Richard Ford’s Uncanny Memories of His Parents in Love
True Tales of Happiness on the Road in the Deep South
In 1928, a pretty 18-year-old named Edna Akin worked long hours at a hotel cigar stand in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Pulled out of convent school several years earlier by a manipulative mother and her catering manager stepfather—who occasionally put his hands in the wrong places—the young Akin didn’t have a lot of freedom in her life.
But at least a handsome, dapper man by the name of Parker Ford kept coming back to visit. Parker managed several small grocery stores in the area. They quickly fell in love and ran off to the justice of the peace to get married.
“My parents looked at each other and said, ‘Here is someone good,’” writes Richard Ford in his new memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents. The book is a lush retelling of his parents’ lives and captures the small-town South as it moved from the Depression to post-war prosperity. The memoir of sorts concentrates on Ford’s father’s job as a traveling salesman for the Faultless Starch Company, where husband and wife rode together, staying at hotels, drinking in bars and selling starch. Ford writes beautifully of his parents’ love affair—two ordinary people escaping difficult family histories—and carries that eloquence through to their respective deaths.
“My parents’ deaths were significant to me,” said the 73-year-old Ford in a telephone interview from his home in Boothbay, Maine. “When looking back at my parents’ lives, in all the years they were gone, I realized their deaths were standing in for them. I wanted to fill out the lives that preceded the deaths.”
Ford is a courtly interview subject, quick to laugh and to mock some of his own answers. Despite living outside of his native Mississippi for 55 years in the Midwest, California and the Northeast, there are strong traces of the Deep South in his accent.
Ford started the biographical writing on his father because his father was fading. “Memoir is a testimony to the existence of a person,” said Ford. “My father’s experience was beginning to become vitiated for me. He was not a person that the world would have noticed. I thought I would try to see if by noticing him, I would see a virtue in him that I wouldn’t have noticed as a child. I did find a virtue in him that I was able to articulate.”
Parker was born in the small town of Atkins, Arkansas. His gentleman farmer father drank carbolic acid when he lost his farm in 1916, leaving his widow Minnie with three kids. Though Parker was the protected youngest son, he still had to leave school after the seventh grade.
Edna was born in rural Arkansas. To escape the grinding poverty, her mother Essie took Edna and left her husband. “Essie was on the hunt for something to get her out of the sticks,” said Ford. “Her second husband Bennie was a club boxer. He’d go to all these little towns and fight. This was 1915 or 1916. Essie met him someplace. He was blonde and pretty, and wasn’t fat yet. She thought, ‘This is it. This guy’s not getting out of town without me.’”
Bennie was a man on the move and the ambitious Essie hooked up with him. He became a dining car waiter, then a catering manager in hotels. Edna became a distraction in Essie’s new love affair, so they stuck her in a convent school. “They got rid of my mother because she was too pretty,” said Ford.
Her mother pulled Edna out of school at 16 when they needed her income. “Her experience in the convent school gave my mother a sense of superiority to her own people, that she knew that the rough and tumble they were all involved in was not the only thing that one could live with,” said Ford. “It bred in her an unsatiated longing for education. She became a reader and always had her nose in a book.”
Ford’s step-grandfather Bennie was a larger-than-life character. As a child, Ford often stayed with Bennie and Essie in Little Rock, at the hotel Bennie wound up running. “Oh God, Bennie was manipulative with everyone,” said Ford. “I loved him. He was a great guy, definitely a charmer and a trifler—his word—with women. I am sure he had his try with my mother, an odd hug, an odd squeeze.”
“My mother had an awareness that there was a life that was an alternative to the life of her mother and stepfather,” said Ford. “When she met my father in Hot Springs, she thought, ‘This is my ticket out of here’ and jumped.”
Her convent education made her a target for her Irish Protestant mother-in-law, who thought Edna was a closet Catholic and tortured her when the couple would visit Arkansas.
“I was around all of them when I was little, but I was not aware of the psychodrama going on,” said Ford. “It was only when I came into adulthood that I could piece together my grandmother’s efforts to deny my mother. It comes in the form of not letting her help in the kitchen, excluding her from conversation, not addressing her directly… all the ways old Irish Protestants basically shun you.”
The memoir contains vivid images of life on the road in 1930s South. Though the Depression was devastating much of the country, that period for Parker and Edna Ford was like one long weekend. “They had an apartment in Little Rock that they used as a bolt hole,” said Ford. “They could be on the road all the time and he made enough money where she didn’t have to work. They wanted to get away from family anyway. They lived on the road. They could be in Bossier City, Louisiana, one day and New Orleans the next, going to wholesale grocers. They didn’t take work home with them. They didn’t have a higher calling, they had each other.”
“They lived in hotels, they drank, they went to roadhouses, and that could be a jolly experience for a time,” he said.
On the road, they gave organized demonstrations on how to use household starch for groups of farm girls getting ready to marry. “Probably, there are places in America where starch is still used,” mused Ford. “My father’s spray starch is still on the store shelves, so someplace people are starching their shirts.”
After 15 years of marriage, Edna got pregnant, which was a surprise, for they thought she couldn’t conceive. For his first year of life, Richard Ford traveled with his parents in the company car as Parker made his sales rounds.
When it became unworkable traveling with an infant, they rented a house in Jackson, Mississippi, and Edna stayed put with the baby while Parker was on the road five days a week. Richard had come between his parents, changing their old life, but he was a well-loved baby.
“Jackson was a good choice, because it was central to my father’s sales area and far from family,” said Ford. “In another way, it was a bad choice, because it was a crap old place, it was churchy, it was bigoted, it was exclusive. My parents never felt matriculated into Jackson. They always felt like Arkies.”
Ford digs down into his memory to pull out striking images of his father returning home late one Friday night in 1951 or ’52, with packages of takeout food from faraway New Orleans.
“He’s 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,” writes Ford. “My father, Parker Ford, is a large man—soft, heavy seeming, smiling widely as if he knew a funny joke. He is excited to be home.”
“My father was extremely deferential and polite,” said Ford. “He was not courtly, because he did not have that experience.”
Ford is famous for his iron-trap memory. “I suffer from arrested development,” he joked. “I stopped developing at the age of 17. I am either burdened with or blessed by a capacious memory. Partly it is luck and genes, and partly it is because I was an only child and around a lot. All these memories are tantamount to a motion picture running in my head. Anyone can tell you, and my wife in particular, that I have an alarming memory. It is not always good.”
Some of Ford’s memories are grim, like his father’s first serious heart attack in 1948 when he was four. “I remember my father being wheeled out on a gurney,” he said. Later, Ford sees his father in an oxygen tent at the hospital, trying to smile to reassure his son.
The heart attack changed everything, turning Parker Ford’s beloved job into a stressful experience—a heavyset man working in his own coffin. The threat of mortality that hung over the family was not discussed with young Richard.
“I am sure the doctors told him to stop smoking, but what we know about smoking now, we didn’t know in 1948,” said Ford. “He did stop smoking cigarettes, but he gained weight, so he switched to a pipe.”
His mother would leave young Richard at the library for hours at a time. The effect of his childhood on his adult life as a writer came from the barrenness of his hometown. “I think that being a writer for me answers the question which my childhood posed, which was, ‘Is that all there is?’ I think living in Jackson, under the circumstances we did, which wasn’t impoverished by any means, but it was a life that left me wanting.”
“Because I was alone so much, I started embroidering on reality,” he said. “Sometimes people would ask me questions and I would embroider on the answers. It was a sense that whatever I’d been given was simply not adequate. So I looked for a full, vivid life.”
Parker, swept up by postwar prosperity, became obsessed with buying a house in the suburbs.
“I can’t quite imagine where the aspirational strain in their lives came from,” said Ford. “They were certainly in the swim of the culture, and maybe things were born into their minds naturally.”
“My father had a friend in the New Orleans suburbs, near Lake Ponchartrain, in Gentilly. I remember going in the company car to visit these people, who had a boxy stucco house. Maybe that is where he got the lead to the suburbs. By the early 1950s, he had a bit in his teeth. He wanted the suburbs very bad.”
Borrowing money from Edna’s parents, the Fords bought a house outside of Jackson when Richard was a teenager. Parker bought a new Oldsmobile and reveled in the suburban life.
In 1960, a second massive heart attack killed Parker in the suburban home he loved. His death left his small family devastated. Richard was 16.
After the wake, Parker’s brother Pat, a circus booker who had seen unspeakable things in World War II, went to the Jackson funeral home were Parker was reposing and had his body shipped back for burial to Atkins, Arkansas. The train with Parker’s body had already left before Edna found out what had happened. Her 83-year-old mother-in-law Minnie had taken her son back for eternity.
“That was an egregious, coercive and awful event,” said Ford. “I end the book with it. I say, ‘There are sadder stories in the world, but there aren’t many.’ Of all the things my father would have wanted, he would have wanted to be buried side by side with my mother. They weren’t the kind of people to make those arrangements. When it came time for my father to be buried, my mother had the whole thing ripped out of her hands.”
The 57 years since his father’s death has not dimmed Ford’s anger much at the family betrayal. “I am glad to have written that section in a rather spiteful way,” he said. “I feel a lot of spite for those people.”
With his mother taking on much-neede work as a real estate agent, and after a few brushes with the law, Ford realized he had to leave Jackson. “It’s a miracle that I got out,” he said. “When I think back to it, something must have been going on in my life that I can’t reacquaint myself with. It had to do with Mississippi and that racial situation, which I was just put off by. I just had to get out.” He was accepted to Michigan State in 1962, though his record almost scuttled that escape. “There was a guidance counselor, who was contacted by Michigan State because I had to put my police record on the application,” he said. “East Lansing said ‘Tell us about this kid.’ The guidance counselor told me later, ‘I think you know we did you a favor.’”
In Michigan, Ford experienced some regional discrimination. “In my first year at Michigan State, I didn’t do that well,” he said. “After I got a Gentleman’s C in one class, the teacher told me, ‘Mr. Ford, you don’t belong here. You need to go back to Mississippi and go to school there.’ I thought to myself, ‘In a pig’s eye!’ I buckled down and worked like a dog.”
That year, Ford met his wife. “I was a busboy at her dormitory,” he said. “One afternoon, I was little drunk and busing tables. I saw this beautiful blonde girl from Virginia and started flirting with her. That was the end of that. I’ve been with Kristina for 55 years and married for 49.”
Toward the end of the book, Ford has the poignant realization that if his father had survived, he would never have become a writer.
“I was not a prodigy,” said Ford. “I got out of high school in the middle of my class. I was also very transgressive and oppositional. If he had survived, my father would have taken me in hand. This would have been long before I ever figured out what reading was about, what literature was about. I would have not gone to law school. I would have not gone into the Marines. I wouldn’t have had my life handed to me after he died.”
“I’ve lived in Maine for 20 years,” said Ford, from his seaside town of 3,200 people. “I had wanted to get Kristina to leave her planning job in New Orleans, so I said I’d find a place, a house on the ocean that she couldn’t resist. I started with the Jersey Shore and kept moving north. I finally found land I could afford in Maine and it turned out to be Boothbay. My wife finally moved up here. For me, home is where my wife is.”