Thursday, March 26, 2015

They Left Us Everything

They Left Us Everything

There's a stretch of Lakeshore Boulevard along the north shore of Lake Ontario that I've always particularly enjoyed. When my mom was a resident at a retirement home in Burlington we regularly went out for the day together, going to appointments, shopping, taking in lunch and often going for a drive. That part of Lakeshore Boulevard winding through Oakville and Burlington, with ancient trees and beautiful old homes on either side was always a favourite. Some homes are quite modest, but with lovely curb appeal, some look very old, some are hidden behind tall hedges, some immense houses sit on gigantic estates. 

Who, we often wondered, lives here and what are those magnificent homes like inside? What sort of families come and go from these beautiful places? Are they happy?

Mum would have loved Plum Johnson's memoir, They Left Us Everything.

Johnson's family was one of those living in a lakeside home in Oakville. She and her four brothers spent most of their growing-up years there. One of her brothers and both of her parents died there. This home is filled with memories.

Maybe one of the reasons this book resonated with me is that Plum Johnson is within a year of my own age, so in a way, her life parallels my own, though of course, our experiences were completely different. That is such a subjective way to think, though, isn't it? It is really Johnson's unobtrusive skill in bringing her family to life through the pages that will appeal to every reader.

After Johnson's mother passes away, Plum and her three remaining brothers (Sandy died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 42) are faced with the prospect of settling the estate. Two of her brothers live out of town and they all decide that the best way to deal with the situation is to divvy up the jobs. Chris looks after hiring some painters to refresh the exterior of the house, Robin agrees to catalogue the vast number of books, some, very old first editions. Victor deals with the finances and Plum is asked, and agrees, to move into the house for 6 weeks in order to organize, and have evaluated, all the furnishings to get them ready for dispersal among family members and ultimately to prepare the property for the real estate market.

As you can imagine, an old house with 23 rooms and the legacy of a large family living there, to say nothing of the families that preceded them in this same house, has a great deal of clutter. Closets overflow and memories overwhelm. 6 weeks becomes more than a year throughout which, Johnson carefully deals with the detritus of the house and the memories therein.

Family stories abound in this wonderful memoir. Johnson's parents both have fascinating back stories which influence the way they raise their children and the siblings all have childhood memories that influence their present lives. It all comes together in this account.

 Most of us have dealt, or will, at some point, deal with elderly parents and having to empty out a home. It's not fun to think about, a task most of us dread. Johnson's account of her own experience touches the reader deeply and though our own experiences will all be different, hopefully when it's our turn, we will remember that we are not alone. And hopefully we will get through it with as much dignity, love and humour as the Johnson family.

Award-Winning Book!

I almost forgot the most important thing about They Left Us Everything. It is the winner of the 2015 RBC Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction! Above is Plum Johnson, on the left, receiving the award from Noreen Taylor, founder of the Prize on March 2.