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.
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.
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.