I’ve been a fan of Richard Ford’s novels and short stories for years. This spring he published his first non-fiction book, a touching memoir about his parents’ lives. Ford is now 73 and has lived longer than either of his parents. His father, Parker, died of a massive heart attack in 1960 at the age of 55; his mother, Edna, died in 1981, of cancer, at 71
The title, Between Them, can be taken in a couple of ways. First, it can refer to the happy thirty-two-year marriage that Parker and Edna “had between them.” But it can also apply to Ford’s feeling that his birth somehow “came between” his parents’ lives in the middle of their marriage.
Ford’s birth was an unplanned for surprise that came 15 years into Parker and Edna’s until then childless marriage and abruptly changed their lives.
Parker and Edna were both from rural Arkansas and grew up with little formal education. Parker rode out the Depression relatively well as a traveling salesman selling laundry starch for the Faultless Company throughout the deep south. Edna usually accompanied him. Ford writes:
“It was traveling work, and the two of them made their married life together riding in his company car. New Orleans. Memphis. Texarkana. They lived in hotels, spent the few off-days back in Little Rock. My father called on wholesalers, prisons, hospitals, a leper colony in Louisiana. He sold starch by the box-car full … A loose, pick-up-and-go life. Drinking. Cars. Restaurants. Dancing. People they liked on the road. A life in the south. A swirling thing that didn’t really have a place it was going.”
After Ford’s birth Parker continued his nomadic life on the road, but without Edna, returning home only on weekends. Ford and his mother developed a close bond and a certain amount of complicity in shielding Parker from anything that would disturb his weekends of rest and relaxation.
Between Them is a short book split into two sections. The first section, about Parker, was written recently, and given that Parker has been dead for 57 years, it has a certain unemotional distance to it. Even Parker’s death, at home in bed with 16 year old Richard trying to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, is oddly clinical.
Ford describes his father as “a man who took life as it randomly came, and was good at avoiding what he didn’t want to think about. Because I was his son, I can recognize now that life is short and has inadequacies . . . it requires crucial avoidances as well as filling-ins.”
The second section, about Edna, was written just after her death 36 years ago, and feels more immediate and more nuanced. Ford imagines Edna’s adult life in three phases: before his birth when she had Parker all to herself; the years when he had his mother mostly to himself; and Edna’s life after Parker’s death when she seemed to struggle to find an independent identity at the same time as Ford did as well – moving North to college, forging a writing career, marrying and inevitably becoming less and less a part of his mother’s day to day life.
I really enjoyed Ford’s exploration of his parent’s lives, even though he admits that much of it is “unknowable.” Our parents do create us (I will refrain from quoting Philip Larkin here) but in a way we create them too.