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.”