the other attorney’s mind at that time, and it cannot be repeated. But the other attorney apparently listened to Dad before politely saying “thank you, Mr. Cox” and hanging up the phone.
Dad checked the estate records in the courthouse for the next week or so to see if the problem had been solved. The other attorney was apparently not heeding Dad’s advice to fix this error, and the mistake was driving Dad nuts. How could someone not want their work to be perfect, he would ask me.
After two or three weeks, I forgot all about the entire incident until our office door opened and the other attorney strolled in holding a brand new copy of that always fascinating book, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi by former Ole Miss law professor Robert Weems. The book had a sticky note bearing a familiar handwriting peeking out from inside it as a bookmark. If it is possible, then the other attorney appeared to be both amused and pissed off at the same time.
“Thanks for getting me this book, Mr. Cox. I really appreciate it.” was all he could muster when Dad greeted him in the reception area.
I was trying not to laugh once I realized what was going on. Welcome to my life, I thought.
I looked at the note/bookmark. I would recognize my father’s familiar scrawl anywhere– it read:
“Figured you might need to read up on this topic so I bought you this book. I went ahead and looked up the page for you. Best - ALC.”
“Oh, it’s no problem,” Dad said. “Just figured that you might want to do a little studying when you had time. Probably wouldn’t hurt you.”
Dad and I worked together for 16 years in our family firm. I am lucky for that experience, but it was also very hard to figure out our new relationship in the beginning. Father/Son dynamics can be different than Partner/Associate dynamics, but we got used to it after a short while. He didn’t fire me, and I didn’t quit, so it was a win for everyone. We may have worked side by side for 16 years but we worked on very few files together. As I think about it, I can only name about four or five cases. We spoke every day and definitely bounced ideas and thoughts off each other all of the time, but I am talking about cases that we were both working on at the same time. But it was one of the shared cases that led me to the realization that changed our entire relationship.
Three years or so into our time practicing together, Dad sat down in my office with a thick file in his hand. My father showed worry probably less than five times in my entire life, and this time didn’t involve the Ole Miss football record. He used to always say the same thing that I say to own family now– “I have a law degree. I can do anything. When I get worried, then you can get worried.” Well, he was worried now. As Dad became older, he wanted to go to court less and less. Quite honestly, he was probably never a big fan of litigation because he could not stand to be perfect and absolutely correct. Unfortunately, trial work involves situations that could be decided either way a great deal of the time, and that concept must have bothered the hell out of Dad. The file in his hand was now ripe for trial, and there was just no way this case was going to settle. After 6 years or so, the case probably should have settled, mind you, but the attorney on the other side was being a little difficult and honestly trying to bully Dad a little bit. He knew that Dad did not really want to go into the courtroom. Dad shuffled the file’s papers in his hand when he came in my office like I used to do when I was getting ready to explain a low math grade when I was a kid. He finally mustered the courage to ask me for help. I could tell that this request was not easily made.
I’m just not confident to handle it by myself, he said. Can you help me?
I worked on this file as hard as I have ever worked on a file. I knew that Dad wanted perfection, and that was exactly what he was going to get from me. I researched the law, I met with our clients, I talked to witnesses, and I totally immersed myself in the case for solid three weeks. I knew I had to do that if we were going to work together, and I was not going to let him down.
Dad and I divided the responsibilities as best we could, with the understanding that I would do the heavy lifting at trial and he would question a witness or two as well prepare our documents for trial. But there was one slight problem. The more I got into the file, the more it became clear that our side was not the strongest, and it wasn’t looking good for the proverbial home team. Quite honestly, our position was terrible. The thought of letting down my father was about to kill my soul as we headed toward trial.
The morning of trial, we both got in my car around 8 a.m. to head south to Greenville where the case would be heard. While I had been in court plenty of times since I started practicing law, I was a bundle of nervous energy for this appearance so I chattered incessantly in Dad’s direction. He never looked at me in return. Instead, he just kept staring out his window in silence as we traveled southward. When I saw silence, I mean complete silence. No acknowledgment of anything I’ve said. Not even a nod or two. About five minutes from the courthouse, I stopped talking myself. In my mind, we had gotten dressed today in our best suits to go to a funeral. Perhaps it would be our own, but it would definitely be a funeral.
Just as we pulled into the courthouse parking lot, I couldn’t take the silence anymore. I finally had to say something.
“Dad. We are going to lose today,” I began. “We’ve worked hard and our clients
mean well but we are going to lose this one. The law is against us. The facts are against us. The witnesses are against us. The Judge is probably against us. A jury will be against us once they hear us. Everything and everyone are against us. I wish I knew what to do but I don’t. You know they won’t settle at all right now. I don’t know what do. I just think we are going to get killed today. I’m sorry.” I felt like I had just told him that Christmas had been cancelled this year.
Dad finally turned from the window and looked at me with a serious expression that seemed to suggest an older legal sage about to give trial wisdom to his younger protege. We sat in more silence a bit longer while Dad sized me up before finally speaking these words:
“Hell, son,” Dad said. “Do to these folks what you’ve done to me your entire life. Just keep talking until they agree with you.”
I sat there dumbfounded for a second or two while Dad smirked at me. Then he opened the passenger door and ambled towards the courthouse door with nothing in his hand but a legal pad. Since I was in charge of the heavy lifting, I quickly grabbed our files and followed behind.
We tried one helluva case together that day. Just like I warned Dad, pretty much everything was against us. It was so bad that I think I even ran out of ink in one of my pens about an hour into trial. But I didn’t care. I didn’t need pens at this point. I was having the time of my life with my only hero in life. (As an aside, Dad was amazing in his direct examination of a witness when you consider that he probably didn’t completely hear but one out of about every three responses from his witness.) Dad and I were quite different in our approaches and thinking, but I caught him a couple times during trial with what appeared to be looks of approval. Again, in hindsight, he probably couldn’t hear me very well but it sure seemed like they were looks of approval.
Just before 5 o’clock that evening, it was time to give our closing argument. The trial went as bad as I thought it would, but we had one last gasp before the jury took it from us. The familiar nerves and fear of not being perfect were beginning to creep into my mind as I looked at my notes during the short recess before our closing.
Dad must have sensed something. He leaned over and whispered, “Juries do what juries do, son. Just give them all you got when you talk to them. You’ve got it. Whatever you do will be fine. You couldn’t have done any more today. I’m proud of you.”
I made my argument to the jury as to why our side would prevail. It was impassioned, to be sure, but, in my mind, almost certainly futile. When I finished, I sat back down and looked over at Dad sitting quietly at the end of the table. Dad met my eyes with his own big blue eyes and made eye contact with me for what seemed like an eternity. Then he slowly nodded.
I was around 30 years old at this time. I’m telling you it took me that long to realize that my Dad was not only proud of me, but yes, he trusted me and my talents. As a person and a lawyer. Honestly, he believed in me my entire life but he couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me. In his mind, I never would have pushed myself to my full potential had I not had something to prove to him. At 30, I was no longer a child seeking his parent’s approval. I was still my Dad’s son, but I was also now a grown adult fully and finally aware that the only judge that ever really mattered to me believed in me and my abilities. It was like an entirely new world had been shown to me.
We waited for the jury a short time, and then at around 6 pm that night, a jury somehow returned a verdict in favor of our client.
I was floored. Dad being Dad– well, he didn’t blink or show any emotion.
When the verdict was read, I half-thought there would be a tearful embrace just like they do in the movies. Nope. Not us. That wasn’t Dad’s style. He just smiled a wry smile and opened his briefcase and began to pack up his things.
“Son,” Dad said without even looking over at me. “Do you want to stop at Lillo’s on the way back? It will be my treat.”
I couldn’t help but smile myself.
“Yeah, Dad. That would be awesome,” I responded. “It would be perfect.”
Story told at “In Our Own Words - Believe,” at the Delta Arts Alliance on February 7, 2020.