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A Life of Noticing

Gerald Dawe

Between Them: Remembering My Parents, by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury, 192 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1408884690

The American novelist Richard Ford has written in Between Them: Remembering My Parents an affecting and adept portrait of Parker Ford and Edna Akin. Through the lens of his supple and clear-eyed prose, Ford’s sense of a cultural past is etched into the lives of the people he came from, without sentimentality and without self-absorption. This is not an easy thing to do in a memoir but the mastery of American English which we associate with Ford’s fiction – the subtle not-saying, the deflection of painful emotional realities into half-said or half-seen things – is abundantly present here. Referring to the early death of his father after a second heart attack – his first occurred when he was only forty-three – Ford’s balanced writing conveys the loss, sixty-eight years later:

it is also true that this period, between 1948 and 1960, encompasses the entire time – I can say it now – that I knew my father not just as a father but as the father, but was the only time and the only terms under which I realized I had a father.

The realisation of how time and its passing plays the key role in Between Them opens out into the wiser recognitions of how we live and then what we make of it all: “To write a memoir and to consider the importance of another human being is to try to credit what might otherwise go unmarked – partly by acknowledging that mysteries that lie within us all, and identifying within those mysteries, virtues.”

This philosophical bearing isn’t cumbersome or pedantic but earned through the telling of his parents’ lives together and through them the deeper recesses of their America. But the sense is always there that, while not being led into a specious notion of representation, Ford’s thinking and writing about Parker and Edna has led him into a deeper sense of what writing is about: “it’s not so different from what we find when we read a story by Chekhov, nor is it probably very different from the problem any son faces when thinking about and estimating his parents. The truest life, of course, is always the life that’s lived.”

Whether he is recalling his father’s work life on the road as a commercial traveller, or his mother’s troubled relationship with her mother, certain scenes resonate, such as the father’s whistling “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-a-Dee-ay” as he moves around “their sunny apartment on Monday mornings, packing his suitcase to leave”, or the sense Ford retains of his mother’s “choosing” – “of just how she could see any life without my father, with so much life left to be lived in an un-ideal way”.

But what these depth-charges resound with is a shock too: “Always somewhere deep down she seemed resigned. I could never plumb her without coming to that stop point – a point where widening expectations simply ceased.” Which, as Ford makes plain, is not the same as his mother being unhappy; far from it. There was, however, an abiding sense of “unease with life. Her resisting it.”

The psychology of this realisation leads on to an extraordinarily frank and, for this reader, most moving of scenes in the book as his chronically ill mother, on a visit, responds to her son’s offer of her staying on with him. The scene deserves its own discovery for the reader.

Ford’s wish that his mother could “relent more” brings to the surface a moral pulse which beats in the background of this memoir: relent is such a forbidding word; it has a sense of shriving about its roots somewhere. And comes with a religious and emotional yearning which, as Ford says of his father, is “not modern”. The Protestant Cavan influence of Parker’s family background, alluded to alongside his mother’s father’s people, “suggests the possibility of Irish Protestants” might be a source.

There is in Ford’s idiom and the manner of his personal address in Between Them an artistic depiction based upon, among many other attributes, the belief in now, the givenness of things, and not their transcendence. Transcendence resides “in” reality. “I have tried over time,” Ford writes, “and not unusually successfully to have guide me: the lesson that says, It’s what happens that matters, more than what people, even yourself, think about what happens before or after. It mostly only matters what we do.”

This belief, if that’s what it is, or “lesson” carries the narrative of Between Them across time and through many different places, from the “blissful” childhood Ford shared with his parents to the slightly errant adolescence (his discloses an “urge to say disruptive things”) and the dawning literary reputation. Edna cast her own sceptical eyes on that too: “‘When are you going to get a job and get started?’ she asked me once, after I’d published two novels and was teaching at Princeton.” Though it was also his mother who drew the young Ford’s attention to the presence of Eudora Welty in a local grocery store with the glorious name of Jitney Jungle.

“Love, which is never typical, sheltered everything.” While the loss of his father is the darker shadow in Between Them, of his mother, her passing seems in some way to have left a deeper and greater clarity on the writer’s art: “In myself I see her, hear her laugh in mine. In her life there was no particular brilliance, no celebrity. No heroics. No one crowning achievement to swell the heart.”

And yet this is not actually the case. For Between Them marks Edna Akin out as a definitive individual in her own right. If, as Ford offers, there is “an enduring truth of life”, it is that “the world often doesn’t notice us”. This “understanding” has been “a crucial urge for most of what I’ve written in fifty years”. And he continues, “Mine has been a life of noticing and being a witness. Most writers’ lives are.” Most writers who can see beyond themselves, that is, with the kind of curiosity and sympathy of an artist such as Ford. As for his “remembering”, Ford spots the whole point in a resounding sentence which resolves into itself all the humanity, irony, hope and humour of this great book of life, revelling in a side of American reality in stark and dramatic contrast to that currently on show: “Our parents intimately link us, closeted as we are in our lives, to a thing we’re not, forging a joined separateness and a useful mystery, so that even together with them we are also alone.”

1/7/2017

Gerald Dawe’s most recent poetry collections include Selected Poems and Mickey Finn’s Air, published by The Gallery Press.

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