Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Way I See.... the Surly Bookseller

They Left Us Everything: A MemoirThey Left Us Everything: A Memoir by Plum Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Actual star rating: 3 1/2 stars.

My mother died in the fall of 2011; my father on the last day of the year 2014. Between those years my father moved into a dementia care facility and my siblings and I cleared their belongings from their home, each of us taking the things that meant something to us. By some process I became the person to whom the archives -- papers, letters, photographs, scrapbooks -- came. I am nowhere close to even opening the things on the tops of all those piles, as each time I begin I lose all track of time and continue to deal with what I have called the Little Landmines that seem to be around every turn.

I have become quite fascinated, because of this, when I have the opportunity to talk with others who are charged with this same task. How do they handle it? How do they decide what is worth keeping forever? After so many conversations, and certainly after reading Johnson's memoir, I come to a couple of truths about it.

First, it's almost never the biggest or finest things to which we discover ourselves most attached, when the time for pitching out comes.

And second, the process changes you if you are lucky enough to take the time to carefully sift. What Plum Johnson and I and so many of my friends have discovered in those dusty boxes and in the bottoms of pocketbooks and pockets of coats on their way to Goodwill are the people our parents were, when they weren't busy being our parents. What a gift.

Pocket litter turns out to be ground zero, the debris left behind that no thrift store will take: small mounds of ash, yet mountains to climb, for me.

Reading that line, early in Johnson's memoir, brought back exactly the feeling I had when I opened one of my mother's evening bags and discovered a cigarette butt, stained with her lipstick. The moment I saw it the tears began to flow, and in short order I was little more than a puddle on the floor. This was months and months after her death, when I thought I was done with the deepest grieving.

What I wish is that Johnson had spent more time talking about this process, and all the discoveries she made, because when she did, this memoir was magic. When she chooses instead to write about her parent's histories I was less enamored. They had certainly lived interesting, story-worthy, lives, but I had come to this book as a fellow finder of "pocket litter," and could really only connect with Ms. Johnson over those moments.

I certainly do recommend this book, even so.

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