“Seeing a book with my name on it has been a dream of mine since I was 6 years old”.
It was an honest discussion by Plum Johnson, winner of the RBC Taylor prize, relating to her challenged
with her mother and the year spent cleaning out the house for sale. Plum joined a small but enthusiastic crowd at the County of Brant Library – Burford Branch on Saturday to discuss her first book, They Left Us Everything. She not only shared her memoir but the nostalgic photo books and a slide deck including pictures of the home through the years.
The family home was originally purchased for a mere $12000 which was equivalent to one year of salary for her father – yet sold for 2.5 million, was renovated and sold again for a bigger profit. It was on the shores of Lake Ontario in Oakville, which is a very affluent neighbourhood. It had originally been a summer cottage with no furnace and no insulation when it was purchased. Her father strengthened the structure and it was filled with memories and much activity while her family including herself and 4 brothers grew up in the house.
Plum was very honest in sharing the mixed feelings as a caregiver. She had been in this role for over 20 years between her mother and father. She noted that she had a smile on her face but at times “inside was seething”. Her mother hated having strangers in the house so the largest burden of caregiving fell with Plum. Working in health care, I can certainly identify the challenges of being a caregiver and supporting aging parents to age in place. It is a 24 hour, 7 day a week job and can be an emotional rollercoaster.
She detailed the process of cataloguing both the house and items within it. She was inspired to write a memoir when the library attached to the pool where she was taking aquafit classes advertised a class on writing a memoir. The class was already full yet she persevered and when she was not allowed to join due, reviewed the book list and taught herself about memoir writing. She laughed about her tenacity trying to fit into this class and said that she had “already turned into my mother but had not realized it yet”. Another part of her motivation to write had been during her trips to the thrift store when she noticed a whole decade of goods from the 50’s being “thrown away”. She originally planned on a lighthearted book about getting rid of stuff, which turned into an honest memoir about the relationship with her mother.
The book felt like it needed to “burst forth” and as an unknown writer, she hired her own editor who trimmed one third of the text. It took 9 months to write but 2 years to edit. Prior to publishing, she sent it to her brothers as she was not prepared to sacrifice relationships for the sake of the book, promising to delete anything they would find hurtful and to correct any inaccuracies. The crowd chuckled at the advice of her brother to remove the “f” word, which would “lower the tone of your book”. Another brother was concerned about the use of their real names so all references to the author’s maiden name were deleted. Plum also shared that her own daughter had written most of her own dialogue so the book had the blessing of her family.
Plum spoke of her own insecurities about her writing, worrying that she would be “vilified” for her challenged relationship with her mother and worrying about “what the book was about”. She reviewed that she thought she was just a “placeholder” in the RBC Prize contest, that she was shocked to win including that she had not washed her hair, was wearing clothes from the day before and had not even prepared an acceptance speech. Nonetheless, she won a $25000 cheque, which she promptly left on the podium. The prize “changed the trajectory” or her book.
The author has visited the renovated home and shared a copy of her book with the family that lives there. There is now an elevator and bathrooms for each room. There are no walls anymore and a huge open space. Her brothers had declined to revisit.
The author is a self-professed, voracious reader and is currently enjoying The Bad Assed Librarians of Timbuktu. She especially enjoys memoirs the best. Reading other life stories helped her in her research to find her own agent.
She spoke of relationships lasting after death and how she talks to her parents, especially her mother all the time. Her relationship was complicated but she learned more about her parents and became closer to them during the cleaning out process and feels that this is a necessary rite of passage.
I appreciated the writer’s honesty, which was refreshing. She was open and had a great sense of humour, getting the group laughing at multiple points during her presentation. Her memoir will help others that are dealing with complicated relationships with their parents in life an in death.