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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review of THEY LEFT US EVERYTHING by Plum Johnson

3.5 Stars
In this memoir, Plum Johnson recounts how after the deaths of her parents, she spent 16 months sorting through their belongings and preparing the house for sale.  Her parents, Alex and Anne, had lived for over half a century in the sprawling, 23-room house in Oakville on the shores of Lake Ontario, so the amount of accumulation was massive. 

In that time in her childhood home, she not only decluttered the house.  She examined her difficult relationship with her mother whom she saw as “intrusive, demanding, and possessive” (252), a relationship that was exacerbated by years of elder care.  She realized she had to find what she missed, ignored or forgot about her mother.  After her mother’s death, people “didn’t describe the forceful mother I had been experiencing for the past twenty years – the one who invaded my privacy, demanded I call her every few hours, who seemed judgmental and disapproving of my choices – they described an Other Mother who was loving and wise, confident and charming, admirable and true.  They described a woman I wished I had known.  Or perhaps a mother I had pushed away.  A mother I just needed to remember – someone who had been there all along” (88).  In the end, Plum admits that “most of the clutter was in my head” (279).  And I love the irony of Plum saying about her daughter, “I can’t believe she doesn’t see herself the way I do” (213). 

Many books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written about mother-daughter relationships, and I didn’t find that this one added anything new.   Of course, this means that readers will find much that is relatable in the book.  Plum Johnson wonders what all daughters have probably asked:  “Are all our unfulfilled dreams unconsciously passed down from mother to daughter for generations?” (217) and “Was I afraid to see that [my mother] looks like me?” (263).  With age, most daughters have more empathy:  “I’m experiencing some aches and pains myself, and I see now that old people are simply young people locked into aging bodies.  No wonder she was cranky” (263).  The author confirms what most people come to understand:  we don’t fully appreciate things and people until they’re gone. 

I did appreciate the discussion of Other Mothers, other women who can serve as mentors:  “we can all use more than one mother . . . It keeps us sane” (91).  It’s true that “It’s hard to accept guidance when you’re trying to break away” (91) so it’s easier to accept guidance from others with whom relationships are less fraught with emotions and so are less complicated.  I’ve treasured close friendships with older women who have, like Plum’s friend Pat, shared “hard-won insights” (93). 

Plum’s difficult relationship with her mother is understandable.  Anne was definitely a strong personality:  “a ‘life force’ who . . . always stole the show . . . it was more like Mum was the limelight . . . [that required] constant attention” (83-84).  It’s interesting that the author admits to replacing “the lens through which I view her” (263), and accepting that “’Mothers are always “The Nurturer” and “The Witch,” whether we like it or not . . . We have to accept both in the same package’” (264). 

In the Acknowledgments, Johnson states, “I just wish the last twenty years hadn’t been so thorny.  Because then I wouldn’t have felt the need to put [my mother] back up on a pedestal – which is where she sits now” (279 – 280).   It seems that she has done the same thing with her father.  Her mother may have been insensitive to her children’s feelings, but her father was overbearing and abusive.  She describes his behaviour towards her and her brothers but she seems to refuse to see it for what it is.  Though he was a man of a different time, his treatment of his wife also seems harsh.  And the author doesn’t examine the impact of her parents’ tumultuous relationship on her and her siblings.  (I found myself wanting to learn more about her parents’ fascinating histories and adventurous, book-worthy lives.)

The sibling relationships do not ring true.  The division of family assets is often a competitive exercise, yet these four siblings seemed to have no conflicts and remained unfailingly supportive of each other.  Perhaps the sympathetic portrayals were influenced by the fact that her brothers were alive when she wrote this memoir? 

Though not ground-breaking, the book will appeal to readers of a certain age, especially baby boomers caring for elderly parents and having to dispose of decades of accumulation.  And it did get me thinking about what I should do with my lifetime collection of journals:  “Earlier I’d resolved to clear out my own mess, too, so my children wouldn’t have to face it, but since then I’ve had a change of heart.  Now I believe this clearing out is a valuable process – best left to our children.  It’s the only way they’ll ever truly come to know us, discovering things we never wanted them to find” (219).