What is it about a walk down memory lane that is so appealing and so sad? Why do we keep taking that well-worn path? Christmas time seems to pull us relentlessly into the world of memories, whether they be happy or not. A Christmas tree conjures other Christmases, the ones when we received our heart’s delight and the ones when we were disappointed. Like it or not, we travel down that road to the past, lit with the smiles of loved ones no longer with us. A road defined by school days, old friends, our first boss, our first kiss, our first love, our first loss. Even when we know what trap lies around the next corner, we travel on. Nostalgia has us in its grip.
I just finished a book, They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson, that does nostalgia in spades. It is a memoir of her family and the house they grew up in. When her mother dies, the property is to be sold.
Plum’s parents bought the place when they came home from WWII. Her father had been in Hong Kong. Her mother served with the Red Cross. When they moved to a house on the shores of Lake Ontario, they came with nothing. In the over fifty years they lived there, they disposed of nothing. Plum must sort and catalogue and dispose of twenty three rooms stuffed with family history. The task is overwhelming and takes the author down many rabbit holes of memory and mystery. She discovers books and letters she’d never seen before. She discovers bags and bags and bags of garbage — all those broken bits of china, old Christmas ornaments, forgotten school essays, grade two report cards, old hats, old shoes, old jewellery — things that hold memories, things dear to her heart, but things that have no place in her grown up life. A whiff of perfume and the author is a child again, kneeling at the top of the stairs to watch her glamourous parents heading out for an evening of dancing. The slam of the garden gate recalls the endless flow of waifs and strays that sheltered in the big, rambling family home. A book on sailing conjures Saturday mornings when she and her brothers and father took out their little sailboat. Joy, anger, guilt, love, grief, all crowd in with each opened drawer.
The task of emptying the house and selling it, was supposed to take six weeks. It took sixteen months.
I enjoyed the book. Many of the author’s experiences mirrored my own family life. But, like the author, those memories dragged me into sunny meadows and rainy afternoons that filled my heart with love for the home and family that was mine — and made me ache with loss. In the end, They Left us Everything, is really a book about grief. Read at your own risk.