They Left Us Everything – a memoir by Plum Johnson
The books short-listed for the 2015 RBC Taylor Prize was recently announced. This literary award will be awarded to the author whose book best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception. The winner will be announced 10 March 2015.
One of the books nominated this year is They Left Us Everything a memoir by Plum Johnson. Plum Johnson and her brothers inherited the family home when their mother died. The home where their parents had lived since 1952, where they had grown up – and where everything was kept.
This is a book no only about the time after their mother dies but also all the years before, when Plum and her brothers were children, and beyond. Anne and Alex Johnson both lived to a ripe old age – the final decades with live-in caregivers and the constant attention of their children. Plum being the eldest, and the only daughter, naturally took on most of the responsibility, with her brothers contributing as necessary. Early on they established “sibling suppers” a brilliant way of meeting to discuss the increasing needs of their aging parents and to mutually support each other. After the death of their father, following years of Alzheimer’s disease, their mother demands more and more attention, but is able to live at home where dies shortly after Christmas at the age of 94. The siblings decide that Plum will move into the house and begin the task of dealing with the contents and preparing the house for sale.
It does not take long to realize that this book is also about the mother and daughter relationship – the prickly, messy, exasperating, extraordinary and wonderful dynamics of love between mother and daughter. The everything left is not just the house and the physical stuff but the emotional everything and all that goes with it.
The Johnson parents lived a fascinating life, meeting during the Second World War, before settling in Oakville in 1952. They purchased a 23-room house on the shores of Lake Ontario where they raised their five children. I was reminded of Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, another family raised by more than eccentric parents.
Growing up in the 1950’s the Johnson children were left to run wild from dawn to dusk, as we all were at that time. But, in the home their behavior was expected to meet their father’s strict expectations. If it was not, the punishment was brutal – more so for the boys than their sister. This brutality of discipline was not uncommon in that generation and will always haunt those who experienced, or witnessed, it – perhaps why we are considered to have been too permissive with or own children.
Having recently been part of the family clearing out my mother-in-law’s home I had to laugh when one of the first things Plum threw out was the plastic flowers – and the jar full of pens, none of which worked and when clearing out of the spice cupboard where some of the contents had “best before dates before I was born”. I suspect that after reading this book some of us will be clearing out the cupboards in our own homes.
Most of us of the baby boom generation are now dealing with aging parents – parents who may be more or less difficult, having reached the age where many feel they have no need to be diplomatic or considerate with their adult children. The reality is that no matter how old the child or the parent the hurt can be deep.
Plum Johnson expected to spend six weeks living in her parent’s house, but stays for sixteen months. During that time she deals not only with the house and it‘s contents but her own memories. The substantial furniture and silverware is less desirable and valuable than the family imagined, and the house takes longer to sell than they expected. Clearing out closets full of clothes and possessions that stir memories of her childhood, Plum is often paralyzed by the task before her. Friends help, and her brothers come for the final push to clear out the attic, where their discoveries amaze and delight them all.
They Left Us Everything is a fascinating and delightful story – a satisfying and thought-provoking book.