Al Hippensteel is the editor of The Dearborn Express, our free neighborhood newspaper, and he’s in the memoir-writing class I lead in Printers Row, too.
Before class one day Al asked if anyone might be interested in writing book reviews for the paper, and his fellow memoir-writer Lorraine Schmall jumped at the chance.
Her latest review is about a new book by Richard Ford, one of my favorite short story writers. I was so flattered to have Lorraine mention a writing prompt of mine in her review that I asked for permission to publish it here, too. Enjoy!
Richard Ford, Between Them: Remembering My Parents
by Lorraine Schmall
There’s a popular memoir-writing teacher whose assignments are simple phrases capable of many meanings in many contexts. For example, “What My Parents Believed” could be about parents’ beliefs in a higher power– or in aliens; in American cars or the Farmer’s Almanac; in sparing the rod or spoiling the child; in education or an afterlife; in fidelity or free love. Like a required ingredient in a TV cooking contest, the right phrase encourages creative thinking.
Richard Ford employs the same technique with the title and the content of his lovely memoir, Between Them: Remembering my Parents. He plays with the phrase “between them” to look back at his parents from different, and fascinating angles, in a way, that he hopes, “gives faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic coherence to the many unequal things any life contains.”
He writes chronologically, so this intimate portrait begins with his concession that, as soon as Edna and Parker met in Arkansas, between them was something powerful and forever unknowable to a son, something which drew them together tightly and swiftly and intentionally apart from others; something he doesn’t begrudge them. He recognizes that between them and before him, was a carefree decade, most of which they spent together in an automobile or in diners or motels subsidized by the national company whose starch his father sold state-to-state. Ford wonders, and worries, whether he came between them, and forever changed, and maybe diminished what was before, after they were forced to make a home and a decision to live apart all but a few days a month after he was born.
A wordsmith who won the Pulitzer and has books made into movies, Ford cannot describe how his parents felt when he dropped into their lives: “It could only have been strange.” But he writes with some conviction: “They loved each other. They loved me.” From the stories he tells, it certainly seems so. Richard lived, trusting and sheltered and safe, between them.
And between them—and Richard’s sometimes close, often estranged and always unusual grandparents, he got all he needed and learned about the world. A once-restless mother whose own mother pretended they were sisters, and a father who could have been but never was more, they were in many ways like most parents—and Ford’s conclusion that he could never really know what they believed is a universal truth. “They elude me, as parents do” he writes, and so deftly encourages readers to reconsider their own memories of growing up.