They Left Us Everything”, a memoir by Ontario-born author Plum Johnson is a poignant, heartwarming, tale of … decluttering.
When Johnson faces the daunting task of readying the 23-room lakeside family home in Oakville, Ontario, for sale after the death of her mother, she is surprised that the task unearths unexpected insights into the lives, loves, and personalities of her parents. Surrounded by memories and memorabilia, details begin to materialize providing her with a deeper insight into who her very independent parents really were, and how they thought.
Browsing through Cloverdale library, Johnson’s book attracted me because I had begun sifting through my own clutter. Blame it on January , but I’d been hit with a bout of the “Geez, I’ve gotta get rid of all this stuff. The kids won’t give a damn about it when I’m gone,” sort of blues.
Like Johnson’s mother, my mother had also squirrelled away bags of old letters, clippings and other odds and ends not only from me, but from the rest of our extended Scottish clan.
By coincidence, Johnson had sifted through ‘everything’ near Clarkson, where I had spent my own pre-teen years creating a familiarity with the book’s location.
As They Left Us Everything illustrated, old documents can reveal much we don’t know about people, places, incidents – and, frequently, undiscovered, or little understood, family history.
As Johnson sifts through ‘everything’ her mother and father ‘left’ her, seeds for the memoir she will eventually write are sewn by letters, photographs, scents, and sounds cropping up around her lakeside childhood home.
Like Plum Johnson, my family trekked from one end of the globe to the other following a father serving in the Navy. Fortunes fluctuated, but adventure invariably hovered on the horizon.
How much will the next generation miss as today’s emails replace letters arriving by mail and slipped into drawers and trunks? What, or who, will accurately document family history, conversations, humour, dramas? Will anyone care?
Letters throughout history linked families who didn’t have the luxury of cashing in airmiles to dash to distant parts of the globe. My parents and I post-war pioneered in the Ontario ‘bush’ in the late 1940s and early 1950s a matter of miles from where Plum Johnson grew up. I pictured my own mother, undaunted by a temporary lack of furniture, perched on an orange crate briskly typing on her portable Underwood (precariously balanced on a similar crate).
Mother’s first query to anyone when we arrived at a new location was, “Where’s the library?” Not only was it her link to books, but it connected her personally with like-minded individuals and the local community.
Following Plum Johnson’s example, I ferreted further into my own ‘inheritance’.
Letters from editors still tucked into airmail envelopes reminded me that, like all writers of her era, Mother had carefully typed double-space manuscripts and articles, included a SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope), and anxiously checked the Royal Mail for rejection slips – or cheques. Generally, that took six weeks. If emails had been the order of the day the comments and amounts paid would have vanished into cyberspace. Instead, here they were – and to my surprise they bore a great similarity to communiques from today’s newspaper and magazine industry.
In her book, Plum Johnson reflects (about her mother): “I had more than sixty years to ask questions, but the questions didn’t form until after she’d gone. Now there are questions I didn’t even know I had.”
Perhaps Plum Johnson’s book, and the above observations, will prompt you to tackle your own memoir, ask questions, keep a written diary, or do some detective work into your own family history. If you don’t, someone will wish you had.
They Left Us Everything is available on-line, or from your local library.
The Cloverdale branch of Surrey Libraries has an extensive genealogy collection with over 5,000 microfilms and 2,700 books. For more information call 604-598-7328, or surf SPL Family History web pages.
– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a writer and photographer based in British Columbia. She recalls the days of the typewriter with nostalgia, but not regret.