They Left Us Everything is an emotional journey through Plum Johnson's grief and search for self after losing her parents and childhood home. After almost twenty years spent caring for her aging parents, Alex and Virginia, Plum is both liberated and burdened by their deaths, which happen just a mere three years apart. Though Plum loses them, and the loss is enormous, she finds them again through their belongings as she clears out their house, her childhood home, and prepares to sell it.
In packing her parent's belongings, she discovers who they really were, and also what it means to be Plum. Her deft insight shines through the grief and often highlights its depth, stirring up many relatable moments. You will cringe when a retirement home is referred to as "a warehouse full of abandoned parents waiting to die," and angrily weep when Plum bathes Alex and discovers he's cognizant enough to be ashamed. When Plum questions, "who were our parents? They are in everything we see around us, everything we touch, but did we really know them?" you might walk through your house and wonder whether the puzzle pieces of your parents form an image and whether you are mirrored in that image.
But don’t reach for that box of tissues just yet. Just like the belongings in Plum’s childhood home, there is much hilarity to be found in They Left Us Everything. Though it comes to fruition through grief, Plum maintains a sense of humor throughout the memoir and finds it in even the darkest corners of life. Virginia, who is a kaleidoscope of emotions and beliefs, is often the source of Plum's outrageously humorous descriptions. When Virginia makes an appearance at a school party she is pregnant and dressed for the winter weather - "oversized galoshes and a mammoth white Borg coat that came down to her ankles." Naturally, to keep her two young sons from bolting, Virginia ties a yellow rope around her middle, and as Plum puts it, her "two younger brothers clung to the ends like little farmers attached to a clothesline, trying not to lose sight of their barn in the blizzard." Plum's humor dots the memoir in just the right places and consistently prevails in her battle against grief.
My gratitude, respect, and praise for They Left Us Everything is immeasurable. If possible, I would place a copy of it in the hands of anyone who has put every fiber of their being into caring for a loved one, even at the expense of themselves. And for anyone who has battled the stages of grief one memory, keepsake, or expired tin of stewed tomatoes at a time.
Other favorite memoirs dealing with quirky families, grief, and/or perplexing parents include When We Were the Kennedys, The Glass Castle, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.