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Book Review: “Between Them: Remembering My Parents,” By Richard Ford

Photo by © Greta Rybus

In 1987, Richard Ford published “My Mother, In Memory,” a novella-length memoir of his mother.   At the time, Ford had recently drawn attention with The Sportswriter, a novel about Frank Bascombe, a frustrated novelist earning his living writing sports stories. Since then, Ford has written three further novels following Bascombe – one of which, Independence Day (1995) won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/ Faulkner Award.  Ford’s newest book, Between Them, returns to his family, adding a second memoir, “Gone – Remembering My Father.”
Parker Ford and Edna Akin both came from Arkansas.   They met in Hot Springs, in 1927, when he was a grocery-store produce man and she was a teenage cashier in a hotel cigar stand.  They married in 1928.  Parker became a salesman, selling laundry starch for the Faultless Starch Company of Kansas City.  His territory stretched across seven states in the Deep South, from East Texas to the Florida Panhandle.  
“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.”
Richard, a late, only child, was born in 1944.  The Fords rented a duplex in Jackson and settled down.  Parker spent weekdays on the road; Edna became a housewife – “the cute little black-haired woman up the street,” a neighbor said.  In 1948, Parker had his first heart attack; a second one killed him in 1960.  Widowed at the age of 50, Edna found work as an emergency room admitting clerk, a job she liked and was good at.  At 55, she began caring for her elderly mother.  At 63, Edna fought off cancer; she lived seven years longer, and died in 1981.
Parker, Edna, and Richard Ford – late 1940’s

Theodore Dreiser would have understood that story; so too Sinclair Lewis; but Between Them is clearly a work by Richard Ford. Like Ford’s novels, it is haunted by mortality.  The period between his father’s heart attacks, Ford writes, “was the only time and the only terms under which I fully realized I had a father.”  Its characters drift – with cars and night-life during the Thirties, across patios and lawns during the Fifties.  Its dreams are that relationships can be renewed.  When his father was stricken, Ford breathed into his father’s mouth, in hope of reviving him.  
Ford sums up 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.”  Of himself, he concludes,   “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.” Might these lines serve as an epitaph for eloquent, diffident Frank Bascombe?
Parker never read to his son, although Edna once pointed out Eudora Welty to Richard, across a crowded supermarket.  And there is little that is overtly literary in this book.  Ford writes of the everyday, knowing that there is meaning in the details.  “There was a life’s worth of small events,” he writes of his father; “each must make a difference to me or I wouldn’t remember them so well.”
Parker and Edna Ford lived ordinary lives in ordinary times.  But no ghosts are colorless or insubstantial to the man who must wrestle with them.

Allen Boyer, Book Editor for HottyToddy.com, is a native of Oxford. He lives and writes on Staten Island. His book “Rocky Boyer’s War,” a WWII history drawing on his father’s diary, will be published this month by the Naval Institute Press.
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