This book is a tribute to one mom, but it can be read as a tribute to all moms. Read it a sunny, bright day or a rainy, cloudy grey day, no matter when for it evokes melancholy and sadness as you think about the theme of the book and how it relates to your own life.
I read this book as author Plum Johnson’s tribute to all moms.
They Left Us Everything
After almost twenty years of caring for elderly parents—first for their senile father, and then for their cantankerous ninety-three-year-old mother—author Plum Johnson and her three younger brothers experience conflicted feelings of grief and relief when their mother, the surviving parent, dies.
Now they must empty and sell the beloved family home, which hasn’t been de-cluttered in more than half a century. Twenty-three rooms bulge with history, antiques, and oxygen tanks. Plum remembers her loving but difficult parents who could not have been more different: the British father, a handsome, disciplined patriarch who nonetheless could not control his opinionated, extroverted Southern-belle wife who loved tennis and gin gimlets. The task consumes her, becoming progressively more rewarding than she ever imagined.
Items from childhood trigger memories of her eccentric family growing up in the small town of Oakville, on the shores of Lake Ontario in the 1950’s and 60’s. But unearthing new facts about her parents helps her reconcile those relationships with a more accepting perspective about who they were and what they valued.
They Left Us Everything is a funny, touching memoir about the importance of preserving family history to make sense of the past and nurturing family bonds to safeguard the future.
The audience for this book
This book is aimed at a particular readership: members of large families with a number of brothers and/or sisters, plus parents who have lived long lives and families that have lived in the same home for many years.
The author, Plum Johnson has/had three brothers; her parents died late in life; the family home was in Oakville, Ontario and was lived in for nearly half a century. A lot was accumulated over those many years and most of it was kept throughout all that time.
Johnson’s parents were special. They had broad experiences with travel, professionals and personal interests which they seemed to have journaled and retained for their children through strong memories, engaging diaries, rich correspondences and lasting conversations with their kids at their dinner table. The siblings seem to have had strong bonds with one another bonding with each other as a constructive, cooperative team who had to deal with their parents as they grew old and later with the estate the parents bequeathed them.
The family home
The family home was a huge, historic house and a positive force in the lives of every family member. Twenty-three rooms filled with nostalgic mementoes and vibrant memories. Everything was old, the furniture, the adjoining structures, the dock, the gardens, the lot, the lake, even the town. More importantly, the family was energetic in recalling and retaining memories about everything connected with the home and the family who lived there.
A strong story
Given the possible audience for whom it was written, this book would likely appeal to people who are very nostalgic, tied to family history and attached to members of a large family.
The author takes her readers on a historical trip relating to her family. She reminisces, recalls and remembers all kinds of memories about her father and mother, polar opposites who resolved their own personalities to anchor life for their children. Like a cat and a dog, mother and father were disparate partners. She was a free spirit, an artist, a romantic, a southern belle; he was the rigid old soldier, austere, disciplined, dedicated and regimented. Yet Johnson writes about her parents, the pages exuding love for each parent equally.
Her father is remembered as being the British WW II veteran who could not or would not abandon his military days, instead, bringing them home to his family. His children were disciplined strictly, instructed by a proud and determined old soldier. His family and his home regulated and regimented by an old veteran which frustrated his children and exasperated his wife, the liberal-minded artist bent to unbridled, undisciplined, and free-spirited living every day.
Her mother is remembered as an artist living a life seemingly without organization or regulation. Yet, behind the scenes, as Johnson later discovers, her mother was organized and left a bountiful legacy of love for her children in the form of letters, crammed trunks and old furniture pieces used daily by the family she loved deeply.
Gamut of emotions
The novel is a gamut of emotions. There is much which can sadden and depress a reader who empathizes too strongly: the reminiscing about the father’s deterioration into dementia, the loss of the youngest sibling to cancer, the mother’s ageing and an increasingly cantankerous decline in old age. Yet there is humour also as Johnson draws the picture of her mother’s respiratory problems and the oxygen carrying hose snaking throughout the house like a rope left behind by a playful but distracted youngster.
There is beauty in the book as Johnson describes the family home’s setting on Lake Ontario, parklike and welcoming in spring and summer, austere and foreboding as autumn changes to winter. Her descriptive passages are superb and sweep the reader to lofty heights of verbal elegance.
Sadness outweighs the joy
Though the family’s joy and love anchor the novel profoundly and are repeatedly reinforced with the author recounting how the siblings meet over dinners to discuss the best ways to deal with the inheritance and the estate. Deep sadness blankets any reader when Johnson recalls how the furniture held in such high regard and great worth by the siblings is devalued as being barely worth more than kindling by some of the estate evaluators. I recall the same with my parent’s furniture which very much like Johnson, I felt was worthy of being labelled ‘antique,’ only to discover it was so in my eyes only. To the objective professional it was old furniture, no more.
Positively persuasive prose
The book pushes readers into thinking about life, their own family and maybe even their own mortality. This may be a good thing. Thinking about one’s own life, one’s past, what we have done, our happy memories and our regrets. The reader cannot eescapebeing drawn into thoughts of one’s own past, basking in the warmth of positive memories and fidgeting at memories which one wishes were not banked in one’s memory.
I was moved in another sense by Johnson’s writing when she wrote about her mother’s accumulation of old photos, a stockpile of memories, emotional memory tripping for family members but worthless junk to an outsider. It made me think about the huge number of photos which I have saved electronically in my computer storage, likely never to be retrieved by anyone after I am gone. Definitely discarded once my computer connectivity is discontinued at some future date. I thought about those old black-paged albums with those adhesive corners which held the photos in place. These albums can no longer be found anywhere other than perhaps at some neighbourhood garage sale. Another artifact from the past, tossed on the junk pile of time!
The final word
This book is a polished read, written as a paean to Johnson’s family. It is a tribute to her mother and an appreciation to her father. It is a verbal embrace of her siblings who she loves with obvious intensity. Simply put, Johnson is writing about the joy of living and the sadness of the passage of time. It is a voyage we all sail, visiting a variety of ports but ultimately docking at the same destination.