They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson [Book Review]

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They Left Us Everything, by Plum JohnsonI recently read They Left Us Everything, and it appealed to me on many levels.

  • It takes place in Oakville, Ontario, which is located between Etobicoke, where I grew up, and Hamilton, where I live now, so it’s familiar territory.
  • The author’s description of her relationship with her late mother was compelling. It was different than the relationship I had with my own mother, but there were parts that really hit home. And even though it’s been over 20 years since my mom passed away, the book drew out emotions I’d forgotten about, and even brought tears to my eyes from time to time.
  • I found myself looking forward to getting back into the book, days after I’d already finished it.

You may be thinking, “That’s very nice, Janet, but why are you talking about it here on Your Organizing Business?”

In a nutshell, They Left Us Everything is a memoir of the author’s experience packing up her parents’ home after their deaths. They’d lived in the 4000 square-foot, 23-room house for over 50 years and, as you can imagine, they accumulated a lot of stuff, ranging from shopping receipts to valuable antiques.

As she and her siblings emptied out boxes, drawers, cupboards and closets, they learned many facts about their parents and relatives through the many artefacts they discovered, experiencing a wide range of emotions along the way. Hundreds of decisions had to be made, and most of them weren’t easy.

If you work with downsizing and estates, you’ll probably find the story interesting, because it reflects what you face with your clients on a regular basis.

But if this is an area you’d like to get into, I especially encourage you to read this book. It opened my eyes to how complex it can be! Here are a few of the issues it raises:

  • Are you equipped to help your clients make decisions while dealing with powerful emotions?
  • Considering the amount of work involved, how can you best assist your client in a cost-effective way?
  • How can you make the process easier for your client – or can you?

Have you read They Left Us Everything? I’d love to know your thoughts!

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A former professional organizer, I now eliminate stress for my clients by hosting, monitoring, and maintaining their WordPress sites so they don’t have to worry about security, downtime or performance issues. When I’m away from my desk, I enjoy reading, photography, watching movies, and cooking.

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  1. Avatar Pam Mirehouse on June 14, 2017 at 11:25 am

    I read this during a vacation this year and found it fascinating. It really is an insightful read on relationships with our families and our stuff. I didn’t realize it was set in Oakville until I opened it up on the plane but I loved that fact also!

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on June 14, 2017 at 11:40 am

      I’ve discovered that quite a few people I know have read it and that it has won some major awards too. I’m glad my friend suggested it for our book group or I might have missed out altogether! I’m looking forward to discussing it with them this weekend.

  2. Avatar Seana Turner on June 14, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this book, and I think I would love reading it. I’m adding it to my “Books to Read” list and I am really looking forward to it!

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on June 14, 2017 at 12:24 pm

      I think you’ll enjoy it, Seana! The American cover isn’t as interesting as the Canadian one (shown here) but I’m sure the content is the same. 🙂

      • Avatar Seana Turner on January 12, 2019 at 5:05 pm

        I have since read the book and thought it was wonderful. I really enjoyed the story. I am hoping our local NAPO chapter will read it together 🙂

        • Avatar Janet Barclay on January 14, 2019 at 5:38 am

          I’m so glad you remembered to come back here and share that, and I’m especially glad that you enjoyed it enough that you’d like to read it with your Chapter as well.

  3. Avatar Kim on June 15, 2017 at 5:23 pm

    My sister gave me this book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It really makes one think about all those past life experiences, the possessions and the dreams of the people left behind. It makes you think about what it would be like for those who are left behind and have to go through everything and make decisions about the items. The author was fortunate that she was able to spend this time in her childhood/parents home and go through the emotions over the year. It is so interesting to think about the energies in a home and all of that past history. It was pretty cool that it was set so close to home too. I love that you have a picture of the home Janet.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on June 16, 2017 at 6:20 am

      Interesting perspective, Kim – you’re right! She was fortunate that she had the flexibility and the time to devote herself to the process.

      I was hoping to find a photo of the house I could use in my post, but the only ones I found were copyrighted (which I expected). Then I thought of Google Street View! I found the address in an article about the house from 2012 and was able to find it that way. I could have just driven down the highway and taken one myself, but it never even crossed my mind! I like this interactive one, because it allows you to see the incredible view from the property – even better than I imagined from reading about it!

  4. Avatar Julie Stobbe on June 18, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    I read the book too . I really enjoyed the system they developed for bidding on possessions so each sibling had a chance to pick items they wanted.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on June 19, 2017 at 6:47 am

      I know someone else who used this system, and thought it was a great way to keep it all fair.

  5. Linda Samuels Linda Samuels on June 19, 2017 at 10:47 am

    This looks like a great book. Like Seana, I’m adding it to my books to read list. It feels particularly relevant because at some point in the not to distant future, I will be responsible for doing this for my parents’ home (and my childhood home) of 55+ years. I have helped clients in this situation. It is very emotional. I’m expecting that too when it’s time for my siblings and me to do this.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on June 19, 2017 at 11:47 am

      I discussed it with my book group this past weekend, and it was interesting to hear my friends’ reactions to it. One friend did this with her parents’ home of 50 years in about 6 weeks, at the same time she was preparing to move her own family. Another has done it with parents, grandparents, in-laws, and others. And a third is currently living in the house she grew up in, which still has some old stuff tucked away.

      You are lucky in that you have skills and experience doing this, and know that it’s not going to be a walk in the park, so hopefully you won’t be caught off guard. Losing parents is such an emotional roller coaster that it can be hard to focus on the practical matters that must be dealt with.

  6. Avatar Sabrina Quairoli on June 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    This book sounds wonderful. I will check it out. It is a handy book to give to people who are starting the process of going through stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    I was the executor of both my parent’s’ estates, and while it was a stressful time, I am glad I was able to share it with my brother and family. I found that people look for these types of books after a person has passed because they get lost in the process of the stuff and forget to enjoy their life. We put aside few cherished items and updated others which made us create a new found love for the items.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on June 19, 2017 at 3:47 pm

      It’s definitely not a “how to” book, but it did provide a lot of insight into many aspects of the process. I’m happy to hear that you and your family were able to create new found love for some of your parents’ belongings.

  7. Hazel Thornton Hazel Thornton on June 19, 2017 at 7:28 pm

    Already downloaded from Audible and started listening!

  8. Avatar Olive Wagar on June 29, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    Looks like a great read–thanks for passing along the recommendation! I will be meeting with an older couple tomorrow who have 38 years of stuff that is keeping them from moving on to the next season of their life in Florida.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on June 30, 2017 at 6:14 am

      That’s quite a challenge!

      I was always a bit jealous of friends who lived in the same house the whole time they were growing up, because we moved several times. My father has moved a few more times since my mother passed away, so there’s been lots of downsizing along the way. Now I’m thankful that I don’t have to go through that – even though weeks later, I still find myself going back to “Point O’ View” in my mind!

  9. Avatar Janet Barclay on June 30, 2017 at 6:16 am

    I just noticed that all of the Canadians who have commented have already read the book, but none of the Americans. I’m happy to be a literary ambassador!

  10. Avatar Rachel Stones on July 24, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    I love book recommendations. I’ll add this one to my “to read” list. Thanks for the heads up!

  11. Avatar Hellen on December 13, 2017 at 11:37 am

    A little late to the party but I just came across this post, Janet. That house is in walking distance to my home; in fact, I pass it almost every day when I walk the dog along the lake path. But I didn’t know about the story behind the house until I came across the book a few months ago at the library. I also loved it, couldn’t put it down, felt emotional and was still reeling from the experience several weeks after reading it. So powerful. I never noticed the memorial plaques at the foot of the tree behind the house until I read about them. It was surreal to go over and have a look at them. It’s amazing the stories we don’t know about even in our own backyard. Such a joy to learn about the one.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on December 13, 2017 at 1:21 pm

      It must have been pretty exciting to learn the story behind a house you see all the time! I read it with my book club, and one of the other members lives in Oakville. We keep saying we should go down and see it some time, but we haven’t got around to it.

      • Avatar hellen on December 20, 2017 at 2:10 pm

        Well, when you do, let’s plan on meeting up for lunch or a coffee.

        • Avatar Janet Barclay on December 21, 2017 at 2:00 pm

          I’ll try and keep it in mind! We haven’t seen each other in a very long time.

  12. […] They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson (see blog post) […]

  13. Avatar Janet Schiesl on June 11, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    Sounds like a great book. I just ordered it.

  14. Avatar Janet Schiesl on March 17, 2023 at 7:30 am

    I read this book a few years ago and kept it, which meant it had great meaning to me. (I don’t keep many books). I even mentioned this book as a resource during my latest seminar about downsizing. I think if parents knew what their children go through when clearing out their parents homes more would start the project themselves.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on March 17, 2023 at 10:26 am

      So many people have been wowed by this book, I can’t believe it isn’t more well-known (even if it is Canadian!).

  15. Avatar Anne Blumer on March 20, 2023 at 12:52 pm

    This looks like a great book. As others commented, I’m adding it to my books-to-read list. I have helped clients, and I helped to clear out my mother and her husband’s home when they downsized. As well as my siblings and I cleaned out my father’s condo that his wife had occupied for 25+ years after his death. That was a very stirring event.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on March 20, 2023 at 4:00 pm

      You will definitely relate to it then! I’d love to know what you think of it, if you get a chance to read it.

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