They Left Us Everything

They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s account of her parent’s illnesses and deaths, is refreshing in its candor and will resonate with anyone who has gone through something similar. She’s candid, too, about her family.

Plum grew up in Singapore, Virginia, and finally Canada – which was a compromise for her British father and American mother. Her parents spent the ends of their lives in the family home on Lake Ontario. Her mother was from Virginia – her ancestors and cousins were attorney generals and ambassadors. While her mother was exuberant, eccentric, and a writer of letters and a copywriter in her youth, her father was British, reserved, and quite eccentric, as well. Their relationship endured but was volatile and complicated.

Plum and her three brothers all have skills, roles and competencies related to caregiving. Some are hands-on and some help at a distance with financial, legal and real estate matters. Sibling Suppers are mostly supportive and cooperative, but, as she is the oldest, divorced, single, and the daughter, Plum is most directly involved in her parents’ care and the settling of the estate.

Plum sometimes compares her life at 63 with her mother’s relative freedom at the same age.  She details the steps and the incredible energy and patience it takes to do routine tasks – like going to the mall. Just reading the description is exhausting.  “It feels as though the last twenty years have leached out my patience, my empathy, my compassion – the best parts of me- until I feel unrecognizable, a person I don’t like very much.” “Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.”

The house is as much a character in this book, as her various family members. Plum loves the house and it’s setting by the water, and it’s through the house that she comes to terms with the contradictory feelings she had toward her parents. She is overwhelmed by her parent’s house and it’s contents, but she doesn’t succumb to the temptation to discard and give away their belongings immediately and without thought. She ultimately decides that those items are a curse, but they are also a blessing. “This house I am now slicing apart is theirs – the place that we’d taken for granted would always be here as a backdrop to our lives.” Later, she says, “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…”

In the end, she acknowledges the truth of what funeral guests tell her: “When your mother dies, you’ll wish you’d asked her some questions.” When it’s too late, she realizes, “Now there are questions I didn’t even know I had.”

 

 

All Iowa Reads – Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

The Iowa Library Association has announced the All Iowa Reads title for 2011 – it’s  Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos. Be sure to watch the Davenport Public Library newsletter for the announcement of programs and discussions of this book throughout the year.

In 1978, Hope Jones, mother of three, is swept away during a tornado. Her body is never found. Twenty-five years later her children – Larkin, Gaelan and Bonnie – still struggle to understand their loss and to find their place in the world. The sudden death of their father brings them all home again, forcing them to come to terms with their history and each other.

Set on the open plains of southwest Nebraska, the writing and atmosphere evoke the rural Midwest effortlessly – open skies, violent weather, the restrictions and freedoms of small towns. This is a complex story of grief, love and healing with touches of magical realism and characters that you come to care about.

They’re Your Parents, Too! by Francine Russo

They’re Your Parents, Too! by Francine Russo is all too relevant for many baby boomers coping with their aging parents and siblings.

Russo notes that this is the first generation that has had to so frequently manage their parents’ long term illnesses -which may last for decades.  This places a strain on sibling relationships that may already be fraught with unresolved rivalries.  Dysfunctional sibling/parent relationships can be unaddressed for many years only to erupt when everyone is forced to deal with emotional and critical issues.

Some families are able to navigate this very painful terrain, respecting those that have been the primary caregiver(s); many would benefit from a third party such as a social worker or doctor, according to Russo, who has interviewed many, many families. She advises lots of honest communication and attempting to understand the points-of-view of others. It’s never an easy journey, but it can be made bearable if siblings support each other.