One of the great challenges in life, writes Richard Ford in Between Them, ‘is to know our parents fully — assuming they survive long enough, are worth knowing and it is physically possible’.
Leaving aside the question of whether we can ever know anyone fully, Ford’s knowledge of his parents, Parker and Edna, was limited. They did not survive long enough, or at least his father didn’t. Soon after Ford’s 16th birthday, his father ‘came awake in his bed on a Saturday morning and died’, aged 55, of a heart attack, as Richard administered CPR.
Nor were they particularly worth knowing, whatever that means; his description of them as ‘country people and insufficiently educated’ gives some idea. They were ‘ordinary’, the sort of people who feature in Ford’s novels.
So he did not know his parents as well as he might have wished, and this book, his first work of non-fiction, is his attempt to know them better. It is a slim volume, but double-barreled, comprising two ‘remembrances’. The one of his mother was written shortly after her death, aged 71 in 1981, and that of his father 55 years after his death in 1960. They are presented in reverse order, he explains, because his father’s life goes more deeply into the past, and his mother’s is closer to the present.
Ford makes a virtue of his uncertainty about many of the details of their lives, which he handles soberly, reverently, repetitively. ‘I have,’ as he says quite often, ‘mentioned this.’ Time is personal and apt to shift: ‘Dates are no more clear than reasons.’ He is insistently vague, beginning successive sentences with ‘I don’t think’, or ‘Maybe’: ‘Maybe I was nine or seven or five’. But as he sifts through old photographs and ‘small events’ — his father packing a suitcase while whistling ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-a-Dee-ay’ — his parents loom into unsteady focus.
Both of them were ‘Arkies’, from the backwoods of Arkansas. Parker was the son of a suicide, a ‘dandified farmer’ who lost everything to bad investments and poisoned himself ‘out of dismay’. Parker was ‘big, courteous, stand-offish’, with ‘a susceptibility to being overlooked’ and a bad temper which sometimes led him to beat young Richard. Ford thinks his father’s temper was born of frustration, and that he may also have been depressed, though he would not have known the word. His ‘truest and most affectionate assessment’ of him was that he was ‘not a modern father’.
Parker spent most of his working life as a travelling salesman, driving around the southern states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, bits of Texas, Florida and Tennessee — for the Faultless Starch Co., but he began it as a grocery clerk in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which is where he met Edna Akin, who was dark and pretty, and whom he would marry.
When Edna was born, in 1910, her mother was 14; Ford recalls that during his own schooldays in the 1950s and early 1960s plenty of his fellow pupils married and had babies at that age. ‘This was the south.’ When Edna’s mother remarried, to ‘a quick-witted gigolo’, she shaved eight years off her age and pretended Edna was her sister.
Ford remembers his mother as ‘volatile’, a ‘shouter, a smacker, a frowner and a glowerer’, someone who ‘would not be taken advantage of, even though I suspect no one wanted to take advantage of her’.
They sound rather grim, Ford’s parents, like the mum and dad in Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’. But they had fun, even during the hard times of the Depression, roistering on booze acquired from bootleggers. For the first 15 years of their marriage, until Richard was born, Edna travelled with Parker, eating in roadside joints, staying in hotels. And for a while after his birth, in 1944, they went on the road together as a family.
He remembers all of them in bed together, and his father weeping, ‘Boo-hoo-hoo. Boo-hoo-hoo’: ‘Those were the sounds he made, as if he’d learned how to cry from reading it in a book.’
Another time, when he was three or four, they had a flat tyre on the bridge over the Mississippi at Greenville, and while his father fixed it his mother held him so tight he could hardly breathe. He is still not comfortable on high bridges. ‘I have come to my fear,’ he reflects, ‘from the recesses of my mother’s love.’
Because Ford was an only child, and has had no children himself, his long-dead parents seem to have assumed an almost overwhelming importance in his life. They loved him, he thinks — ‘By all accounts, they were happy to have me’ — and he certainly loved them, as he shows in this aching tribute to them. If his memory of them is incomplete, his love is not. ‘Most everything but love goes away.’