RBC Taylor Prize nominees: Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything

Plum Johnson’s family memoir changed as she cleared out the family house

Photograph by Jaime Hogge

Photograph by Jaime Hogge

Plum Johnson was 63 when her 93-year-old mother died five years ago, bringing to an end almost two decades of elder care, first for a father stricken with Alzheimer’s and then a demanding mother. After that, Johnson settled down to what she thought would be a six-week job of clearing out her parents’ 23-room house, a task that stretched to 16 months, changed Johnson’s view of the past and, eventually, resulted in a lovely memoir, They Left Us Everything, nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize. “It wasn’t the book I intended to write,” says Johnson, a writer and artist. That was going to be the family story and an account of the massive sorting job ahead of her. Those aspects are still there, “but when the mother-daughter theme raised its ugly head, I knew I had to go deeper.” In the end, she wrote the book she did, Johnson says, because “I felt everyone was going through this experience of caring for long-lived parents, but no one was writing the honest truth about it.”

Here, as part of a series on the RBC Taylor Prize nominees, an exclusive excerpt of Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything

Dad believed that in the dining room, children should be models of manners and discipline—seen but not heard. He ritualized Sunday lunches into agonizing, drawn-out affairs that tested our patience to the limit. Especially when we were hungry. And if we fidgeted or misbehaved, he stood us in the corner. The dining room’s square alcove meant that Dad could stand all five of us in corners at the same time, and he frequently did—probably wishing he could stand Mum in the sixth. He and Mum often ended up alone at the ten-foot-long table, carrying on their conversation as if we weren’t there.

In the corners, we picked at the dining-room wallpaper in silent revenge. The leafy green toile of red-coated fishermen casting their flies over rivers has been here since Mum pasted it up in 1952. I notice now that, halfway up the wall, all the fishing rods have their tips picked off.

I find the “Cuss Bank” that used to sit on the table. It’s a ceramic head of a man with a grimaced expression and a money slot in the top of his black hat. We’d never been exposed to swear words at home (I’d never even heard the word “s–t” until I went to university, and when my roommate said it as she slipped on a bridge, I almost fainted from shock), but as children, there were two really bad things we were never allowed to say: One was “Shut up!” and the other, “I’m bored.” If these words slipped out, we forfeited five cents into the Cuss Bank.

To Mum, boredom was almost an offence against God. She believed nothing was boring and anybody could be fascinating, so long as you were clever enough to ask the right questions. If you were bored, then this was your failing, your lack of imagination—it made you boring. Furthermore, to tell somebody to shut up was unpardonably rude—even though, or maybe especially because, with Mum, it was hard to get a word in edgewise.

I also find Mum and Dad’s wedding cake topper, made of plaster by an army chef during the war; prophetically, it was a battleship. Now it looks like a shipwreck, its hull encrusted with barnacles of ancient icing, its masts dripping with stalactites of dirty-white tulle. Beside it is a small silver jigger that Mum gave Dad on their first wedding anniversary in Hong Kong. On its rim is inscribed: Here’s to many more!—and it’s so like Mum, hedging her bets with a sarcastic double entendre. This time, though, the joke was on her: She was the one who got driven to drink by their marriage. Dad tried to embarrass her by stacking her empty gin bottles beside the woodpile in the garage until he had a wall of glass, but it was only [my brother] Sandy who could get Mum to quit. On his deathbed, he asked Mum for two things: that she’d stop drinking and that she’d stop fighting with Dad—and she granted him both wishes.

I open the cutlery drawers, which used to be so neatly arranged by Dad. Now everything’s a jumbled mess, another of Mum’s “junk drawers.” In amongst the sterling flatware and engraved napkin rings are plastic bananas, green ceramic frogs, paperweights, candle stubs, rubber bands, pencils and crocheted doilies. It’s all too much for me now. I need a break. Dumping the clothes was easy, but sorting through this miasma is a different thing altogether.

Excerpted from They Left Us Everything. Copyright © 2014 Plum Johnson. Permission granted by Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

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