‘Between Them’: Ford’s graceful memoir sings with love for his parents

This slim and elegant volume was the perfect book to read over the Mothers Day weekend in May. Richard Ford in Between Them writes eloquently about his parents—with about half of the book devoted to each. His reflective piece about his mother shows a deep love and understanding—and I found comfort in reading his beautiful words.

The comfort came from a shared sense that there are ways to continue to celebrate—with subtlety and warmth—a good mother gone too soon from her child’s orbit. It also came from the shared perception that feeling a parent (and in Ford’s case both parents) has been taken somewhat prematurely can still be true even if that child is an adult, with some successes and life experience under his or her belt.

I was a child born late to my father (in his early 50s) and, for the times, ‘latish’ to my mother too (which is a little like Ford). Unlike me, Ford was an only child—and he is deft at describing the challenges that face the newcomer when a family’s two original members have functioned happily for many years as a tight unit.

Ford felt he should have been older; come to his parents sooner: ‘There had already been so much important life before me—of which I knew little, and that to them did not bear talking about since it did not include me.’

I know what he means (at least to an extent). My father’s life before me variously excited, perplexed and eluded me. He was a quiet man, so I knew I’d never hear extensively from him about what he’d experienced in the five decades before I was conceived. He did open up more in his 70s and 80s but in my youth I felt I needed to hold the few reminiscences he offered me up close. I savoured Dad’s story about going to a dance hall in shiny white shoes with black spats and wowing the girls with his graceful ballroom dancing. I was puzzled that he rode his pushbike from Croydon to his workplace in some faraway suburb on the North Shore and rode back again after a hard day’s work as a mechanical engineer. (Why not buy a car?) I rejoiced at hearing how his friends set him up on a blind date with the kindergarten teacher he’d caught a glimpse of over the back fence of the infants school in Mount Victoria.

That teacher was my mum.

Mum was a bit older than my friends’ mothers (they wore bikinis!), and had been widowed a few years before she’d met my father. As a child, I loved reading her travel journal from a world cruise that she’d booked before (and taken soon after) she’d met him. Along with being an inspiring teacher, she could sing and act and direct choirs and musicals so I felt she was one of the most accomplished and creative people I knew. She was also a talker, as were others in her family, so we heard many more stories about her life before my brother and I came along than we did about our father’s prior history. I liked her tales but I deliberately shut some out. What I didn’t want to hear was that she’d loved her first husband as much as she loved my dad, my brother and me. If she’d loved her first husband that much (so my child-brain deduced) my brother and I, and our dad—as our dad—would not have existed.

A virtue to noticing these rather small people

Ford doesn’t claim to know everything about his parents but he does know more than enough to communicate a clear and complex understanding of them. It took him 30 years to gather the fragments to write his father’s story. He completed the task in 2016, some 56 years after his father’s death. In both parts of the memoir, he is at pains to show that Edna and Parker Carrol Ford were ordinary people—and I marvel at the deeply compelling book he has made from their ordinary, undramatic lives.

Ford told Stephen Romei, Literary Editor of The Australian, how important it had been when he was writing Between Them ‘not to represent my parents as more expansive as human beings than they were, or more consequential than they were.

‘I was just trying to say, here are two people who made very little happen in the world, and to look back on things I knew about these rather small people and say: and yet there is a virtue to noticing these people.’

‘Love protects you’

Ford’s tremendous capacity to notice people and to understand human nature has been harnessed before to great effect in his wonderful short stories and novels. If you don’t know his fiction, I’d recommend you start by reading Women with Men: Three Stories, Rock Springs, Independence Day and Let Me Be Frank with You (after you’ve read Between Them of course).

Several things in Between Them have stayed with me quite vividly over the past month since I finished reading it.

They are:

  • The description of the day Ford’s father died in his arms when was 16. (It’s a blinder …)
  • The day the Ford’s car got a flat tyre halfway across the Mississippi bridge at Greenville and Richard’s father got out to fix it. With the traffic whizzing by, his mother held her young son inside the vehicle so tightly he could hardly breathe. She apologised, in later years, for smothering him. Happily, the message Ford had taken from her actions was different, positive. ‘Smothering meant to me, Here is danger, love protects you. These are words I respect.’
  • The regret Ford feels about a particular sentence he uttered towards the end of his mother’s life when she was sick, and they’d been conversing about where she might live comfortably. ‘“Well, wait though,” I said. And this is a sentence I wish, above all sentences in my life, I had never said. Words I wish I’d never heard.’ At this point the light in his mother’s eyes started to fade, Ford says, and ‘anything we ever could’ve done for each other after that, passed by in those moments and was gone.’

Absences surround and intrude

Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in the US, on February 16, 1944, and is now 73. His father was a travelling salesman who sold starch. His mother lived (mostly it seems) to love his father, and to bring up Richard, her son. The facts in these essays seemed much less important to me than the emotions Ford explores so profoundly throughout them. A moving example of what I mean by this appears in the book’s Afterword.

‘So, to write about my parents so long after they’ve gone inevitably discloses hollow places, failures, frailties, rents and absences in me, insufficiencies that the telling, itself, may have tried to put right or seal off, but may only have re-opened and left behind, absences that no amount of life or truthful telling can completely fill or conceal. These I agree to live with. Though when I turn to regard my life—my own or others’—I now never fail to be struck, amid the onslaught of all that’s happened and still is happening, by how much that’s gone from me. Absences seem to surround and intrude upon everything. Though in acknowledging this, I cannot let it be a loss or even be a fact I regret, since that is merely how life is—another enduring truth we must notice.’

There are multitudes of other marvellous sentences you’ll want to savour and a surfeit of sublime paragraphs you’ll want to dwell on. And it’s possible that these beauties will help you to remember your own forebears, and to ask yourself (as I have) what you really knew of them.

Richard Ford’s parents are gone but he has written a tender and touching book that will help their memory to live on in ways they would never have expected. It’s a book that sings with love. It reveals the suppleness and graciousness of the heart and mind of one of our greatest writers—and, between you and me, I think you should read it.

Between Them
Richard Ford
Bloomsbury, 2017, $18.99

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