Magazine article The Spectator

'Between Them: Remembering My Parents', by Richard Ford - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Between Them: Remembering My Parents', by Richard Ford - Review

Article excerpt

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'. …

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