A Memoir in Two Parts
by Richard Ford
From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Richard Ford, a memoir on the lives of his parents — a stirring meditation on memory, connection, and love, asking how we can better understand ourselves by knowing the ones who made us.
Somewhere deep in my childhood, my father is coming home off the road on a Friday night. He is a traveling salesman. It is 1951 or ’52. 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. The shrimp and tamales steam up hot and damp off the slick papers when he opens them out. Lights in our small duplex on Congress Street in Jackson are switched on bright.
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. He sniffs with pleasure. His blue eyes sparkle. My mother is standing beside him, relieved he’s back. She is buoyant, happy. He spreads the packages out onto the metal kitchen table top for us to see before we eat. It is as festive as life can possibly be. My father is home again.
Our — my and my mother’s — week has anticipated this arrival. “Edna, will you . . . ?” “Edna, did you…?” “Son, son, son….” I am in the middle of everything. Normal life — between his Monday leavings and the Friday nights when he comes back — normal life is the interstitial time. A time he doesn’t need to know about and that my mother saves him from. If something bad has happened, if she and I have had a row (always possible), if I have had trouble in school (also possible), this news will be covered over, manicured for his peace of mind. I don’t remember my mother ever saying “I’ll have to tell your father about this.” Or “Wait ’til your father comes home. . . .” Or “Your father will not like that. . . .” He confers — they confer — the administration of the week’s events, including my supervision, onto her. If he doesn’t have to hear it when he’s home — ebullient and smiling with packages — it can be assumed nothing so bad has gone on. Which is true and, to that extent, is fine with me.
His large malleable, fleshy face was given to smiling. His first face was always the smiling one. The long Irish lip. The transparent blue eyes — my eyes. My mother must’ve noticed this when she met him — wherever she did. In Hot Springs or Little Rock, sometime before 1928. Noticed this and liked what she saw. A man who liked to be happy. She had never been exactly happy — only inexactly, with the nuns who taught her at St. Anne’s in Fort Smith, where her mother had put her to keep her out of the way.
For being happy, however, there was a price. His mother, Minnie, an unyielding immigrant from County Cavan, a small-town widow and a Presbyterian, maintained views that my mother was a Catholic. Why else go to their school? Catholic meant “wide” instead of diffident and narrow. Parker Carrol was her youngest of three. The baby. Her husband, my father’s father — L.D. Jr. — was already a suicide. A dandified farmer with a gold-headed cane in a small Arkansas town. She’d been left with all his debts and his scandal. She meant to protect her precious last. From the Catholics, definitely. My mother would never fully own him, if his mother had a say. And she would.
My father did not project “a strength,” even as a young man. Rather, he projected a likable, untried quality, a susceptibility to being over-looked. Deceived. Except by my mother.
From my memory, I know he tended to stand back in groups, and yet to lean forward when he spoke, as though he was expecting soon to hear something he’d need to know. There was his goodly size; the warm, hesitant smile. A woman who liked him — my mother — could see this as shy, a fragility a wife could work with. He would likely not disguise things or himself: a man who wasn’t so knowing that you couldn’t take care of him. There was the terrible temper, not so much anger as eruptive and impulsive, born of frustrations with things he couldn’t do or hadn’t done well enough, or didn’t know — private dissatisfactions, possibly of the sort that had made his young father take a seat on the porch step one moonlit summer night in 1916, having lost the farm to bad investments, and poison himself to death out of dismay. My father’s temper wasn’t of that kind. His sweetness, the large forward-leaning sunniness and uncertainty worked against that, allowed an opening for a life my mother could see and enter with the sound of her name. Edna.
When she met him, she was seventeen. He was possibly twenty-four — a “produce man” at the Clarence Saunders grocery in Hot Springs, where she lived with her parents. It was a small chain of stores, now gone. There is a photograph I have: my father, standing in the store with the clerks — wooden bins all around, brimming with onions, potatoes, carrots, apples. It is an old-looking place. He is wearing his white bib apron and staring, slightly smiling for the camera. His dark hair is neatly combed. He is ordinarily handsome, competent-appearing, alert — a young man on the way to somewhere better — a career, not merely employment. It is the twenties. He has come to the city from the country, equipped with farm virtues. Was he nervous in this picture? Excited? Did he fear he might fail? Why, one wonders, had he left tiny Atkins, where he was from? The world’s pickle capital. All of it is unknown to me. His brother, Elmo — called “Pat” for the Irish lineage — lived in Little Rock, but soon went to the navy. His sister was at home with a burgeoning family. Possibly, by the time of this picture, he had met my mother and fallen in love. Dates are no more clear than reasons.
Not long after, though, he took a better job managing the Liberty Stores in Little Rock — another grocery chain. He joined the Masons. Though soon, robbers would enter one of his places of business, wave guns around, take money, hit my father in the head, and depart. After which he was let go and never told precisely why. Possibly he’d said something he shouldn’t have. I don’t know how people saw him. As a bumpkin? A hick? A mother’s boy? Not brave enough? Possibly as a character to whom the great Chekhov would ascribe a dense-if-not-necessarily-rich interior life. A young man adrift within his circumstances.
Time then, and another job — in Hot Springs, again. He was married to my mother now. The thirties were beginning. Then another, even better job came — selling laundry starch for a company out of Kansas City. The Faultless Company. I don’t know how he gained such a job. The company still exists in KC. To this day there are pictures of my father on the walls in the offices, with other salesmen of that time. 1938. This job he kept until he died.
With this work came a traveling territory — seven southern states — plus a company car. A plain Ford tu-dor. He would “cover” Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and a small part of Tennessee, a slice of Florida, a corner of Texas, all of Mississippi. He was to call on the wholesale grocer companies that provisioned small stores across the rural south. He arrived at each and wrote down orders for starch. There was only the one product. His customers occupied murky, back-street warehouses with wooden loading docks and tiny stifling offices that smelled of feed by the bushel. Piggly Wiggly and Sunflower and Schwegmann’s were the big accounts. He liked his small customers best, liked arriving to their offices with something he could make happen. A sale.
Many — ones in Louisiana, across the Atchafalaya — spoke French, which made it more difficult but not impossible. No one hit him in the head.
He was now on the road all the time, and my mother simply went with him. Little Rock would be home — a small two-room apartment on Center Street. But they lived on the road. In hotels. In Memphis at the Chief Chisca and the King Cotton. In Pensacola, at the San Carlos. In Birmingham, at the Tutwiler. In Mobile, the Battle House. And in New Orleans at the Monteleone — a new city to them, very different from what they’d known in Arkansas. They loved the French Quarter — the laughing and dancing and drinking. They met some people who lived in Gentilly. Barney Rozier, who worked on oil derricks, and his wife Marie.
Part of the traveling job was to attend “cooking schools” in the small towns. Young girls came out of the backwoods to learn to be wives — to cook and clean and iron, to keep a house. Guard armories, high school gymnasiums, church basements,
Elks Clubs were where these took place. He and my mother worked as a team, demonstrating for the girls the proper way to make starch and use it. It wasn’t hard. The Faultless emblem was a bright red star on a small white cardboard box. “You don’t have to cook it” was the company motto. There was a song with that phrase in it.
My father had a tolerable tenor voice and would sing the song when he’d had a drink. It made my mother laugh. He and she — barely out of their twenties and exceedingly happy — handed out little boxed starch samples and cotton hot pads to the country girls, who were flattered to receive such gifts at a time when nobody had anything. The Depression.
It was enough to get them started and to make a lasting impression when they went to the Piggly Wiggly. The car’s back seat was full of hot pads and samples.
Imagine it. You have to, because there’s no other way: this being their whole life. On the road with no great cares. No children. Family far away. My father wore a felt hat in the winter and a straw one in summer. He smoked — they both did. His face was assuming a maturer look — again, the Irish lip, the thin mouth, and thinning hair. He had an awareness of himself. He was on his way — almost suddenly — to being who he would be. He experienced some trouble with his teeth that necessitated a bridge. A partial. He was six foot two and had begun to take on weight — above two-twenty. He owned two suits, a brown and a blue, and adored his work, which agreed with his obliging nature. About himself, he said he was “a businessman.” His boss — a Mr. Hoyt — trusted him, as did his customers in all the tiny towns. He didn’t make a lot — less than two hundred a month, with expenses. But they didn’t spend much. And he’d found a thing he could do. Sell. Be liked. Make friends. The military wouldn’t be a worry. A heart murmur had been detected, and his feet were flat. Plus, his age — too young for the first war, too old if a second one started, which eventually it did.
Excerpted from Between Them by Richard Ford printed from the FREE Buzz Books 2017 with permission of Ecco, a division of HarperCollinsSourcebooks. For more information and to download all of the excerpts, go to Buzz Books.