In John Updike’s “Rabbit at Rest,” there’s an agitated scene between Janice Angstrom and her bumbling adult son in which she tells him: “You shouldn’t sit in judgment of your parents. We did the best we could while being people too.” That’s weak reprieve for any loving parent: Our best is hardly good enough. We damage our children one way or we damage them another. Many return to indict us for it. Some write memoirs, and every memoir of Mom and Dad, like it or not, is an indictment.
Richard Ford’s new memoir, “Between Them,” makes clear the enormous difficulty of truly knowing that enigmatic pair who invented us. Ford’s parents brought him up in Jackson, Miss. Parker Ford was a traveling salesman for a starch company, Edna his on-the-road love and lover. Their life together began just before World War II in time-stuck nooks of Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. An only child, Richard arrived, unplanned but half-hoped for, in 1944. Part of the intermittent charm of this memoir is its restoration of that deleted era, a contemplative delving into what now seems antiquity: the traveling salesman, the town square and Main Street, a doctor’s house calls, the tingling novelty of a new model of American car.
Throughout Ford’s childhood, his father was usually gone, “a force largely unseen,” and then one morning he was gone for good. His heart had final say. Ford was 16 years old. Parker’s absence had been “the ordinary, identifying dimension of everything,” and at his death, “of course, everything changed — many things, it’s odd to say, for the better where I was concerned.” He was granted the liberty to do as he pleased, to assemble his own selfhood, away from the flare of that flawed and “combustible” man. At such an age, “a boy could do worse,” says Ford, “than to lose his father.”
Well, not by much. It’s hard to dodge Freud’s inkling that the death of the father is the most psychically disruptive event in any male’s life, and yet Ford manages to dodge it here. He’s unaccountably incurious about his 16-year-old self and the rip his father’s death must have caused at the hub of him.
Ford saves the bulk of his understanding and insight for his mother, whose life after Parker’s death played in anguished slo-mo: the resigned quest for an occupation and identity, the tedium punctuated by boredom, the cancer that erased her in her 70s. She never remarried. “Her life,” Ford writes, “never seemed fully lived” — the saddest line in the book. Hers was a manner of uncomplaining integrity, the everyday “quiet desperation” Thoreau lamented. Ford loved her as he could, mostly from afar, while laboring to create what he would become, yanked between vying loyalties. Guilt is a given. With an ailing and alienated parent, guilt is always a given.
At just 175 pages, spattered with “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure,” “Between Them” is a wisp of a book. It “might seem incomplete or lacking,” Ford says, and it certainly does, though he claims he has “excluded nothing for discretion or propriety’s sake, but only because one recollection or another didn’t seem important enough.” That might be true, but a memoir isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a conveyor belt of recollections. Its importance will reside in whatever mosaic emerges from a life’s morass, and in how searchingly one considers one’s own founding and formation.
At its strongest, with simply etched sentences and slow stabs of wisdom, this memoir conjures “Rock Springs,” Ford’s faultless 1987 story collection: “Most everything but love goes away”; “the persuasive power of normal life is extravagant”; old photos are “scalloped black-and-whites.” At its weakest, though, Ford’s prose mopes with at-hand utterances: “part and parcel,” “pride and joy,” “this and that.”
Tauntingly childless — “I hate children,” he once said — Ford admits: “What I know of children and childhood and of being a parent, I know almost entirely from being my parents’ son.” Which of course won’t do, if knowledge of parenthood is what you’re after. And there’s something else: In his memoir “Experience,” Martin Amis suggests that the childless never really comprehend their parents, are never able really to forgive them for their influential inadequacies. One wonders how the vista of “Between Them” would have been widened if Ford had kids to clue him in to the essence of his own parents, or if he’d been more interested in how the trajectory of their lives plotted his own. What did their lives mean?
But he has attempted a gentle reckoning here, his own exertion of mercy and mourning — his parents breathe in him still — and the attempt alone makes a loving homage.
William Giraldi is the author, most recently, of a memoir, “The Hero’s Body.”
On Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Richard Ford will be in conversation with Maureen Corrigan at George Mason University in Dewberry Hall North, Johnson Center, Fairfax, Va. This event, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center.
By Richard Ford
Ecco. 179 pp. $25.99