Author Richard Ford keeps his parents’ memories alive in new memoir

Author Richard Ford with RSF Literary Society President Candace Humber.
(McKenzie Images)

In writing a memoir about his parents, novelist Richard Ford, an only child, saw himself foremost as a witness to the lives of his mother and father.

“They wouldn’t otherwise have any witnesses. It’s good they had a son who is a writer,” said Ford, 75, because, “I can give testimony to their existence.”

Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such novels as “The Sportswriter” and “Independence Day,” as well as several short story collections, published his latest book, “Between Them: Remembering My Parents,” in 2017, with Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

Ford was the featured speaker at the May 10 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort.

“I have now lived more years than either my father or my mother lived,” Ford wrote in the afterward to his book. “There is almost no one alive who knew them. And I am, for that reason, the only one who knows these stories and can preserve these memories - at least until now.”

The cover of “Between Them: Remembering My Parents.”
(Mckenzie Images)

“I was fortunate to have parents who loved each other and, out of the crucible of that great, almost unfathomable love, loved me. Love, as always, confers beauties,” Ford wrote.

The book is divided into separate memoirs about each of Ford’s parents. His mother’s section was written shortly after her death in 1981, while he completed his father’s story some 30 years later. Over that intervening period, said Ford, he scribbled down memories of his father in a notebook.

Ford’s father, Parker, a traveling salesman, died of a heart attack when Ford was 16, and never saw his son become a well-known author.

“It would have been completely mystifying to him,” said Ford in an interview before his talk. “He didn’t read books, he didn’t know writers.”

Still, said Ford, “I would happily have not been a writer if he could have lived to term. It would have been more important that he survived.”

Ford said he still could have had a satisfying life if he had done other things, such as staying in the Marine Corps, finishing law school, or continuing to work as a sportswriter.

One particularly poignant memory of his father came shortly before he died. Ford said that as a teenager, he was frequently in trouble with the police in his hometown, Jackson, Miss. He committed such crimes as breaking into homes, stealing cars and fighting. When he was finally caught and faced reform school, his father was away on business.

When his father came home, Ford said, he wasn’t angry, in contrast with his mother.

Parker took him aside and talked to him about the situation, telling his son that it would pass, and not to continue his wild ways.

“It was an act of consolation and love and understanding that I’ll never forget,” Ford said. “He wasn’t mad at me. The next week he died. He left me that.”

Ford was also close to his mother. As a child, he spent much more time with her, since his father was on the road for his job Monday through Friday, only returning home on weekends. As an adult, Ford involved his mother as much as possible in the lives of himself and his wife, Kristina Ford.

“We were best friends,” Ford said of Edna, his mother.

In the book, Ford left out details about himself so he could focus on his parents’ lives, including the time before he was born when they traveled together throughout the South for Parker’s job, selling laundry starch for a company based in Kansas City. Ford described his parents as loving people, but dramatic. They “drank a little bit,” he said, and both had tempers.

His mother did live to see him publish two novels, but she was most impressed when he was hired as a professor at Princeton University. When he told her about the job, she exclaimed, “Thank God, you’re finally getting started,” Ford recalled.

This, in spite of his having already published two books, gotten married and bought a house.

These days, Ford and his wife live in Maine, and along with his writing, Ford teaches literature at Columbia University in New York.

Speaking to a group of local high school students before his talk at the literary society, Ford said he backed into writing almost by accident, after other potential careers such as being a lawyer or a sportswriter didn’t work out.

“I didn’t get into (writing) because of the money, I got into it because I like to read,” he said. “Look at me, I’m 75 years old. Don’t I seem happy?”