I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall the day they discussed it: I wonder how far their conversations strayed from the particulars of Plum Johnson’s story; how personal and anecdotal they became.
It’s hard to read They Left Us Everything without meandering in and out of our own memories and life history because it’s a book about the universal, eventual experience of the death of a parent and its aftermath.
In a television interview the author gave while promoting her book, the term Sandwich Generation comes up several times, and refers to the period when a grown child is pressed into caring for an aging parent while still raising their own children.
Her experience of being sandwiched in this especially gruelling way is the knot of pain around which her memoir is constructed.
Longevity can be both a blessing and a curse. Johnson, a divorced mother of three, experienced this firsthand as twenty years of her life—from 45 to 65—were overtaken first by her father’s sad but gentle fifteen-year decline into Alzheimer’s, and then by more years of caring for her fragile and increasingly difficult mother Anne, who lived well into her nineties.
She refers to this part of her life as the “lost years”, and speaks with disarming candour about the anger, resentment and guilt she felt as she moved through it.
Her story is a shared one: she didn’t carry this burden alone. The truth is, it took a small village to care for her parents at the end of their lives, including all four of Johnson’s younger brothers (though several, scattered around the world, could at best offer a sympathetic ear and their intermittent presence: her brother Sandy succumbed to a terrible cancer along the way) and the live-in support of an extraordinary married couple of caregivers.
So many elements of Johnson’s life seem to have conspired to engender her memoir about all that which lingers and all that we leave behind; about the weight of our memories and how easy it is for the precious artifacts of one person’s life to become the flotsam and jetsam of another’s.
Her parents’ lives were not only long, they were anchored, for sixty-five years, at the same address: a beautiful, rambling old house with several dozen rooms built in Oakville, on the shores of Lake Ontario, named Point O’ View by its previous owners.
How serendipitous and symbolic then, that it’s the insights gained during the sixteen months it took Johnson and her brothers to empty Point O’ View that are the heart of They Left Us Everything.
I look at my own small house, which we’ve lived in for 33 years, and am alarmed by all of the stuff we’ve accumulated. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Plum Johnson and her siblings to excavate and sift through the contents of their museum-like childhood home—a task complicated by the fact that though her father was a disciplined, rather austere and orderly person, he was also thrifty to the point of ironing old gift ribbons for future use, while her mother was a hurricane on wheels and unapologetic pack rat.
In essence, the house, the parents and the passing of time were the perfect storm.
Plum makes the decision to move back into her childhood home, temporarily, to direct operations. She and her brothers move through room and after room, floor by floor, cataloging the furniture, books, silverware, antiques and miscellany that are their parents’ legacy, including such things as: old ski wax, small baby-food jars filled with nuts, bolts and nails, plastic flowers and broken lamps.
They’re drawn first to the surface layer of memorabilia, those things that evoke remembrances of childhood, but as six weeks stretch out to sixteen months, and the final sharing and dispersal of all of their parents’ possessions has almost been achieved, Plum, in particular, is transformed.
Though their agreed upon ultimate objective is to sell the house which none of them can afford, Plum becomes more and more ambivalent, and the language she uses reflects this: she finds herself wanting to “rescue” objects right and left and “saving” others, while trying to figure out a way to finance purchasing the home herself.
In this skillfully structured memoir, the reader walks with the author on a path that spirals inwardly. As the outer rings of memorabilia are shed, Johnson realizes that she is, in fact, in search of the key to knowing and better understanding her parents—especially her mother.
I’ve always felt, from the moment my first children were born (twins!), that my life with their father was fated: that my children were meant to exist, and that anything that might happen to us from then on would never alter that fact.
In the case of Alex and Anne, Johnson’s parents, I got the feeling that the lovers themselves were brought together by a cosmic conspiracy, a force so great that it took her from Virginia (USA) to London, during the Second World War, where she met him (an Englishman); separated them for months on end, then brought them together on the Asian front, before gathering them up, children in tow, and plunking them in Oakville, Ontario.
Alex and Anne’s improbable love story brings weight to a narrative that might otherwise have felt like it belonged in a lifestyle magazine. It provides the outer pieces of the puzzle Johnson attempts to solve as she slowly but surely reaches the center and finds the pieces of her mother that belong there, in the form of a collection of over 2000 letters penned by her mum during the course of her life, to Alex, to family members and to friends; letters so beautifully written that those who received them held onto them and, it would appear, very often sent them back to their author to be preserved.
These letters are the key that allows Plum Johnson to unlock the pain of her complicated relationship with her mother, to understand her grip on the stuff of her childhood at Point O’ View, and, finally, to begin grieving in earnest.
The tremendous success of They Left Us Everything, Johnson’s first book, suggests that good writing can make the very personal universal.
I’ve written this piece during the days between Christmas and New Year’s, a time when many of us feel the pull of memories and nostalgia which we experience as a mixture of love, sadness and longing. In this, we mirror Plum Johnson’s journey, and are better able to absorb her memoir’s lovely message, and to consider our own relationship with the past, present and future.