We think we know our parents, but we’re always mistaken, to some degree. We think we know novelists from the stories they tell, but we’re wrong about that, too.

In “Between Them,” Richard Ford, author of “The Sportswriter,” “Independence Day,” “Canada” and “Let Me Be Frank with You,” examines the lives of his long-deceased parents, finding within their stories moments of vital clarity and lingering mystery. In presenting his first major work of nonfiction, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boothbay writer also reveals much about his own interior life, sharing his views on the joys and pitfalls of memory.

Ford writes, “To write a memoir and consider the importance of another human being is to try to credit what might otherwise go unremarked — partly by acknowledging the mysteries that lie within us all, by identifying within those mysteries, virtues.”

“Between Them” is a memoir in two parts, with individual sections about his father and his mother, composed 30 years apart. The first half of the volume, “Gone: Remembering My Father” – written more recently than the second, “My Mother, In Memory” – focuses on Parker, a rural Arkansan who found virtually life-long employment as a laundry starch salesman for The Faultless Company, out of Kansas City. Affable and hard-working, Parker succeeded in making people like him enough to buy his products and keep him and his small family afloat while so many other affable, hardworking men sank during the Depression.

He met Edna Akin, the pretty, Catholic-schooled daughter of a difficult mother, when she was 17. They married in 1928 and commenced an itinerant lifestyle uncomplicated by children, possessions or the judgment of the hard-bitten relatives who remained back home. Together, they lived on the roads of the South – in hotels in Mobile, New Orleans, Birmingham. They attended “cooking schools” together, teaching young women from the backwoods the practicalities of modern domestic life, including how to make and use laundry starch.

Edna and Parker remained childless for 15 years, until their only child, Richard, arrived unexpectedly in 1944. His presence immediately disrupted their carefree, footloose existence.


Ford writes, “‘Between Them,’ this book’s title, is meant, in part, to suggest that by being born I literally came between my parents, a virtual place where I was sheltered and adored as long as they were alive. But it is also meant, in part, to portray their ineradicable singleness — both in marriage and in their lives as my parents.”

The small family tried to maintain its routine, taking the baby on the road with them, but the situation eventually proved untenable. The three Fords settled in Jackson, Mississippi, smack in the middle of Parker’s sales. During the week, Edna and Richard stayed home together, waiting for Parker’s return on Friday night.

It’s at this point in the memoir that Parker becomes more defined by his absence than by his presence. With his Daddy gone from the house five days a week, young Richard had many questions he didn’t think to articulate – about fatherhood, marriage, the everyday business of living. Parker survived a heart attack in 1948, and the gap in understanding between father and son grew wider over the next dozen years, to the point where they were butting heads as Richard entered the thick of adolescence and experienced a few minor scrapes with the law.

Then came the ultimate absence, the night Parker died in his son’s arms, victim of the second heart attack he had been anticipating for a decade. It is a raw, powerful scene, and Ford delivers it with devastating understatement.

Life continued on for Edna, giving Ford more time to see her from the perspective of adulthood. The half of “Between Them” that focuses on Edna contains more concrete detail on her upbringing, on her marriage to Parker, how she looked and behaved as she aged.

“My Mother, In Memory” is more a conventional memoir, built with detailed episodes she and Richard shared: a discussion of the changes that would have to happen in the wake of Parker’s death, a conversation about the possibility of a girlfriend’s pregnancy, a confrontation with Edna’s married boyfriend.


Ford writes about her bout with breast cancer and her death seven years later. He recounts an exchange that seems to haunt him still, that contains “a sentence I wish, above all sentences in my life, I had never said.” It’s hard to imagine any reader not being moved by this scene, which ends with the aching acknowledgment that “even together we were once again alone.”

Throughout “Between Them,” Ford employs a deceptively simple, sometimes fragmentary style that feels familiar without becoming uncomfortably over-familiar. It’s a voice different from the one he uses in his fiction, perhaps better suited to conveying real-life candor and empathy. Ford’s love for Parker and Edna shines through every page, and he seems to rejoice in this opportunity to re-assess their triumphs and disappointments, with him, with each other and on their own.

“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,” he writes.

In this beautiful and tender memoir, Ford seems to see all of the important details. He makes his readers grateful that he shared them.

Freelance writer Michael Berry is a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who has contributed to the Boston Globe, New Hampshire Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times and many other publications.

Twitter: @mlberry

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.