An only child absorbs a great deal – possibly more if his parents are older. An only child’s imagination is strummed melodically by the things they say and don’t say. I have always said and still believe my childhood was a blissful one. But that is not quite to say that life was normal. My parents’ age wasn’t normal for having a first child. Even in their view. They were older. Married already fifteen years there was, unspoken, the sense that they should’ve been younger, or I should’ve been born fifteen years before, when they were new. I grew up feeling I should be older, or was older. There had already been so much important life before me – of which I knew little, and that to them did not bear talking about since it did not include me. I have no memory of either of them saying – as I grew older – ‘Richard, do you remember?’ Or, ‘Richard, once, your father and I . . .’ What they talked about and what was in the air was only the present, interrupted by the long times between Monday and Friday when my father was on his traveling route, selling laundry starch. These absences made their closeness to each other even more paramount, since together was where they’d always, only been. I was where things had deviated and always sensed that. For all this to be a blissful life, love is certainly required, and a willingness – on my part – to fill some things in and deflect others.
His being gone must’ve created strains. My mother never complained in my hearing, though she was volatile – even in her loving. A shouter, a smacker, a frowner and a glowerer. Suddenly she’d had a baby. Suddenly she was too much alone in a strange city where old ties mattered and newcomers were foreigners. Possibly something about me – about my nature – also made things straitened. When I began to talk, I talked a great, great deal and wasn’t naturally passive or compliant. When he was gone, life with her was never completely calm. Though when he was back, calm was instantly, rigorously enforced. Which created its own strains.
As time went on, did I ever sense that something was wrong between them? No. It was my child’s outlook to think most things were right. And yet if life’s eternal drama is of events seeking a more perfect state, their life and mine was not that. My recalled feelings over that time – my little-boy life, in Jackson, on Congress, in my first years, in the forties and beginning fifties – are of a hectic, changing, provisional existence. They loved me, protected me. But the experience of life was of events, of things and people in motion, and of being often alone and to the side of things. Which did not make me sorry and does not now.
The above is an excerpt from Richard Ford’s Between Them, available now from Bloomsbury.