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They Left Us Everything: A Memoir by Plum Johnson

Plum Johnson plumjohnson.com begins They Left Us Everything with conflict between her mother’s needs and her own fatigue and frustration from being the primary care giver for her mother for years. Johnson goes back to an earlier time, too, to describe the old clapboard house in Oakville, Ontario she grew up in, but it is the conflict between her and her mother that drives the first several pages.

Plum Johnson on the verandah of the clapboard house, Oakville

Plum Johnson on the verandah of the clapboard house, Oakville

In the first few lines, we hear three recent phone messages from Johnson’s mother. “Damn this machine! Call me!” is the last one.

Johnson then tells us, “Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.”

Her mother has been on oxygen for ten years, trailing miles of tubing around with her, often getting tangled up in the loops, cursing the damn thing. Her mother accuses her daughter of wanting to get her out of the house and into a retirement home, which isn’t true, and leaves Johnson angry and weeping and wondering, “Will I ever get my life back?”

Her mother dies. Johnson moves into the family home to pack things up – it takes over a year. Things shift within her, and now she finds she is looking for proof of her mother’s existence. In the succeeding two hundred pages, she explores her mother’s life and her complicated relationship with her mother … in old letters, photographs, innumerable objects. The 22-room house, she decides, is “womb-like”. Her mother, she sees now, was the house. Johnson feels she has spent these many months in the house giving herself back to her mother. It’s a return to love—a profound love that has resulted from understanding, which in turn comes from the hard work of digging through the past.

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The Oakville house where Plum was raised.

I asked Johnson a few questions:

DT: Was opening your memoir with conflict intentional?

PJ: No. I tried beating that old mother-daughter conflict into submission but it wouldn’t be silenced. My own words shocked me.

DT: Did you consider other openings?

PJ: Originally, the manuscript opened with a description of the house, and the structure was chronological. Then I took the pages to my agent who basically shuffled them like a pack of cards, right before my eyes. She wanted flashbacks. We had a debate, but I realized she was right: it made my manuscript more interesting. It also revealed obvious nuggets of conflict. It was like panning for gold.

DT: Do you feel that conflict best conveys those last twenty years?

PJ: Yes, but putting it up front scared me; all my insecurities went up front, too. I decided to go for broke. My original opening sentence was, “I thought my mother would never die.” The acquiring editor (who is much sweeter than I am) decided it was way too harsh and wanted it changed to “I never thought my mother would die.” Which of course means a vastly different thing. So I fretted over the opening page for months.

DT: So many things to consider! Are you satisfied with the structure as it appears now?

PJ: The current version is a compromise. I still worried I’d be vilified for confessing my true feelings, but I needn’t have worried. Turns out, many women feel the same way. And that’s mostly true with memoir—the more personal you are, the more universal it is.

This post is dedicated to all those who care for elderly parents.

Have you had a major conflict in your life that could be an interesting focus of a memoir? I would love to hear.

    ~~~~

Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir, a guide for memoir writers.

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14 comments on “They Left Us Everything: A Memoir by Plum Johnson

  1. A really lovely post, Diane. Insightful and engaging too. I’m glad you’re doing this series. Thank you.

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  2. Diane, What an interesting series. Enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing it and I look forward to reading your next post in this series.

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    • Glad you enjoyed it, Lynette. It was so interesting working with Plum. Her book is beautiful, honest and so well-written. Forgot to say that it won the RBC Taylor award here in Canada for non-fiction!

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  3. Conflict? That would have to be my marriage.

    Diane, I feel that you are a person who can safely take what follows. While I sat here thinking of writing a memoir, the word that came to mind is narcissistic. I will have the story of living a risky, authentic life, but will it be worth adding to the glut of written material?

    The other obstacle I wonder about is, will I ever reach the point of slowing down enough to give up enough doing and experiencing to have time for writing? Reflecting takes care of my internal need for story with much less effort.

    I enjoy your writing.

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    • Aggie, there are always new books that add light to the world, and yours would certainly be one such. Especially if you weave the conflict/narcissism of a marriage with living close to the earth. Harmony vs. conflict … But! I totally understand doing, and you sure do do that, and share it with others. Sounds good to me!

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  4. Very interesting to read how a memoir can be put together. Caring for elderly parents is a fruitful subject and a difficult one.

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  5. I agree – her responses on writing her memoir were very insightful. I’m learning a lot!

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  6. Aggie, which books are mine? Just two. The most recent is the one featured on my website, The Gift of Memoir: Show Up, Open Up, Write. It’s a guide for memoir writers, and also part memoir because I use examples from my own life (as well as from many memoirs). The one from the eighties was The Perfect Galley Book. That is a book about doing. My life at sea on a sailboat. We built a 46′ boat, and sailed south, and chartered the boat for a living – it slept ten comfortably. I’m grateful for those years.

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  7. Very interesting post, Diane, and you’ve introduced me to another must-read book. My best times with my mum were when we could forget we were mother and daughter (with all the baggage that relationship entails) and talk and laugh as two people who liked one another.

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  8. Diane, I’m intrigued by Plum’s first line of her memoir. I agree that any memoir or novel should create questions and pique curiosity within the first few words. You’ve planted a seed for my own project. I’ve only just begun taking some notes for a future memoir, and I decided to start it at a barbecue where I’d met a significant love interest. I’m drawn into romance and mystery. My story will have some very sad sections that I want to cushion with a Cinderella type story. It won’t be an easy write as I dip into a painful part of my past. I’m slowly reading through your book, The Gift of Memoir. Thank you for guiding us.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

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    • Wendy, Plum changed her mind about opening that way! Her first sentence now is: The night before I turn sixty-three, I’m looking in the mirror, pulling my sagging jawline up to my ears, listening to voice mails on speaker phone. Three are from Mom.
      A scene at a BBQ, with details about the food (as universal a topic as the weather) and where you meet a special someone sounds good to me. Painful parts can be tough, but often good for the soul.

      Liked by 1 person

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