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‘They Left Us Everything,’ by Plum Johnson.

Post Date: July 13, 2015 by josiemounsey

For anyone who has dealt with the loss of parents and resultant sifting through the ‘stuff’ they left behind, while coping with grief, guilt, and anger, Johnson’s memoir will put a humorous and touching spin on a toxic situation.


Imagine tackling the task in a 23-room home bulging with possessions accumulated in the fifty-something years the family occupied the house.  Oddly enough, Johnson’s feelings at the end of the sixteen months she spent dismantling the home in which she grew up, contrast with the commonly-held belief that when you reach a certain age you should cull your own possessions to spare your offspring the daunting task.  Instead, by going through what some people may regard as clutter, she began to know and understand her parents and four brothers and make sense of the past.


Johnson’s disciplinarian British father and exuberant Southern-belle mother were seemingly polar opposites, rubbing along together in the rambling clapboard house (aptly named ‘Point ‘O View’) overlooking Lake Ontario in the charming town of Oakville.  After the death of her father, Johnson copes as best she can with her increasingly cantankerous mother – a woman who maintained that “Going deaf is the best thing that ever happened to me”!  At the beginning of the book, the reader feels what Johnson feels as she pushes her mother to the local Sears store in a heavy wheelchair, complete with portable oxygen tank (a combined weight of over 200 lbs.), to purchase items that she knows, from past experience, will be returned after Christmas.  When her mother dies some weeks later, Johnson feels the all-too-familiar guilt that she hadn’t been more patient.


As she begins the daunting task of clearing out the now solitary house, Johnson sees her parents in everything around; everything she touches echoes with the rhythm of family life in a home that was always filled with people, including those down on their luck who her parents often invited to share their home.  It recalls an age when neighbours helped each other and no one locked their doors.  In fact, one day her parents came home to find a note on the kitchen table:  ‘Thank you so much for letting us tour your lovely museum.  We had no idea it was here!’.


Rather than being a tale of grief and loss as Johnson tries to untangle herself from her mother with whom she always had a difficult relationship, she discovers a different mother from the one she thought she had known.  Although frustration and exhaustion come through clearly, the narrative is sprinkled with humour and touching reminiscences.  Even the buzzing in the walls Johnson thinks she hears is finally explained.


The memoir is a worthy winner of the 2015 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction.

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