Which is harder to come to terms with: a 23-room clapboard mansion filled to bursting with “stuff,” or 60-plus years of complicated family relationships? Plum Johnson tackles both in They Left Us Everything, a memoir that’s both humorous and thoughtful.
An artist and former publisher, Johnson doesn’t seem particularly well suited to preside over the emptying of the rambling lakefront house in Oakville, Ontario, when her widowed mother dies at 93. But she tackles the task with gusto, moving in for well over a year (the original plan was six weeks) and getting down to the business of making it presentable enough to put on the market.
It should be noted that Johnson’s mother was a character, in every sense of the word. She’s very much alive in the hilarious first chapter, which baby boomers caring for elderly parents can instantly relate to, and remains a strong presence throughout the book. So, for that matter, does Johnson’s father, who ran the family with an iron fist until falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease. Inevitably, Johnson’s clearing out of the family home becomes intertwined with better understanding her parents.
Some things (plastic bananas, old oxygen tanks, etc.) simply get tossed, while others are divvied up among siblings in a ritual akin to the National Football League draft.
But rest assured, there are plenty of treasures—chief among them a trove of 2,000 letters written by Johnson’s mother, plus wartime letters between her parents. Understanding was there all along, it turns out, somewhere between the canned tomatoes and the boxes of National Geographic magazines.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Johnson about They Left Us Everything.