I don't usually read memoirs. Perhaps I have an unreasoning prejudice against them born of some reading experience in my distant past, but, generally, I just don't enjoy them. But I will always make an exception for Richard Ford.
Ford has written this short (less than 200 pages) memoir of his parents and of his experience growing up with them. It essentially consists of two long essays written some thirty years apart in time.
Both were written after his parents' deaths. The one about his mother was written first, although she was the second one to die. The second one about his father was written many years after his father died in 1960. Ford was only sixteen years old at the time.
In the book itself, the essays appear in the order of the deaths, so the one about the father is first, followed by the one about the mother.
We learn that Richard was an only child and his arrival was a bit of a surprise for his parents. They had been married for fifteen years when he was born. Apparently, those fifteen years had been happy ones that his parents spent mostly on the road. His father was a traveling salesman for the Faultless Starch Company and his mother went with him as he made his rounds to a number of southern states in his territory.
Both his parents were from Arkansas and that remained their home base in their years of travel, but with the expectation of a baby arriving on the scene, they decided to make a move. His father's employer encouraged him to move to a more central location within his territory so that he would be able to spend more time at home. Thus it was that they decided to move to Jackson, Mississippi, a town where they knew virtually no one. It was there that their son was born and where he spent the formative years of his life.
I've always felt a connection with Ford because of where he was born and grew up, for I was growing up in that area during much the same period, the '50s and '60s. Our family situations were quite different. My family were farmers and factory workers. His father was the aforementioned traveling salesman and his mother, after Richard's birth, was a stay-at-home mom. But we were both only children and we both grew up as observers, witnessing first our own families and then the larger society. And we both got out when we could.
This memoir seems to be Ford's attempt to give his witness of the lives of two ordinary, unremarkable people and perhaps to fix in his own mind his memories of them. Maybe it is his acknowledgement, too, that he wouldn't be the man he is, seventy-two years on, had it not been for them and his experiences as their son. Of course, the truth is he wouldn't be, period, had it not been for them.
A child never really experiences what life is like for his/her parents. How indeed can we ever truly understand the inner lives of even the people closest to us? The borders of their minds are closed to us. But Richard Ford, the observer, has put together his memories of actual events with his imagination and supposition of what his parents' lives must have been like, how they responded to events, what they felt. In doing so, he has given us an affectionate, insightful, and altogether tender portrait of two white people born in the South in the early part of the 20th century; two ordinary people who never made headlines or were noticed by the world outside their own circle of friends and family. And yet they managed to produce one extraordinary writer.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars