Richard Ford’s Between Them: The Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People
“The fact that lives and deaths often go unnoticed has specifically inspired this small book about my parents and set its task. Our parents’ lives, even those enfolded in obscurity, offer us first, strong assurance that human events have consequence. Here we are, after all. The future is unpredictable and hazardous, but our parents’ lives both enact us and help distinguish us.”
Richard Ford’s memoir, Between Them, of his parents Parker and Edna accomplishes the task of offering a glimpse into the ordinary lives of two extraordinary people. This rare piece of nonfiction from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author provides an authentic look into the lives of his parents. Two sections: “Gone,” the life of Parker Ford, and “My Mother, In Memory,” chronicling Edna Akin, provide a moving insight into their legacy. He is able to accomplish something that many may try to do by elegantly honoring and commemorating the lives of his parents.
These two sections, written 30 years apart, provide not only an incredible amount of insight into Richard Ford’s life and growth as a writer, but also, more importantly, an honest perspective of the lives of his parents. Through the memoir, we experience and understand the lives of Parker and Edna from their initial romance, traveling the South with starch samples, to settling down in Jackson, Mississippi with the arrival of their first son. Their enduring love and ability to adapt after adversity and tragedy is truly inspiring. Most importantly, their lives and memory are able to live on through Ford’s writing.
Gone: The Life of Parker Ford
The first section of the memoir chronicles Parker Ford, a young man from Arkansas with great aspirations. Parker grew up in a rural town called Atkins, Arkansas before becoming a produce clerk at a grocery store in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was around this time that he met Edna Akin, the light of his life, and they were married shortly thereafter.
Parker soon found a new job as a traveling salesman for the Faultless Company, selling starch and detergent to stores all around his southern sales territory. This was the road that he and Edna traveled. They had a small homestay in Arkansas, but lived a perpetually nomadic life throughout many states including Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Tennessee. That was how their life together progressed for almost 15 years, from town to town and state to state, wherever the sale took them.
Parker and Edna were a young couple hoping for children – that is, until they adapted to their nomadic lifestyle. Then, in 1944, the birth of their son Richard (our author) would force him Between Them. This moment for which the memoir is named changed the Fords’ lives. They settled down in Jackson, Mississippi, with Parker on the road Monday to Friday and only home for brief respites on weekends. These stays often consisted of the same civility and secrecy that persisted throughout the Fords’ lives.
As Ford describes it, “I was aware of no one whose father was a traveling salesman and always gone.” This began to change in 1948 when Parker, who suffered from a chronic heart murmur, experienced a severe heart attack which would change his outlook on life but leave his lifestyle relatively unaltered. “Possibly I was becoming more aware of my father as someone not there, and less aware of him in the days and moments he was actually present. Permanence became something you fashioned.”
Parker would ultimately succumb to a second heart attack in 1960. However, Ford’s recounting of the 12 years between the heart attacks, over 50 years later, provides incredibly sincere human emotion. Ford reflects upon the good times and the true love that his father shared with Edna, the frustrations of wanting more, and the difficulties of parenting a troubled teen. He is able to capture a moment no 16-year-old should have to experience: attempting to wake his father that morning in February 1960.
There are information gaps throughout the memoir, exposing the reality that many of us choose to ignore – that we may not know many things about our own parents’ lives. This can clearly be seen as ultimately unanswered questions are asked aloud throughout the memoir. Ford commemorates a man worth remembering and says of his father, “For his son not to have left this record would be a sad loss indeed.”
My Mother, In Memory: Honoring Edna Akin
The second section of the memoir chronicles the life of Edna Akin – or, more accurately, the life that Ford knew with her. This part of the memoir was written in closer proximity to Edna’s passing in the 1980s than the previous one had been to Parker’s passing. The two sections read a bit differently and the second evokes much more emotion. Due to the proximity of her passing to the writing of the narrative, the raw sadness that Ford expresses is clearly felt. Similarly to Parker, Edna’s earlier days were somewhat of a mystery, which amplifies the importance of the bond that Parker and Edna and then Edna and Ford shared.
As Parker was always traveling, the bond between mother and son is unspoken but strong in the first section. Only through the detailed recounting of stories over the years do we truly understand the deep love the two shared for each other. They were partners rather than parent and child, trying to move forward after the passing of Parker. Things began to change as they moved on from the home Ford’s father had aspired so recently to purchase. Edna worked various jobs while Ford, unaware of the family’s financial issues, carried on as best he could with school, work, and growing up.
He describes the complexities of the relationship that he and his mother developed. He reveals the young age at which he first became aware that his mother was also Edna, a cute little woman with black hair. “Since one of the premier challenges for us all is to know our parents fully – assuming they survive long enough, are worth knowing, and it is physically possible. The more we see our parents fully, after all, see them as the world does, the better our chances to see the world as it is.”
This sweet woman, who possibly never even intended to become a parent, was now left alone with the full responsibility of raising a son. She created clear boundaries to help cope with the loss of her husband and single parenthood. Ford discusses the life that she led as an endearing woman who, for some reason, was drawn to a Firebird as a family car.
Edna and Ford’s relationship develops into one of tearful goodbyes and long-distance phone calls when Ford attended school in Michigan. It was a faraway land from Jackson, Mississippi – a distance even Edna, in all her days riding along with Parker, had never covered. A tearful departure unfolded as her son began the rest of his life further from home than she had ever traveled before.
In the years that followed, Ford and Edna’s relationship would continue to flourish. Ford, his wife, and Edna traveled across North America from the Northeast of New York and Vermont, to the Pacific of California, and even further south to Mexico. They made the most of their time and, through the years, they both tried to reassure themselves that the other was happy with their life.
In 1973, Edna was diagnosed with breast cancer. She passed away in the winter of 1981. “In her life there was no particular brilliance, no celebrity. No heroics. No one, crowning achievement to swell the heart… but somehow she made possible for me my truest affections.”
Extraordinary Lives and How to Remember Them
Between Them strikes at something profoundly difficult and honest. As Ford says himself, “Our parents intimately link us, closeted 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.” We may never truly know our parents’ lives; we only know the parts they and others choose to share with us. However, there are the bright moments and the darker ones, and Ford does an excellent job providing what is essential without trying to worship his parents.
Ford is able to deeply capture an honest recanting of these lives. Through intentional absences and thoughtful questions, the intimate and raw emotional stories become all the more real. We see the perspectives that Ford’s parents left on him, and can see how our parents have impacted our own lives. Our parents leave humor and love, but a reserve is also instilled.
The sequential nature of the two sections helps to provide an accurate and poetic description of the way the Ford family lived. As Ford states himself, “The chore of the memoir writer is to compose a shape and an economy that gives faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic, coherence to the many unequal things life contains.” It is often difficult to fill in the parts of lives we ourselves are unware of, and all the more challenging to match them with consistency. However, Ford does not shy away from doing this, and as a result enhances the perspectives of these memoirs written 30 years apart and spanning over 70 years.
There is somewhat of a duty in all of us to tell and share the stories that we know: the inaccuracies and imperfections help to humanize and add to the reality that is an imperfect life. That is why Ford writes, “I am, for that reason the only one who knows these stories and can preserve these memories – at least until now.” Through his writing and the stories that we share of our own families, we are able to tell the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.