In an interview, I once asked Richard Ford about his experience of loss. Having read Ford’s prose over many years – his wonderful stories of the American south and midwest, where he grew up, his unfolding examination of his country’s slow fall from grace at the century’s end through the wearied, optimistic eyes of his everyman, Frank Bascombe – I was interested in how he always seemed to shadow even the sunniest of exchanges between his characters with poignancy, with a sense that nothing of the future might be as bright as what was passing. Some of it had to do with a cadence in his writing, the easy way that he let his words fall on the page before toying with their unwinding southern syntax, adding edges and depths. Reading Ford, those musical effects – he puts some of them down to childhood dyslexia and being a slow reader – invariably reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s observation that “sentences are not emotional, but paragraphs are”. Anyhow, with all this in mind, I asked him in our interview about loss and he replied in two ways.
First, he said, “I don’t think a writer who writes about loss (if I do) needs to have suffered loss himself. We can imagine loss. That’s the writer’s job.” And second, he said this: “I was the child of older parents who I always was fearfully expecting to die on me. And the old Arkansas aunties and uncles did start departing when I was a small child… Then my father died when I was 16 – died in my arms at home. We were a three-person family. Very close and loving. So I experienced loss when he died; and probably as significantly, I experienced the loss my mother suffered – of her one great love in life. How we experience what we experience is a complex business.”
This magical little book expands on all those thoughts, particularly the last of them, the question of “how we experience what we experience”. Ford has chosen his title carefully. His memoir recalls that time of childhood when the luckiest of us live contentedly in the space our parents create for us, a place of greater safety. The title also describes the structure he has found to recall that space. There are two separate memoirs here. The first, about Ford’s father, has been written recently. The second, about his mother, was written in 1986, five years after she died and the same year that Ford published the book that really started his career as a novelist, The Sportswriter. This is partly a book about time, then, the way in which our understanding of the lives of those we love stretches ahead of us and behind us, after they are gone, and locates us somewhere in their midst. And it is a book about memory.
Ford is now 73. Whatever he is writing he has always been a natural essayist, in that sense of feeling his way through an experience by trying on lines and ideas for size. He begins here with the best of times. His father, Parker Ford, a man who looks at one point uncannily like the author in the black-and-white photographs that provide stepping-stones through the memoir, is a travelling salesman for the Faultless Starch company. We meet him heading home for the weekend, “carrying with him lumpy, white butcher-paper packages full of boiled shrimp or tamales or oysters-by-the-pint he’s brought up from Louisiana”. His blue eyes sparkle to be with his wife and son. He spreads open the packages of hot food on the table and life is “as festive as life can possibly be”. What follows is a test of how long Ford can hold that thought – nearly seven decades – question how true it was, and wonder what becomes of it.
Parker Ford grew up in Arkansas and met the author’s mother, Edna Akin, in Hot Springs or Little Rock, before 1928, when she was 17. He was a “man who liked to be happy”, trying to make his way in the years following the Great Depression. Relations – those Arkansas aunts, the mother who never approved of his wife, believing her to be Catholic, despite all evidence to the contrary – strained, as relations always do. And then they broke when the worst of things happened, and the three-person family became two.
Ford’s account of his father’s death is an extraordinary piece of writing. The more so, here, because it leads him in to the story of his mother, told 30 years ago, when that memory was more proximate but maybe less raw. The disjunction creates questions for the reader. Does experience change the ways we remember? The parents recalled by the 42-year-old writer are not exactly those of now. There is more jaggedness in their recalled lives, the writer seems to cast himself more centre stage, his frustration sometimes shows. He tries to make sense of his father’s long absences, working away from home, the few fights between his parents that he witnessed. And of course, recollections of an ageing mother in adulthood are likely to be more complex than memories of a father who never grew old.
The fact of this book unites some of those contradictions. For Ford and his mother, the shock of their only being the two of them never went away. One absence melded into another. They lived far apart after he moved to Maine. He recalls how once his mother told him that in an elevator an acquaintance had asked her if she had children, and without thinking she answered “no”. “And then she’d thought to herself, ‘Oh, for God’s sake. Of course I do. There’s Richard.’”
In his afterword to these memoirs, Ford notes how a friend said to him recently that from his account of them, Parker and Edna sounded sad. But that is not, Ford says, how his parents’ lives ever felt to him, nor how they would have felt to them. “There was sadness,” he writes. “But when they were together, including when I was with them (and often because of it), their life –I believe– seemed to them better than any life they could have expected, given how and where they’d begun.” The act of writing those lives, has been if anything, Ford suggests, less poignant for him than a “source of immense exhilaration”. His readers, those with parents, and those without them, will feel that too.
• Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99). To order a copy for £9.74 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99