Reviewed by Kristin
How do you let go of a house infused with a lifetime of memories? After her mother’s death, Plum Johnson was faced with more than just a collection of furniture, books, and knickknacks in their family home. As she began the process of cleaning out to prepare the house for sale, Plum found everything from dry cleaning receipts dated 1953 to eighteenth century Scottish candlesticks. What she planned to be a six week process took more than eighteen months.
Plum’s grief over her mother’s death was complicated by a measure of relief mixed with guilt. Her mother’s last years, even her last decades, were not easy. After Plum’s father died, the children were left to attend to their mother’s needs, even as they were edging beyond middle age themselves. Plum was the oldest and the only girl, followed by three brothers. Because Plum lived in nearby Toronto and had a flexible job, she found herself called upon often to drop by, run errands, and generally be there for her mother.
“Mum” sounds like she was quite a character. She was from Virginia and “Dad” was from England. After meeting in New York in wartime 1942, the two married quickly. After the war ended in Europe, Dad remained in a civilian job in Hong Kong, bringing his wife and new baby (Plum) along for the adventure. As Plum continued the process of cleaning out the house, she found letters, journals, and artifacts from this period of their lives.
Plum’s job was enormous, and it was more emotional than physical, although the house had 23 rooms and was occupied by their family for more than half a century. The house itself feels like a character, an entity with personality. I first saw this book as a Nevermore book club reader reported on it one week. Our reader talked mostly about her grandmother’s large house in Massachusetts, and had in fact drawn out a floor plan to share with family and friends. With each section there were stories to be told about where all the grandchildren slept or what mischief they got into on their visits. I was intrigued, both by the book and by the memories it sparked in another reader.
They Left Us Everything reminded me of my parents’ and grandparents’ houses as well. I have faint memories of one set of grandparents’ house—the slick feel of a vinyl couch, an extra room where there were tiny toys and treasures to be explored, a large picture window. I have more memories of another grandparent living in a tiny house kept spotlessly clean—sitting on the porch swing, playing “Mother, May I?” up the narrow walkway, chicken and dumplings bubbling in a pressure cooker, gospel songs played by ear on an upright piano, and so many more. My husband’s grandparents lived into their 80’s and 90’s, so I have memories of their homes as well.
Now that I have immersed myself in my memories while reading Plum’s story, I plan to find copies of the book for my parents and parents-in-law. They have had the difficult experiences of facing the memories left after their own parents’ passing. I hope that they find laughter and comfort in reading this memoir. This volume is a much appreciated story of how we may let go of houses and possessions, but never the memories.