Father’s Day is here; a good book is always in order.
I just read a lovely book, not exactly a greeting-card image of a father or a mother, but better yet, Richard Ford’s “Between Them: Remembering My Parents,” exploring what he can remember and what he can only surmise about Parker and Edna Ford.
Any book by this Pulitzer-Prize-winning author is always welcome.
He came to them late, a surprise only child after more than a decade of marriage. He tries to reconstruct what it must have been like for them to become parents. “Between Them” refers to what their life was like before him; and also how his needs, as infant and boy, inevitably placed him in the middle.
They accepted the responsibility like adults -- two people from the rural south with modest schooling and an ethic of doing their best. His father was a traveling salesman, out Monday morning, home Friday evening.
The son cannot remember much conversation with his father, just his earnest presence; he has no complaints.
His mother was more lively, more layered, with more family support. After the father died, Richard Ford was able to say “I love you” to his mother, ask about her life as a widow. She grew, found a job she loved, remained independent virtually to the end; he salutes her.
The backdrop – maybe even the real subject of the book -- is the back part of America that suffered terribly in the Depression. Yet his father always had work. Ford says he never heard his parents talk of the racial divide that must have been obvious in their geographically-central chosen home of Jackson, Miss. They lived in a country that had two – then three – citizens. The family.
He remembers, he reconstructs, he imagines, the hopes and dreams of two people who did not complain; he notes the family stresses both brought to the marriage.
The book includes several snapshots of a salesman and his wife with a car, hats and suits and dresses, their final suburban home, their post-war dream, fulfilled by a salesman with a failing heart.
The dead-serious faces of these Americans – long before the plague of selfies, everybody a star of their own reality show -- reminds me of the collaboration between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” They caught the bravery and dignity of rural America, and so does Richard Ford.
Near the end, Ford notes that he and his wife do not have children. He admits he can only guess what it is like to be a father, a parent.
His parents did their best. What a lovely thing to be able to say.
* * *
Richard Ford’s book reminds me of Samuel Barber's haunting "Knoxville 1915,” based on Agee's memories of a hot evening at home, when he was a boy.
As with Ford, death lurks over the slow, sweet gathering as Agee recalls who is present. It ends: “One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.”
The older I get, the more I realize how my father and mother, in their own ways, were good to me.
Set to Barber’s music, Agee’s words never fail to make me mist up. Richard Ford’s memories touched me the same way. His mother and his father were good to him.
* * *
(As a companion to Richard Ford’s touching new book, may I suggest listening to the Eleanor Steber 1948 Carnegie Hall performance of “Knoxville 1915,” including the piano accompaniment by Edwin Biltcliffe.)
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.