The last memoir I reviewed – if you remember – was My Lovely Wife (2017) by San Francisco-based teacher and freelance writer Mark Lukach. I found it an extraordinary account of caregiving and commitment in the face of mental illness.
Recently, I finished Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Pulitzer-winning Richard Ford. A novelist and short story writer, Ford was born in 1944 in Jackson, Mississippi. He is most famous for his “Frank Bascombe” novels: The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land and Let Me Be Frank With You. Another important book of his is Rock Springs, a collection of short stories. I haven’t read the fiction but might do so sometime in future. Ford has been compared to great American authors like John Updike, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Walker Percy.
Between Them is made up of two parts: “Gone, Remembering My Father” and “My Mother, In Memory”. Mother and father here are individuals, presented in their “ineradicable singleness”, they are not so much a “unit”. The volume is quite slim but it seemed long and huge while I was reading it…for the sheer weight of the words. The prose is tight, precise, nuanced, too graceful. In this project, the author imagines the time before his birth, recalls his relationships with his mother and father, he expresses what he knows of their personalities, how much was revealed to him, what he has no clue of. Then he immerses himself in the meaning and value of things both said and unsaid through the years.
He also spends much space reflecting over parenthood. “Bringing up a son who can survive to adulthood,” Ford writes at the beginning, “must sometimes seem to parents little more than a dogged exercise in repetition, and an often futile but loving effort at consistency.” Between Them is about the monotony, the little struggles and the quiet but definite joys of marriage, family life and work – all of that unfolding in southern and southeastern United States in the middle of the twentieth century. The child here is formed, placed and grows between – as in, “in the middle of” – his parents. He is also driven by a desire to understand the nature and the quality of the connection, the bond between – here, “of” – his parents.
Richard Ford’s father, Parker Carrol Ford was a good-natured travelling salesman; he sold laundry starch. It was a career he was perfectly comfortable with. His mother, Edna Akin was a pretty Catholic-school girl with a difficult past. They married in 1928, and for years, owned very little, and lived on the road – through Alabama, north Louisiana, south Arkansas, a small part of Texas, a slice of Florida, a corner of Texas, all of Mississippi. Then, unexpectedly, in 1944, when Parker was 38 and Edna 33, they had a baby. They settled in Jackson, Mississippi, for it lay squarely in the middle of Parker’s territory. They didn’t know anyone there but didn’t mind being alone. Feeling unassimilated was “no more unfamiliar” than feeling assimilated.
He would work from Monday to Friday. Return home over the weekends. Ford got to know his father through this “interstitial” time. When he was not absent, the father didn’t discuss anything with his son – sex or girls, religion or politics, current events, his own worries. He didn’t question the course of life, want a better or higher job. Everything for him was fine. Soon, his heart would fail. Although he never got to spend many years with his father or interacted much with him when he was alive, Richard Ford remembers him fondly. He writes:
When I think about my father through the haze of all these poorly recollected details, my truest and most affectionate assessment of him was that he was not a modern father. Indeed, even then, when I knew him best, he seemed to be from another place and another time far away.
Parker Ford’s death certainly brought hardship but Edna worked more and more to provide for her son. She certainly could take care of herself but a certain loneliness remained inevitable. Eventually, her body, too, would betray her. Of her existence, her son says:
In her life there was no particular brilliance, no celebrity. No heroics. No one, crowning achievement to swell the heart. There were bad things enough: a childhood that did not bear strict remembering; a husband she loved forever and lost; a life to follow that did not require much comment. But somehow she made possible for me my truest affections, as an act of great literature bestows upon its devoted reader.
There are three other observations that I loved. One, how we may end up diminishing a person by claiming to know too much about them. On the other hand, by acknowledging the mystery of an individual, Ford seems to point out, we allow it to be more itself and, perhaps, less us:
Incomplete understanding of our parents’ lives is not a condition of their lives. Only ours. If anything, to realise you know less than all is respectful, since children narrow the frame of everything they’re a part of. Whereas being ignorant or only able to speculate about another’s life frees that life to be more what it truly was.
Second, our lives are full of absences, hollow places, insufficiencies that “no amount of truthful telling can completely fill or conceal”. This is an honest statement. Not a dark one, I believe, just straightforward in a way that elevates your spirit. Finally, the writer leaves an unforgettable sentence – “I was fortunate to have parents who loved each other and, out of the crucible of that great, almost unfathomable love, loved me. Love, as always, confers beauties.” Between Them, we can say then, is itself a great beauty conferred by the love of a child on the memory of his parents.
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