They Left Us Everything

“I used to think parents should clean up their own mess before they depart this world; now I think just the opposite.” These are the words of Plum Johnson, an award winning Canadian author who wrote a book called “They Left us Everything”. It is a book everyone should read. I do not usually make such sweeping statements, but after reading this book I am convinced that everyone would not only benefit from Plum’s wisdom, but enjoy how she delivers it. The book begins on a bit of a discordant note, but anyone who is part of a family will connect to it—we have all been there—some of us will recognize the dissonance immediately and relate; some of us, luckily, may not.

Throughout the book, the author comes to understand the roots of her discord, and begins to appreciate the people who left behind what she calls the “mess”. The “mess” is in the form of a large house much loved by all who resided there and the things left behind by the death of her parents. To say that her parents were hoarders would not be fair, but to put it in some perspective for you—they had 4000 square feet of home and it was jam packed with family history, antiques, historical papers, the detritus of everyday life, and yes, some junk.

I have often said that I must clean up my house and particularly my bedroom before I deign to breath my last breathe, but no one knows more clearly than I that we do not generally choose our death or where we die. It may be ordained somewhere by someone, but we are not let in on the secret. After reading this book though, I think leaving a trail behind for my children may lead them to make some discoveries of their own.

The author of the book, Plum, is tasked with sorting out the house her mother leaves behind when she dies. Her father died three years earlier, and her mother had no interest in going through her husband’s “stuff” thus it is left up to the four remaining siblings to sift through the lifetime of their parents and what they left behind. And what they left behind not only tells their story, but the story of the generations before them.

Plum lived in the big house for 16 months before it was taken over by new buyers who were deemed worthy. In that time she had the help of many friends and her three brothers, but she was the one who took fastidious note of what had been left behind. Then she spent two years writing her book. And in the process she came to the following conclusion: “Earlier I’d resolved to clear out my own mess,… so my children wouldn’t have to face it, but since then I’ve had a change of heart. Now I believe this clearing out is a valuable process—best left to our children. It’s the only way they’ll ever truly come to know us, discovering things we never wanted them to find.”

I agree with her almost totally, though I believe I am not (at least at this point) leaving any evidence behind of things I do not want my children to find. I have edited my life in such a way that, though I am messy, I am not leaving anything behind that will incriminate me. Or at least I do not think so.

They will find books upon books, stashes of costume jewellery, books of poetry written while I waited for them to come from basketball practice or some other after school activity, perhaps some hidden chocolate bar wrappers (I particularly like the fruit and nut chocolate bars) and lots and lots of odds and ends—a notebook my dad left behind from work; a pair of my mom’s old glasses; a pair of white leather gloves that I love but have never worn. They will find hats that I have not been brave enough to wear, millions of scarves in all shapes and sizes, and boxes at the back of my closet holding the paraphernalia of the girl I used to be—the one who wore a Juliet dress to a formal in university; old perfume bottles; and more knick knacks than you can shake a stick at (an odd phrase but one that fits quite neatly here). They will also find remnants of the life I have led with their father, beginning with my wedding dress (handmade by my mom), saved but not too carefully—which says something about me and not the reverence I hold the frock.

No life can be neatly wrapped and tied with a bow. My advice: read the book and be aware that what you leave behind tells its own tales.

What will your children find?

Published in: on May 12, 2015 at 7:14 pm  Comments (15)  

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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve found this a most interesting post – thank you for sharing your thoughts and for the info on the book 🙂

  2. I understand what the author is getting at for sure, but personally I am encouraging my parents to throw out junk now because I am dreading the day my brother and I will have to go through it all. Maybe it’s because I do estate work, but I have seen too many times the enormity of the job of cleaning out a house after someone passes away. I will definitely not part with photos and other family mementos that will lead me on a journey down memory lane, but unfortunately most of us accumulate a lot of meaningless junk over the years as well.

    What do you think your kids will do with all of your precious books?

  3. I hope to have pared down considerably and left with the things I love, and maybe my kids will love them too, if not that’s ok.

  4. It’s strange but I have wondered about this very topic… how much to clean out…. and how much to just let them deal with…. Diane

  5. Sounds like a book I would like

  6. I was going to say my old journals but on second thought, I think I want those burned with me when I’m no longer here. Some things just aren’t meant to be shared. Given today’s technology though, it’s likely they’ll find some digital remnants of my life and lots of photos.

  7. Things that incriminate you? Oh my curiosity is peaked with that loaded statement, LouAnn 🙂

  8. As always, you have written about an issue that is a huge topic of conversations I have had with most of my friends, of a certain age. I had never thought of it, but revealing our histories by leaving stuff behind makes sense.
    I had already decided not to get rid of everything as a sort of revenge.

  9. Nostalgia rolls in…

  10. Food for thought, LouAnn. 🙂

  11. Good book review. “You can’t take it with you”, an expression you can’t shake a stick at. But I’ll need to destroy some of that incriminating evidence

  12. This is an interesting perspective on the cleaning out that that is left. We moved Husband’s dad into a group home at the end of January because his Alzheimer’s has progressed to that point (beyond it really). His little house with so much stuff is sitting there. Husband picks at it here and there a couple days a week. There is no rush, in that we are lucky, for I place a strange reverence upon what is under that roof. There are lots of slides of long forgotten trips to Sweden, strange odds and ends, and lots of random books and papers.

  13. Wow. I am so glad you wrote this, and so glad I happened to read it. This is something I think about a lot. Far too much for someone in her thirties, probably. I visited my grandmother two years before she passed away. I slept in the same guest room I had used for most of my life, and I was surprised, when I really looked around, at how changed it was. Then I realized what she was doing. She was getting everything ready. Cleaning out “her” stuff. In the end, after she became ill and moved in with my parents, she had so very little of her things left. Some clothes, a few pictures, and her favorite coffee mug. All the rest is gone forever. All those things we never knew and never appreciated. I don’t know what I will someday prefer. I don’t want to be a burden on my son, and I don’t imagine he will be extremely interested in the delusional thoughts and life of his crazy mother, but I think maybe that adventure should be his choice. I just hope I have time to clean those darn candy wrappers out of my bedside table…

  14. This kind of made me sad.
    I guess it would be a nice mess to clean up – bittersweet.
    As for my kids cleaning up my mess. I’d like to think it’s an organized mess. But – they might think differently. I hope they find the me that they always knew & then some. 😉

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