Those familiar strangers

Richard Ford’s new memoir about his parents, which is his first book-length work of nonfiction, provides both a window and a door. Yes, Between Them is a moving glimpse into the quiet everyday lives and love of his parents, but even more important, it becomes an invitation—even a pointed nudge—to the reader to reassess her place as a child and the role of those familiar strangers she knows as her mother and father. Seldom does such a slim book generate this force to shake the foundations of life.

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Between Themby Richard Ford

Ecco. 192 p, $25.99

Ford, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award, has been recognized for decades as an elder statesman of American letters, a defining voice of our country’s literature. His quartet about Frank Bascombe, a sportswriter turned real estate agent who has lost a child, began in 1986 with The Sportswriter and continued through the recent Let Me Be Frank With You. To Ford’s fans, this new memoir—a duo of short remembrances of his parents—will feel familiar in tone and insight and should convince even those rarely attracted to this form of biography.

Many of us believe our lives are worthy of a loving memoir, and Between Them attests to this in principle, but it also proves that every little life requires a masterful writer to portray it effectively to the reader. On the surface, Ford’s parents, Parker and Edna, appear unremarkable. They fell in love and married. His father’s family never accepted his mother (fearing she was a true Catholic), so they lived for one another. He traveled around the South, with her at his side, as a starch salesman while they waited for children. Fifteen companionable years passed in hotels and diners and sales calls, until their peripatetic life came to an end with a long-awaited pregnancy.

“They wanted me; but they did not need me,” Ford muses. “Together—though perhaps only together—they were fully formed.”

“They wanted me; but they did not need me,” Ford muses. “Together—though perhaps only together—they were fully formed.”

Throughout this conversational, at times breezy yet thoughtful work, Ford resists the temptation to create of his parents what he cannot possibly know. His presence permeates every line of these memoirs, his trying to remember and to understand, but he does not shade and mold his mother and father into fictional characters, even as he understands that everyone’s parents are, in a way, creatures of their children’s imagination. Instead, he revisits his child-self, inserting his adult sensibility into those memories, pulling his long-lost parents into a tighter embrace than they had shared back then. He is the son in search of parents lost.

Between Them fulfills the promise of an essay Ford published in Harper’s in 1987, a few years after his mother’s death. Nearly 30 years later, he has reunited his parents with a companion essay about his father, that distant figure of his childhood who was always arriving for a brief break or leaving for another bout on the road and who died of a heart attack just days after Ford’s 16th birthday.

This is the kind of memoir only a novelist with a keen understanding of the limitations and dangers of fictionalizing the truth could create—one who has thought deeply about form and the power of setting down memories, how retelling a story changes the story and irrevocably can alter our understanding of the past.

Between Them, an unsentimental, open-eyed but tender love letter to his parents, is also a memoir of a child’s mistakes and limitations. While Ford constantly negotiates his place in the story—“I should step back from events as much as I can”—it remains more than anything the story of a son looking at his parents and despite all their faults, all the disappointments and losses, admiring their devotion and liking what he sees, even if—perhaps because—it diminishes his importance in their own story. “He was her protector, but she was his. If it meant that I was further from the middle of things, I have lived my entire life thinking this is the proper way to be,” he writes.

Some memoirs draw you into other lives. They pull you into unknown decades and places with such rich details and startling truths that you feel as though you can remember those times you have never visited. Between Them does this while forcing us to assess how we would view that special other in the round. The implicit failure of this act compounds the loss even as it works to assuage it.

Ford drops melancholy bombs throughout, ones whose truths read like aphorisms: “I have sometimes thought over these years that I had my father at a time in a boy’s life when having a father did not mean so much. But that is the opposite of true, and would only seem true to a boy whose father was mostly not there.”

Between Them is an education in the power of memoir in reconstructing a life and a relationship but also in its ability to embolden the reader, to open what Ford claims all readers can find in the right books, “testimony that there is an alternate way to think about life, different from the ways we’re naturally equipped.” We watch a writer construct his parents, with the knowledge that they are and will remain just out of reach but that the striving brings them closer or at least honors the sweet pain of the search, of all of our searches.

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