August 2016

Plum Johnson

What remains
Interview by
Tasked with cleaning out her late parents’ house, Plum Johnson made some surprising discoveries, which she chronicles with wit and insight in They Left Us Everything.
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Tasked with cleaning out her late parents’ house, Plum Johnson made some surprising discoveries, which she chronicles with wit and insight in They Left Us Everything.

There are multiple ways to interpret the book’s title. What does it mean to you?
When Mum and Dad died, I rolled my eyes at all their junk and thought: Oh jeez . . . they left us everything. But once we took the time to go through it, I understood the history we’d been given, and I thought: Wow—they left us everything! So the irony of the phrase stayed with me.

What was the best advice you got during the process? The worst?
The best advice was: Forgive yourself and forgive your parents, because everybody did the best they could. My brothers and I also made a pact that material possessions aren’t worth fighting over; relationships are more important. 

They Left Us Everything is dedicated to your children. Did this experience inspire you to make sure your affairs are more settled so they won’t have to go through what you went through?
No! The message is exactly the opposite: “Don’t self-edit.” I’m leaving my mess for my children to sort through. Hopefully, they’ll find out things about me that I never wanted them to know. We all have foibles that we try to hide from our children when we’re raising them. But it’s helpful for them to discover these things, especially when they look in the mirror and realize they’ve become us! I just hope I’m dead when they write their books.

You probably thought you had achieved closure with your demanding father, who died years earlier than your mother. What was it like to rekindle all those memories? 
I don’t look for closure, because I’ve learned that relationships continue even after death. I made peace with Dad during his slow descent into Alzheimer’s. We had 15 years of gentleness, which was lovely. 

If your parents were still alive and you could ask questions of them, what would you ask?
I would probe more deeply into their relationships with their own parents. I never asked those questions, and I wish I had. After Mum died, I found all these letters written to her by her own mother, and they were dated throughout her childhood. This surprised me. I didn’t know her mother had been so frequently absent.

What’s it been like to become a first-time author at the age of 68? Do you have more books on the horizon?
I’ve always been a late-bloomer. Sometimes confidence comes late in life. I had a high school teacher who used to pound on her desk and shout, “Don’t write until you have something to say!” She effectively shut me up for the next 50 years. I kept asking myself, “Is this worth saying? Is that worth saying?” I used to look at all the piles of books on remainder tables—each one representing five years of someone’s life—and think, why bother? But this book just burst forth. It unplugged a cork of non-confidence. Now I have so much to say I can hardly wait to tell it all.

Author photo © Carter Johnson. 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of They Left Us Everything.

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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