They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

I didn’t realise when I picked this book up from one of my regular forays to the thrift store that it was a memoir. The technicolour enhanced bathing costumes hung on a line outside a weatherboard house was enough to pull me in and I have to say that, whilst I wasn’t looking for a memoir, I have read some really good books that deal with the author’s recollection of their upbringing. Some of them are shocking like The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls but some of them can be charming like Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.

And besides, whether fiction or fact, they’re all stories, aren’t they?

What Plum Johnson’s book is, is an exploration of her relationship with her mother in the wake of her death, a relationship which has not always been easy and which, towards the end of her mother’s life, Plum feels as a bind: a suffocating constriction born and borne of duty combined with guilt which she is not able to escape.

Her mother has carers who live in an apartment attached to the house but despite their proximity, it is her daughter whom she wants to be with her and so, Plum feels obliged to visit her regularly and spend time with her although she resents this and does not see it as a finite thing; it is merely a hindrance which wears on her as her mother is demanding and Plum struggles to see past this to the old, frail woman who her mother has become.

The book begins with Plum visiting her mother in the house in Oakville, Ontario, a big rambling lakefront property which has been the family home forever and contains all the trappings of people having lived there a long time without having to rid themselves of excessive detritus every time they move. It is dated and cluttered and in need of work and when Plum’s mother passes away, Plum is left with the task of clearing everything out, her brothers Chris, Robin and Victor happy for her to live in the house while she completes the task.

What happens subsequently is that living at the house provides Plum with the means to discover her mum all over again, in the vestiges of her mother’s life which are contained in the house.

In every object that Plum is charged with clearing out of the house, there is a memory attached, some of them slight but some of significance; some of them have been a secret and are only now coming to light.

And it is not only her mother whose memory she revisits but also her father who had already passed and suffered from Alzheimer’s; her brother, Sandy who has also passed some years previously; the colourful lives of her parents before they were married and before they settled in Oakville and, once they became parents, an abundance of family memories from her childhood.

The sifting through the objects, the papers, the furniture, the trunks of stuff all provide knowledge and insight and these uncovered scraps act like pieces that contribute to create a composite picture of the person her mother was, the person who Plum lost sight of over the years: like ivy growing over an old building, Plum’s resentments, emotions and impressions have caused the idea of her mother to become obscured. Living in the house and exposing herself to the rawness of the emotion involved in clearing out a loved one’s lifelong possessions, their material essence, allows her to uncover the woman that her mother was and find some semblance of peace in her rediscovery.

This book describes a cathartic journey and also examines the idea of who we are in accordance with our interaction of the people around us; how we are shaped by family, home and expectations.

This book is funny, moving and enlightening and shows that while there are times when familial obligation can feel like a chore, that the time spent with family should be cherished as it can all too soon end.

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