I just finished reading Plum Johnson’s beautifully written memoir They Left Us Everything. Plum took on the task of going through the twenty-three rooms in her parents’ lake front house after they died. She sorted through their mountains of belongings. As she read hundreds of old letters, sifted through the contents of an attic crammed with trunks, and prepared antique furniture and memorabilia to be divided up between her and her brothers, she learned so much she never knew about her parents and their fascinating lives. The experience also helped her process her relationship and feelings for both her mother and father.
Plum Johnson reaches the conclusion that as people age they need not clean up and sort through all their belongings. They should leave that task to their children who will find it therapeutic. Sifting through all their parents’ things will help children learn about family history and reflect on family relationships.
I don’t think I agree with Plum. She spent sixteen months living in her parents home and cleaning it out. Most children don’t have that kind of time or the financial and personal independence to dedicate to such a task. I work at a thrift store and when I am unpacking boxes donated from a deceased person’s home I frequently find all kinds of personal papers, cards, letters, souvenirs, autographed and marked books, and family photos. More often than not I think the deceased person’s family disposes of things in as quick a way as possible. Few bother to do the kind of slow and detailed examination of family heirlooms and memorabilia that Plum did. In the process valuable family memories are lost.
I think it is better to keep your belongings to a minimum so your children aren’t left with a gargantuan clean up when you die. It is important though to find ways to preserve family memories in stories you write down or share orally with your children and grandchildren while you are still alive. Give them family treasures and tell them the stories related to them while you are still living.
Although I didn’t agree with Plum Johnson’s conclusion I did love her well written book and delighted in learning about her colorful parents along with her. The book includes family photos which is something I always enjoy.
As well Plum writes about the years her family lived in Hong Kong. Since I also lived there I could identify with the places and people she wrote about. Thanks to my friend Esther for recommending this excellent book.