Honoring his parents and the difficulties they faced
BETWEEN THEM: REMEMBERING MY PARENTS
Ecco/HarperCollins, $25.99, 179 pages, illustrated
Iremember a bookseller saying to me many years ago that he always told his customers that when they bought a book by Richard Ford, they would be reading someone they would immediately like: “There’s something just so nice about his authorial voice. It’s always such a pleasure to listen to it.”
Well, if that was true of Mr. Ford’s fiction, notably his Frank Bascombe novels, it is even more so in this lovely, deeply moving memoir of his parents:
“I was fortunate enough to have parents who loved each other and out of the crucible of that great, almost unfathomable love, loved me. Love, as always, confers beauties.”
But insofar as anyone can fathom the love between two others, he has done so; and in so doing, has conferred beauties on them and the reader.
Mr. Ford has chosen to write separate memoirs of each parent, giving due attention to their very different backgrounds, yet inevitably there is overlap, which he almost apologizes for at the outset in that characteristic ally nice manner, since each inevitably involves their three decades long marriage.
He is so understanding of the difficulties they faced, separately and together. The Depression and the peripatetic life they lived, moving from one place and one dwelling to another, the burden of his father’s heart murmur keeping him out of the military in World War II, his mother’s “childhood that did not bear strict remembering… .a husband she loved forever and lost” just four days after Richard’s 16th birthday.
Her surprisingly happy, engaged and fulfilling widowhood before cancer, bravely borne, took her too early as heart disease had her husband. Which is perhaps why Mr. Ford can say: “Writing these two remembrances… has been a source of immense exhilaration for me.”
I wish to take nothing away from the immense, subtle, devoted honor Mr. Ford has done to his parents in “Between Them: Remembering My Parents” when I say that he, the one doing that difficult, complicated memorial (in both senses of the word) task, is the true subject of the book. Even when he is evoking, analyzing and interpreting their lives before he was born, it is through his refracting lens that we see them.
And of course, in recounting his own interactions with them, no matter how intimate or embarrassing to him and to them but always with consummate grace, he is a key player, as well as an accomplished conductor:
“Being both a late child and an only child is a luxury, no matter what else it might be, since both invite you to speculate alone about all the time that went before — the parents’ long life you had no part in. It fascinates me to think of the route their life could’ve followed that would’ve precluded me: divorce, even earlier death, estrangement. But also greater closeness, intimacy, being together in a way that defies category. They wanted me; but they did not need me. Together — though perhaps only together — they were fully formed.”
Is it possible to imagine a more generous, intuitive, understanding of a parental marriage and the effect on it of a child’s late arrival as it turned out at the exact midpoint of their union? Or a more delicate but unflinching example of that favorite pastime in French culture, “alter histoire” or alternative history?
And you sense that Mr. Ford feels such a strong bond with each parent. His father accompanying “me and my mother to the Baptist Hospital when I was eight and had my tonsils and adenoids out on the same day. Once he patiently doctored me with a menthol inhaler when I had asthma — though the inhaler suddenly malfunctioned and sprayed hot water in my face. Which made him cry.”
It is these memories rather than those of his father’s illness and lifeless body which bind them together to this day. If his father is embedded in Mr. Ford’s memory, his mother is an integral part of himself and his life: “My mother and I look alike. Full, high forehead. Same chin, same nose … In myself, I see her, hear her laugh in mine … somehow she made possible my truest affections.”
In addition to its intrinsic virtues — and there are more than I could possibly enumerate in the space I have — I heartily recommend this profoundly empathetic memoir as a salutary antidote to the all too many Mommie and Daddy Dearest sock it to ’em exercises in revenge for damage real or imagined. It is one of those rare books which really does honor the couple who made the author, both before and after his birth, and makes the reader feel as if he knows them and their son — and is glad of it.