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Bookworm Sez: Grief and dealing with aging parents’ leftovers

Your grandmother’s jewelry will be yours someday.

You’ve known that since you were small, and were caught playing with them. Someday, you were told, you’d be the proud owner of a necklace, pins, rings and other pretties bequeathed. But in the new memoir “They Left Us Everything” by Plum Johnson, some things are simply not treasured.

“Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days…”

That was exactly how long Plum Johnson had been taking care of her elderly parents when it finally “brought me to my knees.” At 93, her Mum was forgetful and needy, and the daily trip alone was daunting: Johnson lived forty-five minutes away from the family home – too close for her, too far for Mum.

Her parents purchased the 4,000-square-foot house in 1952 and they’d done almost nothing to it; aside from added storage areas and some bookcases, it was nearly the same as it had been at the turn of the century. To Johnson’s chagrin, though, the house filled over the years with forgotten sports gear, keepsakes, Christmas-future gifts, clothes, ancient books, and five decades of family bric-a-brac.

Yes, she’d tried to clean up the mess once or twice but it was a huge task, both physically and emotionally. Her late father, an intense war hero, had a “dark side” and kept every reminder of his military service. Johnson’s Mum was breezy and devil-may-care, a sometimes vindictive person who “didn’t give a [darn]” but who cared enough to voice criticism of Johnson’s life. How did it happen that two people who were so different would fall in love and stay together for the rest of their days?

There were so many questions – even more, after Johnson’s Mum died. The answers, Johnson hoped, might lie somewhere in the 23-room mess, the cleanup for which there was the gift of time. Johnson, the only sibling with few obligations, moved back to her childhood home and started sorting.

Tucked away amidst junk were old love letters and ancient magazines, expired food, “pocket litter,” and receipts from 1953. Clothes jammed the closets; her brothers claimed paintings and other small memorabilia. And there, in the house of her childhood, Johnson learned that inheritances aren’t always found in a box.

You got your grandma’s jewelry. Your mother’s favorite sweater is now yours. Your dad gave you his watch. And “They Left Us Everything” will give you goosebumps.

It’s the rare Baby Boomer, I think, who won’t see herself inside author Plum Johnson’s story. First of all, it’s the quintessential mother-daughter-strife story, complete with old criticisms that don’t make sense and new awakenings that come too late. It’s also about that parenting-our-parents thing that so many Boomers do now, and what makes that bearable is that Johnson is able to say what we’re thinking: it’s hard, irritating, funny, rewarding, and we can’t stop aching from it.

This book will touch a nerve like no other, especially if you’re a Boomer with an elderly parent in need of care. Bring tissues, and bring your heart. “They Left Us Everything” is a jewel.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in Wisconsin.

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