I have not heard her voice in a long, long time
- Between Them by Richard Ford
Bloomsbury, 175 pp, £12.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 06 266188 3
‘Who are you?’ is the question that devils every son and daughter. Other people can seem of a piece observed from across the room or across a table or on the next pillow but clarity disappears when you look inward. The chaos within is one of the major themes in the fiction of Richard Ford. What engages him is the churning of the conscious self, as changeable as the weather on an iffy day. What kind of a day is such a day? Soft or threatening? What kind of people were Ford’s mother and father, whose inner lives might offer strong clues to the meaning of the author’s own?
That question has been on Ford’s mind since his mother died in 1981. He wrote something about her at the time, and then in 2015 was prompted to reach even further back to write about his father. The two accounts are woven together in a memoir, Between Them, which is where Ford, an only child, found himself. His father was a little remote and often absent. His mother was pretty much always there. If there was ever any serious trouble between his parents Ford does not appear to know about it. ‘One of the premier challenges,’ Ford writes, ‘is to know our parents fully …’ He doesn’t say he wants to know in order to understand himself but it seems clear that is why.
Richard Ford was a late child, probably a surprise, born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944. He doesn’t appear ever to have imagined, much less concluded, that he was unwanted. It is clear he was closer to his mother than to his father but that was partly the result of his father’s early death in 1960, four days after Richard turned 16. The rest of the probable explanation lies in his father’s job as a travelling salesman, which kept him on the road five days a week, selling one product for one employer throughout the South. The product was laundry starch, the employer was the Faultless Company out of Kansas City and his customers were wholesale grocers. Parker Ford had started with grocers, not starch. Between Them includes a photo of him standing in a grocery store in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1929; he worked there as a ‘produce man’ responsible for fruit and vegetables. He is a handsome, collected man in the photo; he’s standing as straight as a West Point cadet, and is wearing an apron. Hot Springs was the hometown of Richard’s mother, Edna, who was 17 when she met Parker. The bond between them seems to have been instantaneous and strong.
Jackson, Mississippi was Parker’s home base during Richard’s early life but small-town, small-farm Arkansas was evidently the shaping force in the lives of both parents. These seem to have been on the whole cheerful but small, too, in the sense of enclosed, inward, absorbed in the immediate and unconscious of the wider world. Their 15 childless years were spent almost entirely in each other’s company in small-town hotels, driving town to town for meetings with wholesale grocers, eating in restaurants where prices were moderate and you could get a drink. During those early years Little Rock was home base. Edna’s stepfather was a one-time club boxer who had bulked up and worked in hotels. He and Edna’s mother liked a good time and the best Arkansas had to offer was in Little Rock. Ford calls it ‘a characterless, rowdy, self-important, minor river town’, which leaves only rowdiness for charm. Ford’s impression is that his parents’ nights out in Little Rock were usually a foursome with Edna’s parents, Bennie (the boxer) and Essie. ‘They had all four,’ Ford believes, ‘been drawn to there from their own private nowheres.’ This mention of nowhere is a nod to the second great theme of Ford’s fiction, the nowhere that Americans come out of.
Richard kind of liked being a late child and an only child because it invited him ‘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.’ Such a change in the story might have happened, perhaps even almost happened, in a grocery store in Little Rock when robbers waving pistols barged in demanding money. One of them whacked Parker on the head. But instead of being shot to death Parker was only let go by his boss. Richard doesn’t know why. From that Parker moved on to selling starch.
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