Tuesday 26 May 2015

Book ~ "They Left Us Everything: A Memoir" (2014) Plum Johnson

From Goodreads ~ After almost twenty years of caring for elderly parents - first for their senile father and then for their cantankerous ninety-three-year-old mother - author Plum Johnson and her three younger brothers experience conflicted feelings of grief and relief when their mother, the surviving parent, dies.

Now they must empty and sell the beloved family home, which hasn't been de-cluttered in more than half a century. Twenty-three rooms bulge with history, antiques and oxygen tanks. Plum remembers her loving but difficult parents who could not have been more different: the British father, a handsome, disciplined patriarch who nonetheless could not control his opinionated, extroverted Southern-belle wife who loved tennis and gin gimlets. The task consumes her, becoming more rewarding than she ever imagined.

Items from childhood trigger memories of her eccentric family growing up in a small town on the shores of Lake Ontario in the 1950s and 60s. But unearthing new facts about her parents helps her reconcile those relationships with a more accepting perspective about who they were and what they valued.

"They Left Us Everything" is a funny, touching memoir about the importance of preserving family history to make sense of the past and nurturing family bonds to safeguard the future. 

Plum was in her sixties and living in Toronto.  Her mother, Anne, was in her nineties and living 90 minutes west in Oakville.  Plum is the oldest child and the only one living close to her mother so caregiving of her demanding mother fell to her (along with the help of a live-in couple).  When her mother passes away, it's up to Anne's children to sort through all the memorabilia and memories of their parents.  Plum moves into the family house for six weeks to facilitate this ... and it turns into 16 months.

Plum's father. Alex, was British and had had a rough childhood and had been through a lot in the war.  Her mother, Anne, was a spoiled Southern belle from a wealthy family in Virgina.  They found each other during the war, fell in love quickly and eventually married.  They lived in Singapore and Hong Kong in the early years.  When it came time to settled down some place, they compromised on Canada and ended up buying a 20+ room house in Oakville.

I thought Plum's parents were horrible and I give Plum credit for taking of them as they aged and died.  Alex was quite a disciplinarian.  He kept track of everything in ledgers.  When it was time to dole out their allowances, a lot of times they ended up getting nothing because they had misbehaved so he deducted money for their "offenses".  He beat his sons with a cane.  They had a family dog named Scrappy and on outings, he would tie to Scrappy to the side of the car and make him run home, speeding up to check the dog's stamina (I had the vision of Aunt Edna's dog from Vacation in my head) ... poor Scrappy.

Anne, on the other hand, was flaky.  She pushed her husband to get a rise out of him.  In the early days, her time was spent drinking gin and playing tennis.  Alex was a gardener.  While he was out of town one time, she had the backyard dug up, including his vegetable garden, and had a pool installed.  She spitefully would cut his flowers and them around the house in vases. But on the other hand, Alex and Anne would take in total strangers who were down on their luck.

I enjoyed the writing style and thought it was an interesting story.  I admired Plum's honesty when the book began.  She'd spent her 40s and 50s taking care of her father who had Alzheimer's.  She'd spent her 50s and 60s taking care of her mother who had gotten cranky in her old age.  Plum was tired and running out of patience but continued to be at her mother's beck and call.  It would have been especially hard considering she didn't have perfect parents growing up.  I imagine there are many people in this age group now experiencing this.

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