Review: They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson

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We can spend years with someone – living with them, eating with them, talking with them – and never really know them. That’s a theme explored by Plum Johnson in her memoir, They Left Us Everything.

When Johnson’s elderly mother passes away after nearly 20 years of elder care, Johnson takes on the task of cleaning and dismantling the family home, Point O’ View (so named by her mother). The monstrous 23-room home, in a small town on Lake Ontario, is where her parents lived for over 50 years and raised Johnson and her four younger brothers. Thanks to Johnson’s packrat mother and frugal father, who passed away five years earlier, there is no shortage of treasures to be unearthed in their home. But as Johnson works her way through the dust and clutter over the course of 16 months, she begins to learn about her parents, understanding their lives – and her family – in new ways.

Although Johnson’s book is a personal memoir, I found myself thinking of my own childhood and family throughout. Thankfully, I’m not able to relate to the experience of parents passing away and cleaning out the family home, but I was still able to relate to what Johnson discovers: our parents leave us everything. The meaning of inheritance is that our parents are part of us in ways that we often do not even realize.

Johnson’s writing is both humourous and touching in turns, and I found myself laughing and nearly crying in parts. One of my favourite anecdotes is about a plaque Johnson and her brothers put up as teenagers, marking their house’s former owner as a slave driver (their father), and signed by The Oakville Hysterical Society. Their furious father soon redirects his anger towards the the Oakville Historical Society, who demand he take the plaque down – a demand he refuses – and so the plaque stays up for years.

Johnson doesn’t romanticize when she describes her parents. Her relationship, particularly with her mother, is complex. She paints a portrait of her mother as strong-willed yet almost needy at times, and her father as disciplined and meticulous. Yet Johnson comes to understand that her perception of her parents is not the way others saw them. She also comes to realize, through old letters and artifacts, that their relationship was perhaps not what she thought. Johnson’s journey through grief mixed with guilt after the death of her mother is intangible in many ways, but she manages to put the experience it into meaningful words that resonate.

They Left Us Everything has been shortlisted for 2015 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction, and it’s easy to see why. It’s moving and heartfelt and incredibly relatable. It left me thinking about my parents, and what I thought I knew about them. It made me see them as people who once had an identity that didn’t include being parents. It’s a book that leaves you thoughtful about the meaning of family and legacy long after the last page.

Have you read They Left Us Everything? How did it make you think about the meaning of family? Could you relate?

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