They Left Us Everything: A Memoir
by Plum Johnson
First publication: Penguin Canada 2014
2015 RBC TAYLOR PRIZE
Excellence in the ﬁeld of literary non-ﬁction.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons | July 26 2016
Hardback: 288 pages
ISBN: US edition 978-0399184093
ARC: E-book from First-To Read in exchange for an unbiased review.
This award winning Canadian memoir of the death of aging parents will be available in the US in July of 2016. If this topic scares you, don’t go away! Her family will amaze you with its rich history! If you or anyone in your family has become a caregiver, you will find that you are not alone in your feelings. Johnson has handled this story with grace and dignity.
Plum Johnson’s Toronto message machine blasts her cantankerous 92 year-old Mum’s voice. “Promise you’ll drive out first thing tomorrow! Damn this machine call me!”
For “First Daughter” Plum Johnson the death of her 92 year old mother marks the end of a tumultuous and emotionally painful 20 years as caregiver that has left her painfully stranded between who she was before, who she has become and what she will be next. As she opens the garden gate and leads us inside the family home, she shares the emotional turmoil in the intimate corners of herself. The physical tour of the house and its belongings taken in step with the inventory of her feelings and self reflection will stir up sadness, joy, amazement, anger and love.
The wartime marriage of a British Naval officer and an American Red Cross Director endured and left a legacy of treasures measured in 5 children, memories and 23 rooms filled with mementos, artifacts and yes, junk. After their deaths, the children discover incredible personal mysteries hidden in the home and answers to questions they wish they knew to ask while they are alive.
Divorced, self-employed and an empty nester, Plum was the obvious choice to serve as caregiver to her parents. For 13 long years she cared for her father as she watched his retreat from life into Alzheimer’s deep fog. Three years after his death, Plum is still in life limbo caring for her mother. But her mother’s ever growing cantankerous disposition and demanding nature have eroded any remaining compassion or patience. All encounters become jousting matches that leave no winners.
Friends of mine who lost their mother’s early kept telling me, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are… I’d give anything to have my mother back for just one minute.’…All I wanted was my freedom. I looked into the future and thought, ‘will I ever get my life back?’
Grief has no expiration date. It has no parameters. It can’t be exchanged or coerced. This heartfelt story of one person’s experience expressed honestly and candidly. In the end, she and her siblings learn one of life’s greatest lessons. Parents are people with their own dreams, ambitions, faults, and tragedies. When we stop seeing Mom as mother and we stop seeing ourselves as a wronged child, it is possible to love Plum as Plum and Anne as Anne. And with that knowledge a person regains compassion, understanding and the freedom to move on….
There are references to other non-fiction books about members of this family. I encourage others to read the gripping tale of her father’s escape from a Japanese POW camp. I was, at first, very angry at her father’s harsh disciplinary style but as I learned more about him personally I came to see that he was doing his best with what he knew from his own experience. It doesn’t excuse his actions but shows that he is at heart a deeply loving father.
Plum Johnson’s childhood is far from average and goes to show that you can not make assumptions about another’s life. As stated above, Grief knows no bounds and we are all more than one dimensional beings.
I want to thank the author for permission to use her personal photo in my review. I also want to thank her for reminding me of things in my life that I discovered when we cleaned out the closets and basement of my family home.