Tuesday 13 May 2014

They Left Us Everything

On the shores of Lake Ontario in Oakville sits a spacious house built two centuries ago.  The couple who owned it passed away and left everything in it.  It was up to their daughter to sort through their belongings, things they had accumulated in their 50-year plus marriage.  Given that her mother didn't throw anything out, it was no small task for the daughter.  What started out as a six week plan stretched into a year and a half. And underneath what at first appeared to be junk, were hidden treasures.  

Plum Johnson's mother was a Southern debutante.  She grew up in Virginia, riding horses among hickory trees.  A cook made her meals.  A maid cleaned her room and did her laundry.  She had everything done for her.  Ahead of her time, she attended college in New York City after graduating from high school.  She was an amateur artist who even studied in Italy for a year.

But the Second World War interrupted her dream.  She signed up for the Red Cross.  She went out on a blind date in the Big Apple.  And she was smitten.  Soon she was sailing to England on a military ship.  Her sweetheart, who hailed from England, was called into the British Navy.  While he fought on battleships, she worked behind the scenes for the war effort.  Her sweetheart was captured by the Japanese but somehow escaped and returned to her.  

After the war, the two married on a shoestring budget.  Since she was American and he was British, they decided to compromise and settle in Canada.  They found a rollicking house on Lake Ontario which had a cottage-like feel.  He fixed it up and made it a more permanent home.  Then, one by one, they filled it up with five children.  But they didn't stop there.  When someone was in need of a meal, they would invite them to their dinner table.  When someone was in need of a bed, they would invite them to stay in their spare bedroom.  They embraced their new town and their new neighbours.  

Oakville in the 1940's and 1950's was still a town.  The couple got to know the townspeople well.  They held dinner parties where guests would waltz across the wooden floors of their dining room.  The couple could boogie with the best of them.  

One by one their children grew up.  And one by one they left the nest.  Their daughter got married right on the grounds of the house, the lake providing a magnificent backdrop for photos.  And she made them grandparents.  Tragedy struck in 1991 when their oldest son was stricken with cancer and passed away. But the couple weathered the storm.  

Finally, about five years ago, her father passed away.  Three years later, her mother passed away.  Their daughter moved into the house to sort through their things.  An author, she decided to write about her experience.  With the opening of each box, the memories of her childhood came flooding back.  At one point, she found a box full of what appeared to be trivial items.  She asked her brother what to do with it, and he said:  "Throw it out."  But she kept it and sorted through it.  Underneath the junk, she found a letter from Princess Elizabeth, written the year before she became queen, thanking her parents for their generous donation to a British charity.  In the end, writing about the experience of cleaning out her parents' house was a catharsis for the daughter.  And she came away with a book deal to boot.  



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