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Between Them: Remembering My Parents

Review

Between Them: Remembering My Parents

When I attended elementary school, long ago in another century, a commonly assigned writing exercise was to describe our parents and immediate families. This was in the era of the iconic Dick and Jane readers, where a “normal” family consisted of a father who worked, a mother who stayed home, 2.5 biologically related children, a cat or dog --- and all of them neatly packaged into a single-family dwelling with a yard and white picket fence.

Apart from living in suburban duplexes and having four children, our family checked enough of the social boxes to be about 75% “normal,” and whatever I wrote about my parents in the third grade was probably a boring C+ effort. As happened to career author Richard Ford, creator of some of America’s finest 20th-century fiction, only much later did it ever occur to me that my parents could actually be interesting.

Unlike Ford, however, I doubt if I’d be equal to the daunting task of reweaving my fragmentary childhood and adolescent memories into compelling stories of their lives like his tenderly reminiscent, yet often pragmatic, first memoir, BETWEEN THEM.

In fact, those of us even contemplating writing family stories of any kind are in many ways retrieving a broken tradition. Only a few pages into BETWEEN THEM, which chronologically spans the 1920s to 1980s, I was struck yet again by the reality that there are no “normal” families anymore and vanishingly few “normal” parents, at least by 1940s and ’50s standards.

"Apart from telling a great and honest family story, BETWEEN US is a powerful confirmation that there are no 'normal' or typical parents."

Back then, the world of Dick and Jane excluded visible minorities, common-law relationships, divorce or separation, mixed-race households, special-needs children, single-parent households, surrogate parenthood, adoptive parenting, foster parenting, or especially same-sex parenting. Most (or all) of these family structures existed, but in hidden, not-to-be-mentioned forms.

And that’s just a short list of the huge societal changes that have occurred since my own childhood with more or less “normal” parents, and Ford’s upbringing as a late arrival just half a generation earlier.

Ford’s parents, Parker (a travelling salesman) and Edna (mainly a reclusive stay-at-home mom), had been married 16 years and seemed destined to be childless when Richard came along in 1944. That alone set his early life on a very different course from that of schoolmates born to parents in their 20s.

Being the only child of middle-aged parents came with many appreciated opportunities and attention, but also with challenges one accepted early, as I learned from Ford and remembered from “Donna,” a middle school best friend. Her mother was 48 at her birth and her father a decade older, both in precarious health. By high school, without complaint or fuss, she routinely did double duty as student and caregiver. Miraculously, they lived to see her graduate with honors, but passed away long before she married or had her own children.

Ford’s thoughtful observations on his unexpected advent into the lives of two people who had long been “alone together” has a similar pragmatic and uncomplaining ring to it. In BETWEEN THEM --- a title that steadily gathers layered significance as he embraces both their lives as distinct segments --- Ford comes across as neither stoic nor heroic.

As a 16-year-old, he witnessed the traumatic loss of his father from a heart attack at home in bed, trying in vain to resuscitate Parker with CPR while Edna, paralyzed in fear, looked on. From that moment, he would always be available to fill some of the huge chasm in his mother’s life, while going on to build a solid career in writing and becoming happily married to wife Kristina. When Edna passed away in 1981, he was a mature 37 and in many ways had come to know her in present and past lives much better than Parker.

Edna’s death in large part inspired Ford to capture her story in prose, tracing back to her early roots in rural Arkansas and her precarious, often conflicted youth amid her own family. Then, some 30 years later, he delved back into the mists of Parker’s past, nearly six decades after his death. Building on his own memories and those shared by Edna, as well as other relatives and acquaintances, he compiled an equally fascinating account of his father, showing depth and dimension in the kind of quiet under-the-radar people who rarely, if ever, make headlines but whose persevering work ethic built the backbone of postwar industrial and commercial America.

Apart from telling a great and honest family story, BETWEEN US is a powerful confirmation that there are no “normal” or typical parents. Dick and Jane’s family universe never really existed, but Richard Ford’s, mine and yours do. He transformed his parents from distant strangers into people, and that’s well worth reading about.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on July 14, 2017

Between Them: Remembering My Parents
by Richard Ford

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062661884
  • ISBN-13: 9780062661883