For Richard Ford, Memoir Is A Chance To 'Tell The Unthinkable'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Ford, has written a memoir in which he does the eloquent version of what we all try to do, at least those of us who have grown up with our parents, to reflect on their lives, take their measure and attempt to understand how our parents shaped us and how our arrival transformed their marriage and their lives. Ford says he also wanted to reconcile his self back then when his parents were alive and his self now, decades after they've died.
Ford's memoir, "Between Them," was written in two parts. The section about his mother was written in 1986, soon after she died of metastatic breast cancer. The section about his father was written recently. He died in Richard Ford's arms in 1960, after his second heart attack. Ford's novels include "The Sportswriter," "Independence Day" and "Let Me Be Frank With You."
Richard Ford, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm going to start by asking you to read a passage from the memoir. And I want to say this is the story about your father's death. You told a version of this story the last time I interviewed you. And that story really moved me. Nevertheless, reading the story just really caught me up short. It just almost made me gasp. So I'd like you to start by reading that.
RICHARD FORD: I'll be glad to. This comes from the second of these two memoirs, which is about my mother. It's called "My Mother In Memory."
(Reading) Nothing was out of the ordinary. I watched "Rawhide" on TV. They went into her bedroom and closed the door. At some point later, he went to bed. And then I watched television until midnight. And then I went to sleep. At 6, I was awakened by my mother saying my father's name, Carol (ph), which is what she called him. Wake up, Carol. Wake up. What's the matter? Wake up. Then more loudly - wake up. I got out of bed in my pajamas, went into the hall to the door of the next room, which was his. My mother was leaning forward beside his bed over him. My father was gasping for air in his bed. His eyes were closed. He wasn't moving except for the gasps. He looked - his skin did - gray. Wake up, my mother said insistently but different from that. Carol, wake up. She held his shoulders, put her face close to his and shook him, but he did not move. Richard, what's wrong with him, she said. She looked around at me. She was about to cry and was becoming panicked. She was on the verge of something bad. It was February 20, 1960, four days after my birthday. I don't know if I said I don't know to her question, but I came forward, got up onto the bed where he was and took both my father's shoulders in my hands and shook him very hard - not as hard as I could but hard. I said his name, Daddy, several times. He took a deep breath in and let it out strenuously in a way that made his lips flutter as if he was trying to breathe, though I think he was dead. With my two hands, I turned his face upward, used my thumbs to pry his loose fleshy mouth and teeth open. And I put my own mouth over his and breathed down into him, into his mouth and throat and, I imagined, into his chest. I didn't know how to do this or if it made sense. I had only heard about people doing it. But I did it several times, possibly 10. And the result of my efforts to breathe for him or to bring my breath to him and wake him up and be alive was nothing. He did not breathe again or utter another sound. After some time on my knees on his bed with him, when I must have begun to conceive the thought that he was dead, I got down and turned to my mother who had by then backed into the open doorway and put her fists to her temples, watching all that was going on in front of her. I don't know that I said anything to her. I may have stifled some sound deep in myself but my mother said, oh, no, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. Which is when I went past her - and she was saying this - and down the hallway to call the doctor. His house was not far from ours. Such things, the doctor coming, were more usual then than they are today.
GROSS: That's Richard Ford reading from his memoir which is called "Between Them: Remembering My Parents." Yeah, that passage really got to me and...
FORD: Still gets to me.
GROSS: Yeah, I can imagine. Why did you think of giving your father artificial respiration? You had no training in it. Had you seen it on TV or in the movies?
FORD: It's likely I had seen it on TV because I watched TV a lot. And I - but I had, you know, I was a boy at the YMCA. And we had to learn about all those things. The Holger Nielsen method of resuscitation - it was just coming into existence at that time that you could breathe down into someone's mouth. So I probably saw it at the YMCA.
GROSS: What was it like for you to on the one hand see your father dying and your mother going into a panic? And that image of her holding her knuckles to her forehead.
GROSS: Like, I've seen that. I think we've all seen that or done it.
GROSS: And that really stuck in my mind, too.
FORD: Yeah because it sticks in my mind and was vivid so much that I recalled it so many years afterward because it was authentic. It wasn't a learned response to calamity. It was absolutely authentic with my mother. That's what she did. She put her hands to her temples because she just couldn't imagine it. What was it like? Well, it wasn't like anything. It wasn't anything the likes of which I'd ever seen before. And how I responded was in a way that I guess must interest me because I think about it and write about it - also quite authentic.
I just did what I was impelled to do. I got up into bed with my father and tried to make him be alive again. And when I looked around at my mother and she was hysterical or maybe beyond hysterical, I thought, well, this is life now. This part's over. And this part has commenced. And my mother and I at that point became bound to each other in a way that we would be bound to each other forever, which was to say we had seen this together. We had loved this man. We loved each other. That's what life is going to be.
GROSS: Did it mean a new role for you too because you had stepped in as the 16-year-old son and tried to save him? And, like, your mother didn't give them artificial respiration. She wasn't, you know, she was just shaking him. But you tried to take over and take command and bring him back to life. I mean, you failed. He was dead. But it's the sense of, like, you were stepping up.
FORD: Well, I always say about myself I'm much better when the chips are down than when the chips are up. And that just may be my nature, you know. And did it change my relationship in the family dynamic? Not particularly, no. I went back to being a 16-year-old boy. And my mother, you know, kept on being the authority figure in life 'cause she said to me not long after that, she said, Richard, she said, you know, you've been in trouble with the police.
You've been a kind of oppositional kid. You just kind of have to quit doing that because I just don't have time now to come get you out of jail or get you out of trouble or go to the juvenile court with you anymore. Your father's dead. I have to get a job. Cut it out. So I cut it out.
GROSS: What were you doing that might have landed you in jail?
FORD: Oh, stealing, fighting, breaking into houses, things like that, just the usual kind of mischief. It was mischief more than it was true criminality, although I used to hang out with a boy with whom I was mischievous, and he did ultimately go to prison.
GROSS: Whose houses did you break into?
FORD: Oh, sometimes it was the houses of families where we had been to parties and found that the father of the girl or boy who we were visiting had a nice gun collection. So we would go in there and do that, take that.
GROSS: Take the gun? Did you feel guilty about that at all?
FORD: Guilty may not be the gene that I have, Terry. I was sorry when I got caught, that was for sure.
GROSS: What do you think of that teenager when you look back?
FORD: Joan Didion says that we're all probably well advised to keep a nodding relationship with the person that we used to be. Well, I have a nodding relationship to that 17, 16, 15-year-old boy who did those things. I'm glad he's not doing things like that anymore. But what he did, he did, and you might as well just - and I'm not proud of it, nor am I shamed of it. I just did it. And then - but then when my mother said to me you're really going to have to quit doing this, the little boy in me said, yes, ma'am. And I quit.
GROSS: Since the part of the book about your mother was written in 1986 and the part about your father was written just within the past couple of years...
GROSS: ...Is there a difference between how you perceive them now than you did when you were writing about your mother in '86? If you've gotten older, time has elapsed, memory does things to how we see the past.
FORD: Yes. In the end - about midway through writing about my father, I tried to ask myself the question that you've just asked and asked before which was what is the premise for this? I mean, I'm always trying to say when I'm writing something that I know what the premise is. And I thought the premise was to write about my father and after prior to that having written about my mother in a way of finding virtue, being able to articulate or exemplify a virtue to them.
And the virtue that I think I figured out that I didn't know which changed the way I felt about them was that as much as they loved me, an only child of childless parents for 15 years and how much they loved me and I loved them, they loved each other more. And I realized that the fact that they loved each other more in a way that did not diminish me was wonderful, that I grew up around two people whose marriage and whose affections and whose ferocity toward each other made me be third, and that that was such a nourishing and sustaining thing both to know and to experience.
GROSS: How come you don't feel bad about that? (Laughter).
FORD: Well, the same reason I don't...
GROSS: That they didn't put you first?
FORD: The same reason I don't feel guilty about breaking into those houses I guess.
FORD: If the chain's (ph) not there, then the chain's not there. Also, you know, the other thing, Terry...
FORD: ...Is being a writer isn't a way - a war against conventional wisdom or a war against received truths. And you have to in a way in a grainy way ask yourself do I feel diminished by the fact that my parents obviously loved each other more than anything? And you have to be willing to say, no, I actually don't. And then you're truthing (ph) with somebody because then you're going against what people would suppose.
GROSS: Are you OK with just having turned truth into a verb? (Laughter).
FORD: Well, that's what Mississippians do.
FORD: We turn nouns into verbs.
GROSS: (Laughter). Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. My guest is Richard Ford. His new memoir is called "Between Them: Remembering My Parents" and his other books include "The Sportswriter," "Independence Day" and "Let Me Be Frank With You." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Ford. His new memoir is about his parents, and it's called "Between Them." How would you describe your parents' personalities?
FORD: Well, my father was courteous. Now, I'm going to just say what I think. I'm not going to reach for the $5 words. My father was submissive to authority. He was volatile. He was affectionate. He was not obviously contemplative. He was hardworking and dogged. And he was almost preternaturally skilless. He couldn't fix anything. He didn't know how anything worked. He couldn't put up a boxing - punching bag for me to, you know, do what I liked to do which is to hit things. And I remember that he put up a boxing bag for me. And I hit it one time, and it fell off the wall.
(Laughter) So that was who he was. And my mother was contemplative. She was profoundly protective and defensive about the things that she loved. She was also volatile. We're all volatile. She would, you know - she was a person who when she would tell me, Richard, you need to go out and collect for your paper route, and if I would say, no, I'm not going to do that, she would sometimes throw my bag of coins at me and - as a way of telling me that I needed to get out and collect from my peers.
But she was also sweet, and she was mirthful. And they liked to drink and laugh and told off-color jokes. And they were perfectly suited for each other. As I said before, I think when my father saw my mother, he thought, oh, my God. And when my mother saw my father she thought finally.
GROSS: Your mother's mother - your maternal grandmother...
GROSS: ...Gave birth to your mother when she was 14.
FORD: That's right.
GROSS: That's so young.
FORD: I think it was even young in 1910.
GROSS: Yeah. I was wondering. I think it's probably true that it was even young in 1910.
FORD: Yeah. And that had consequences in their lives ever after that. I mean, I don't know anything about the circumstances of how that happened. I mean, some of it was fairly self-explanatory, but my grandmother Shelley - Lessie was her name - or as she was also called Essie - was always jealous of my mother because they were more or less within one generation of each other, you might say.
And my mother was very pretty, and my grandmother was also pretty. But then they got divorced, and then she married this remarkable man named Ben Shelley. So when Ben Shelley came into the fray of their lives, I think there was a little roostering (ph) around with who was going to be, you know, most dear to him. And so consequently, they sent my mother off to the convent of St. Anne's in Fort Smith and got her out of the picture for a while.
GROSS: Do you think your mother was sexually harassed?
FORD: You know, I don't think anybody has a right to say do I guess my mother was sexually harassed. So the answer has to be no. I would have to know that...
FORD: ...To say that...
FORD: And I don't know that, so I wouldn't say that. I mean, he was a louche guy and a raffish guy and did like women. And my mother was very pretty, and they weren't related. So I'll just leave it at that.
GROSS: So your mother was sent to a convent because she was young and beautiful and maybe that could cause problems and maybe she was competitive with her mother. Her mother pretended to people like your mother was her sister...
FORD: She did.
GROSS: ...As opposed goes to her daughter.
FORD: She did.
GROSS: OK. So...
FORD: Not a very nice woman either, my grandmother.
GROSS: How well did you know her?
FORD: I knew her extremely well, and she loved me a lot. And - because after my father died, they - Ben Shelley and she, Mrs. Shelley as she was only known by that time - took me up and took care of me. But I have to say she was a tough act. She was a very tough act. She's seen a lot of bad things in her life, and she knew just exactly how not to have to see anymore.
GROSS: Was going to a convent school good for your mother since she grew up in a home without a floor? Going to a convent school might have given her more exposure than she might have had at home.
FORD: Oh, it was a godsend to her to go to school with the nuns. I mean, they taught her and they disciplined her because she was an undisciplined young girl, by her own description. And they borned (ph) in her a spirituality, which although she didn't become a Catholic, was a buoying spirituality throughout her whole life. And it also created in her a respect for authority, a respect for ritual, a respect for all of the things that practicing Catholicism does.
She just didn't quite stay in school long enough for that to make - get a full grip on her. So when she was 15, they jerked her out of St. Anne's and put her to work. So she never really got the whole treatment and gone through high school, as she would have liked to do - taught her how to read, taught her to appreciate literature, taught her to appreciate culture in all kinds of ways, I mean, albeit, you know, the cloistered culture of a convent.
GROSS: Your father sold packaged starch...
GROSS: ...Like, laundry starch...
GROSS: ...For the Faultless company, which is still in business. I went - appears to be, anyways. I went online, and there's ads for Faultless Spray Starch.
FORD: That's right.
FORD: He sold that. And they're in Kansas City, Kan.
GROSS: And he did that from 1938 until his death in 1960. He covered parts of seven different states...
GROSS: ...In the south. And he was always on the road selling it. And before you were born - and you were born 15 years into your parents' marriage - your mother traveled with him on the road, you know, so he could sell starch. And she, sounds like, did a lot of the bookkeeping aspect.
FORD: She did. They were a team.
GROSS: Yeah. And I guess I really wonder what it was like then to be - in the early days of the automobile, to be a traveling salesman selling something like starch. It's not something anybody's especially passionate about.
GROSS: So it's not like, I'm sure - it's not like your father, like, really had a feel for starch (laughter), you know?
FORD: No, he had a feel for a job that paid.
GROSS: Absolutely, and...
FORD: I mean, I think that feeling that we have that we have to have a rewarding job and that our jobs have to sustain spiritually was something that either happened to him just by nature or didn't happen to him and he never expected it to. But to wonder what their life was like, which of course I did in writing this book, I think their life was great because they didn't have kids, they didn't have any responsibilities, they didn't have a mortgage.
They were young, and they were passionately in love. And they could live in the car, more or less. They didn't...
GROSS: A company car.
FORD: Yeah. They didn't sleep in the car. They slept in hotels. And they could go out to roadhouses and drink and have a good time. I just think they had the time of their lives. And by the time I came along in 1944, they were ready to change from one way of living to another way of living. And I fitted right into their scheme.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Ford. His new memoir "Between Them" is about his parents. We'll talk more after a break, and he'll tell us the sentence he most regrets having said to his mother. And Maureen Corrigan will review the new book by Elizabeth Strout, who's best known for her book "Olive Kitteridge." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford. His new memoir is about his parents. The first section is about his father, who spent his life working as a traveling salesman selling laundry starch. He died in 1960 when Ford was 16. The second part of the book is about his mother, and that was written soon after she died in 1986 of metastatic lung cancer.
Hotels figure really prominently in your life story...
FORD: Oh, God.
GROSS: ...'Cause your parents, when they were on the road selling starch, lived in hotels. They had a rental place in Arkansas, but they were rarely there. Your grandparents ran a hotel. They managed - your maternal grandfather managed the Marion Hotel which, you know, I looked it up on the Internet. It was a much bigger deal than I thought, that hotel.
FORD: Six hundred rooms. Six hundred rooms.
FORD: It was the place in Arkansas where that - where all of the legislation got done in the smoke-filled rooms. It was enormous. It was a whole world for me, where I went to live after my father got sick in 1948. As much as could be congenial with school, they would ship me off there because my father had to recuperate over a long period of time and was never completely healthy again. But I sort of was a growing up kid in that enormous hotel.
GROSS: I'm thinking that the issue of class must have been kind of confusing to you because, you know, your parents are on the road selling starch, making a living but not a big living. Whereas your grandparents are running this hotel, an expensive hotel. Politicians stay there. Prestigious people coming to town stay there. There was a hot springs nearby. And people came for you, know, cure - bathing cures there. They'd stay at the hotel.
So what was your sense of where you fit in in class since you were kind of like a resident at the hotel? People were paying, you know, a lot of money to come live there, sometimes famous people. But, like, you were just there. You were a part - you were just like a part of the hotel, so it was yours in some way.
FORD: It was all mine. And I treated it as if it were all mine. But it was so profoundly ambiguous that I can't even tell you what the fallout of it was. I mean, I was the manager's grandson. I was a little boy up until I was a late teenager. I had the privileges over the house. I saw all of the - all of the untoward and unseemly things that went on in that place. I mastered - or tried to - all of the skills that one could master in the hotel from the PBX to waiting tables to hopping bells to running - to working in the front office.
I did all of those things, so it was like I had a kind of mastery of things. And yet, I was someplace amorphously on the totem pole, but you couldn't have said where. I mean, it's not being able to articulate that in a single sentence that probably makes such subjects the proper subjects for imaginative literature.
GROSS: What were some of the things you saw other people doing? (Laughter).
FORD: Well, I saw them be dead. I saw that several times. It was important for my grandfather when someone killed himself up in one of the rooms to - because it was - the bellboys or the housekeepers would enter the room. And they would find some guy croaked there. And they wouldn't necessarily call him. And if I was around, he would always bring me with him. Open the door. There's the dead guy. It was a nonunion house.
And the only way union organizers could get in was on the night shift, the 11 to 7 shift. And so these union people - and this is - well, I think it's entirely African-Americans. The union organizers would come into the hotel, sneak in late at night and have - try to give a speech to the people working in the laundry overnight. Then he would hear about this because somebody would say there's a guy downstairs in the basement doing this.
He'd put a pistol in his belt, wake me up and down we'd go. He'd come down there and run the guy off. And he never pulled his gun. But he certainly let them know he had it. He showed them the butt of his gun, stuck it in the front of his belt. I saw ladies from the Delta down in South Arkansas come in to have lesbian trysts.
I saw them come in and ask for one of the handsome African-American bellmen to come up and bring some, quote, "ice," endquote. I just saw all of that stuff. It made me understand that hotels are places where people go to do things that they don't want other people to know about. Not a bad way to become a novelist.
GROSS: ...I'm still trying to figure out why your grandfather would have taken you through the rooms where somebody had just, like, died. He was exposing you to things that a lot of parents would try to shield their children from.
FORD: Yeah. Oh, my God. Oh, yeah. Well, he didn't have any natural children of his own. My mother was, you know, his step daughter. So he didn't have the typical kind of relationship to me that a father would have to a son. And I'm sure if you had asked him, he would have said, well, this is something a boy needs to see.
You know, like you need to learn how to shoot ducks, or you need to learn how to ride a horse or all of these things. And I don't think he gave it a second thought. It was just an innate quality in him which wanted to say look at that. That's just how he was. And I've never regretted a moment of it.
GROSS: You write that one of the saddest things in your memories is that after your father died, his mother sent another of her sons to claim your father's body, bring it back to Little Rock for burial there. They did not tell your mother they were going to do this.
FORD: That's right.
GROSS: Your mother had hoped to be buried eventually alongside him and to spend eternity together. There is no room for her in the family plot that he was brought to, thus depriving her of that sense that they will be laying beside each other for eternity. Did she talk with you about that?
FORD: No. My mother wasn't a great talker about much. She wasn't secretive. She just didn't feel like there was much to be gained from self-revelation. And it may very well be she understood that her vocabulary for such things would be inadequate to the experience. I don't know. They didn't tell me a great deal.
GROSS: But I'm wondering feeling like, you know, that there is no, you know, afterlife, no beyond, what meaning would it have for you to have them side by side in a cemetery?
FORD: Oh, only that it would have made her happy, only, only that. And I know through the 20 years that she lived beyond his death that she was not constantly thinking about that, but in the understory of her consciousness there was that fact that she would not be lying beside him. Yeah, I think - and it made her sad. And if it made her sad, it made me sad.
GROSS: So what did she want done with her body when she was dying?
FORD: Well, I mean, she's buried next to her mother and her stepfather kind of in her terms.
GROSS: Oh, God, what does that mean to you metaphorically because she never even liked her mother?
FORD: Well, that's a total act of irrelevancy. No, she didn't like her mother. And she was iffy about her stepfather. And I have come up to the issue because Kristina and I went to Little Rock, found my mother's grave. I was there when she died, of course, and there when she was buried.
And I kind of came up to the issue of, well, do I want to have my parents' bodies exhumed and finally, you know, rest? Forget it. I thought if she would know it, I would do it. But I don't have any belief that she would know it. And so I - Kristina said, you know, sweetheart, she said, don't do that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Richard Ford. And his new book is a memoir. It's called "Between Them: Remembering My Parents." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Ford. His novels include "The Sportswriter," "Independence Day," "Let Me Be Frank With You." Now, he has a memoir about his parents called "Between Them."
So another thing that stands out from your book, the sentence you wish you'd never said. And, again, this gets to death.
FORD: We do go there, don't we?
GROSS: Yeah. Well, after your mother had metastatic breast cancer, and she had one breast removed, you were trying to convince her to move from the South to Princeton, where you were teaching at the time.
GROSS: She, like many parents who live far away, refused to come.
FORD: That's right.
GROSS: Until she'd gotten sick, an ambulance was called. And she survived that and started to spring back. But you said, you know, you really ought to think about moving to Princeton. And this time around she said what?
FORD: She said to me, Richard, if I get sick and it becomes clear that I'm going to die, I don't want you moving me up someplace and taking care of me. And she said, because I took care of my mother after Ben (ph) died. And it was the biggest mistake I ever made - taking care of my mother - because they just festered together. They were not happy. As you said before, they were only 14 years apart. They didn't get along with each other. And my grandmother wasn't a very nice person anyway. So I think my mother just saw that as a template for disaster. And so she said don't do it.
And in the year when it was becoming evident that she was in serious decline, she said to me again, don't come down here and take care of me. So by God, I did not. I stayed doing what I was doing. And she was in Little Rock. And this will make me seem heartless. And believe me, don't think I haven't thought of this. I was doing what she said. That doesn't authorize me. But I did what I was doing - writing a book, living a life. When she got quite ill in the autumn, then I fell in. I got in line and did it - whatever way I could take care of her. But I know you're heading toward this line in the book.
She said to me, she said - this is in October of 1982 - she said, well, she said, I don't quite know if I'm going to be able to take care of myself soon. And I said, well, Mother, if you get to that point where you feel like you can't take care of yourself - remembering, as I was, what she said to me - I said, then you can move in with us, with Kristina and me. And she said - her eyes brightened. And she said, oh. She said, OK. She said, I'll start to think about that.
And then a shadow fell over my thought which was you're not going to live that long. You're not going to be alive more than a couple more months. And I said to her - and these are the words that I wish I had never said - which is what a memoir is for, right? Tell the unthinkable. I said, well, I said, don't make your plans yet, I said. And what I think I thought I was trying to say to her is you might get better or you might be dead. But I saw leave her eyes at that point some sense of possibility which I had put there and which I was then responsible for taking away. And I'm sorry.
GROSS: Do you think she interpreted that as, like, don't come because I'm making the offer but I don't really want you?
FORD: No. No. I don't think she thought that at all. She knew I loved her. My mother and I were never in doubt about who loved who. We loved each other and we said it. I think that what she thought was that I knew and was accepting her loss of life, her demise perhaps a little bit before she had. And that she was a little bit - I mean, I can make this fairly melodramatic if you want to. I think she was clutching a little bit at some little tendril of hope which I was trying to both preserve.
My motives, like everybody's motives, are quite complex. I can't say that I wrote my mother off at that point. Part of it might have been that I didn't want her to go through the whole rigmarole of trouble to move up to Princeton and then die. My motives were complex and not at all clear. But I'm sorry I said it, for whatever were my motives 'cause I saw something pass out of her face that I never saw in her face again.
GROSS: You know, it's interesting that you say that you told each other you loved each other all the time. I think that was uncommon generationally. And maybe for...
FORD: I don't know, Terry.
FORD: I don't know. I just - you know, being a novelist, I don't think in terms of anything but particulars. I never think about what is generational or what is apposite for a period of time in the world. I just think that individuals - it's like Blake (ph) says - if you're going to do good in the world, you can only do good in particulars. So I think we thought we were doing good to each other in particular. I love you. It was natural to us.
GROSS: You were born 15 years into your parents' marriage.
GROSS: And the title of your memoir about your parents is "Between Them" in part because you feel like you came between them. You know, like instead of traveling on the road together when he was a traveling salesman, your mother stayed home with you. And he was on the road five days a week.
You feel like they loved each other more than they loved you. And you don't mean that in a negative way. You're glad that they had such abiding love for each other. You and your wife have no children. And it sounds like that was a conscious choice.
GROSS: Do you think that your feelings about your parents and how their love for each other, that you in some way came between them, that it interrupted their ability to be on the road together, do you think that has anything to do with not having children?
FORD: It can't have nothing to do with it. I mean, I never thought that I had the capacities - psychic, physical - to be a parent. I never had much affection for being around children. You know, there have to be children. But I didn't feel like I had to be a parent because I didn't think I'd be very good at it. And I wanted to be a novelist. And I didn't want there to be any hostages to - hostages to fate. If I was going to fail at being a novelist, I was going to fail on my own rather than saying, well, I had to do this, well, I had to do that, the kids had to do this. I didn't want that excuse for myself. So it was ultimately selfish, as people will quickly realize.
But I think it was also because my parents loved each other so much and their love was undying, that my feelings about marriage - and no two marriages are alike. Ours is not like my parents'. My feelings of its sort of permanence in my life owes to them. Yeah.
GROSS: So I hope you don't mind me asking this...
FORD: No, please.
GROSS: ...But people always say you ask this to women and you never ask it to men, which I don't think is true. But...
FORD: Go for it.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
GROSS: One of the arguments people sometimes give for having children is that in your old age they will help take care of you. And if you don't have children, people say to you, who will take care of you when you get older? So you're getting older. You're 73.
FORD: No, I am - no, I've gotten there.
GROSS: You've gotten there, OK.
GROSS: So do you think, I should have had children (laughter), just like, there's going to be no one to come and look in on me?
FORD: I mean, some little servants who would interrupt their life the way that my mother asked me not to interrupt mine? Never gave it a thought, really. I mean, I've never heard people talk about taking care of their aged parents with a lot of enthusiasm. I mean, they may put a good face on it, but - and not to say that they're happy then when their parents die. I mean, this is the stuff of literature, right? So no, I've never given a - I've never given a thought to what's going to happen when we're old and crippled and can't look after ourselves, who's going to do that.
I - but certainly wouldn't want to be the servant class of children who I would want to, you know, subject to that. But I'd rather not have done that than have to worry about whatever it is I'll eventually have to worry about if I live. Sometimes people say to me, what's the thing you - this won't surprise you - what's the thing you fear most? A long life, for me. It's always a long life.
GROSS: What do you mean when you say that?
FORD: Well, I just don't see people getting old looking very happy. I mean, once in a while you'll see somebody and then that will be the guidon bearer for everybody else's attitude toward great age. I just don't see it happening very much. And so for me, who loves life and quite enthusiastic and vigorous about life, I just want to live that way if I can and not some other way. But what's wrong with that? And, you know, frankly, I'm not running for office. I'm not trying to please everybody with what I think.
GROSS: So you don't usually write memoir. Your new book is a memoir.
FORD: That's right.
GROSS: Why have you chosen to write a memoir this time around? Some of these stories are stories you had previously written about in the form of fiction.
FORD: I never thought that, really. I never thought that when I wrote a piece of fiction which maybe would make a reader think that I was writing about my mother, that I was writing about my mother. I think I wrote a memoir because I missed my parents really a lot, and it wasn't going away as I was getting older and that I could, as I said before when we first started talking, that I could draw them nearer to me by doing that and I could testify to the fact of their lives.
GROSS: Richard Ford, thank you so much for talking with us.
FORD: Well, you're more than welcome. It's really been a pleasure.
GROSS: Richard Ford's new memoir about his parents is called "Between Them." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.