They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s award-winning book, is centered around her family’s grand and rambling lakefront home – Point O’ View. It is a memoir of her rambunctious and intellectually curious family – particularly her extroverted southern belle mother and reserved British father and their lives well lived in the bucolic community of Oakville. They Left Us Everything is a poignant reminder about the importance of family and the inherently complex and loving relationships that come with it – especially those that endure into old age.
I spoke to the lovely Plum at her home in Toronto last week.
OurTownO: Plum, when you come out to Oakville today from your home in Toronto what is the first thing you do?
Plum Johnson: I go to get a coffee and I go immediately to the pier – then walk through the park and go past the old house (26 Trafalgar). For coffee I like to go to Second Cup because it’s Canadian. Then I go to see our family memorial plaques that are around the base of the tree in front of the old house. I go to talk to Mum and Dad. I look for Mum’s Canadian geese and her swans. I spend my time down by the house.
OTO: What comes to mind when you think of Oakville today versus Oakville in the past?
PJ: Today it is just so sophisticated. Kind of over the top for me. My memories in the 50’s (growing up in Oakville) it was semi-rural. The house prices just knock my socks off. Remember that Mum and Dad bought our house on the lake for $12,000 in 1952 because no one wanted a house on the lake in those days as they were to hard to heat. When they bought 26 Trafalgar it didn’t even have a furnace. We shared one bathroom and now everyone has en suite bathrooms.
I was thinking about Dad as an environmentalist the other day. He wouldn’t have called himself that – but in those days the war hadn’t been over for very long and our parents had come through rationing.
It was quite normal for people to be putting bricks in their toilet tanks. People were turning off lights all the time. Dad would turn the furnace off at night to save heat. When he would drive the car down a hill he would turn the engine off to save fuel – all stuff like that.
The main thing I remember – two things: I don’t see a lot of children running around old Oakville today, especially unsupervised. In the 50’s there were gangs of children that just roamed the neighbourhood because most of the mothers were stay-at-home so there was always a mother in every house. We had the run of the place. We were totally unsupervised all along the lakefront. I don’t remember any accidents. And we’d skate on the creek in the winter.
The other main thing I remember is what a creative place it was – artistic. Many of the people, even though they were local, they were participating on a world stage. People were doing extraordinary things. Even in our few blocks, our neighbourhood. Right next door to us for example was Norman Alcock. When he wasn’t out mowing the grass he was a nuclear physicist. He was in the middle of founding the Canadian Peace Research Institute which was the first think tank in the world that was aiming to eradicate nuclear weapons . On his board was a very young Pierre Trudeau and Brock Chisholm, Director General of the World Health Organization. Mum was always grabbing our stuff to auction it off to raise money for Norm.
Right across the garden was Amice Calverley . She was an Egyptologist who had been funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago to record the paintings and reliefs inside the temple of King Sethos 1 at Abydos. She used to invite me up to the attic when I was seven to watch her paint. She once gave me a magnifying glass so I could see the feathers on an owl that she had just drawn. All of her ink drawing are now at the University of Chicago.
Then there was Ruth Lightbourn (founder of St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn Oakville School for Girls) who lived right at the end of the block and was teaching us gardening and something called handiwork – something that should be on the curriculum nowadays but it’s not.
At St. Jude’s (church) Harry Foster would sit beside us every Sunday – his nickname was “Red Foster”. He owned Foster Advertising and in his spare time he was involved in organizing the Special Olympics with Rose Kennedy.
Just along the lake – going east from downtown was Ralph Sketch who was commuting everyday with Dad to his insurance job in Toronto. But he’d come home every night and sculpt equestrian statues. His bronzes are large public monuments. One is called The Salute – which is at the Battle of Normandy Museum in France ( Bayeaux Museum ). There is another one I think at Niagara on the Lake. ( Alfred is the life size Ralph Sketch bronze horse sculpture at Niagara Parks )
I felt like whenever I was given a school project to do and needed an expert I didn’t need to look it up in an encyclopedia – I could just go knock on a door somewhere – and there was someone who was doing it. It was extraordinary. Mom was raising money for the Stratford Festival and there were parties out by Appleby. I remember Christopher Plummer being there and Hayley Mills – the child actor -I was told to go be nice to Hayley Mills. All this stuff going on.
I also remember the Oakville Club and the people teaching us tennis. Don Fontana, who had played for Canada in the Davis Cup and Bob Bedard ,who had competed at Wimbledon and they were teaching us tennis! How is that possible really! Like as ten-year olds – you’ve got those two people teaching us tennis!
OTO: What do you think is still the same in Oakville?
PJ: Old Oakville looks more or less the same because they haven’t torn down too many of the old houses so there is this lovely old town feel to it. I don’t think they are all the same on the inside – like ours – it is completely changed on the inside now. The new owners, they took down all of the walls – sort of open concept with all the bells and whistles.
OTO: What about the stores on the main street in Oakville?
PJ: There was a charm before along the main street (Lakeshore Rd.)- where you had a lot of local businesses. I suspect, but I don’t know this for the fact, the high rent prices have forced a lot of them out. The high real estate prices seem to have affected the rents and the big box stores have moved in. There is a sameness on the main street which I am sad about. I think that is a big mistake for towns to have allowed this to happen – somehow. I don’t know if it’s possible to subsidize rents? There seems to be far more services rather than stores like hairdressers and restaurants today.
Candy cupboard is gone (now closed) – which was always my children’s favourite place. (Growing up) we had Donna Lee’s Candy Store and Woolworth’s which is actually where I bought my canary. Woolworth’s had an x-ray machine out on the sidewalk where you could x ray your feet for five cents.
OTO: What about living in a town vs living in a city? Toronto for instance has more access to culture? How do you view this – having lived in both places?
PJ: Oakville tugs at me, because I love it so much, because its home. Oakville with its close proximity to Toronto it’s easy to access cultural events in Toronto.
OTO: Downtown Oakville is currently undergoing a process of revitalization and redevelopment. Do you have any suggestions?
PJ: Oh I don’t know. One of the biggest eyesores – which I can’t believe they let happen is that parking garage at the top of Trafalgar Rd. (Go Station). The fact that it is above ground. I mean it’s so short-sighted everything – if you were in France that would have been all underground and it has just completely ruined the sky scape. One of the beauties of Oakville that I don’t think residents realize, or maybe they do, is how beautiful the sky is.
In Toronto you can see less and less of it. When I first moved to my house in Toronto 40 years ago I could see the sky. I now have to go up to the third floor and peer through a little window to see a sliver of sky. I get to Oakville and I just breathe a sigh of relief because I can see the sky. For example, driving up Trafalgar Road as you got close to the train station you used to be able to see this wide sky and they put up this (garage) and blocked it all – I just don’t understand it.
OTO: Point O’ View, your house – are you glad it’s still there and hasn’t been torn down?
PJ: Of course! They weren’t allowed to tear it down (heritage), they gutted the interior. They raised it up by 18″ so it’s no longer nestled in its surroundings the way it used to be. Mom always said you can’t stop progress and she’s right!
I think they (new owners) did a reasonable job of trying to copy the old windows – that had original hand blown glass – sort of rippled effect wavy as you look through it.Used to be that all of those old windows opened in – grand old windows very high with screens so you didn’t need air conditioning. You were right on the lake with this wonderful breeze blowing in all of the time.
OTO: Your Mum was American and Dad British together they laid down very deep roots in Oakville. Do you think that was enhanced because they were from somewhere else? They were not Canadian by birth. Perhaps they had a stronger desire for community coming from somewhere else?
PJ: I Think you would have been hard pressed to find someone Canadian by birth. There were so many immigrants especially after the Second World War. I think it was the nature of the small town. This was their chosen country. Mum took out Canadian citizenship to vote for Trudeau. Dad was British – part of the commonwealth already.
OTO: Do you think that the desire for a sense of belonging and wanting to be connected to a community is an old-fashioned idea?
PJ: No! I think its current today. It makes it easier in a small town; you see nobody locked their doors. It was a much more trusting open environment. I think there were, I’m thinking of all the different immigrants who came – Mum and Dad had German friends for example – Canada had just been fighting with 10 years earlier – they (the immigrants) were turning over a new leaf.
People were very inclusive in the town-at least Mum was and I think her friends were too. Also in those days, people didn’t go out to restaurants – I think there was only one in Oakville. They had dinner parties at home and so other people were always in your house – sharing your life basically. People socialized more.
OTO: You and I are talking on a historic US election day, your house Point O’ View looked more or less directly across the lake at the US. Do you recall any specific American influences in Oakville growing up? Or aspects of American life in your own family?
PJ: I don’t remember it in the town. There were several American families (like today) coming to live for jobs and business in Oakville. I don’t remember it as a particular influence. We spent our family summer holidays in Virginia – with my Mother’s family. With my American cousins and people we met down there – there seemed be a non-understanding or very little knowledge about Canada and that was always a source of mirth in my family – I think that is still true today.
OTO: Why do you think your book has resonated with so many people?
PJ: It has come as a complete surprise to me. I had no idea that the book would resonate as it has. I think it’s because we are all doing it – not only is my generation helping their aging parents – but the next generation down (my kids’ generation) are reading it too and realizing they are next in line – to live with older parents.
OTO: How do you balance the past and the present in your life today?
PJ: I have been talking about the book much more than I thought I was going to . The publicity and promotion should have died down by now – it hasn’t. For me the book has opened doors to this brand new career that I had always dreamed of, but never thought I would achieve.
The future is about writing more – I write every morning. I’m out most night talking about the book. I love hearing other people’s stories. I thought I was writing just about our family but it turns out I was writing about a generation that I hadn’t really fully appreciated. Hearing everyone elses stories are incredible and our stories are so similar because our parents had all lived through the depression, the Second World War – they raised us a certain way – the majority of us. It has been very liberating to talk to these readers of my book.
OTO: They Left Us Everything was released in July (2016) of this year in the US. How is the book being received there?
PJ: I don’t know yet. I speak at my first event in New York City in January next year. I’m speaking at The Lotos Club – I think it’s the oldest literary club in America.
OTO: Is there going to be a movie about the book?
PJ: All I can say it that I have sold the movie rights. I have also sold the audio rights.
Below are two portraits that Plum painted of her parents Anne and Alec Lind – “Dad complained that I never filled in her pant leg. I told him, that’s because my relationship with Mum isn’t finished! Mum liked it, but Dad grumbled about it all the time.” –Plum Johnson, They Left Us Everything
OTO: Plum, what books do you like to read?
PJ: I am voracious reader and will email you my eclectic reading list of late: HERE IS PLUM’S READING LIST- Read recently: West with the Night by Beryl Markham (probably the best memoir I’ve ever read), Waiting For Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, The Bestseller Code: anatomy of the blockbuster novel by Archer & Jockers, Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan, In-Between Days by Teva Harrison, Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple,The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer Re-read: Treetops by Susan Cheever Currently reading:We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler , The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittle, His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet The Struggle of the Modern by Stephen Spender, The Wonder by Emma Donoghue , Wild Rose by Sharon Butala, The Nightingale by Kristan Hannah
OTO: The Book Club guide on the They Left Us Everything website says a possible discussion question is: Do you still have questions for your parents? I was wondering after writing the book, the book promotion and now the upcoming US book promotion tour – Do you still have questions for your parents?
PJ: I have this wonderful relationship with Mum now – so I’m always asking her questions. She doesn’t always give the answer but I ask the question non the less. One of my favourite things is that I have her voice on my voice mail – I have that one message saved- when (as I describe in the book that I was so angry with her and didn’t pick up the phone) so I listen to it all the time when I pick up my messages – you know how Bell has that thing where you can’t get to your new messages without listening to your old ones and Mum says: Happy Birthday m’a darlin! Call later! I recommend people record their parents voices. Just put your iPhone on the table during dinner or something – you will wish that you can hear their voice again.
Plum will be speaking Wednesday November 16th at Oakville Historical Society Speakers Night 7:30-9:00pm, St. John’s United Church, 262 Randall St. Oakville ON. Admission Free. Donations Accepted
News Release From Transatlantic Agency: November 11, 2016 Plum Johnson was awarded the Evergreen Award for THEY LEFT US EVERYTHING (Penguin Random House Canada), one of the 2017 Forest of Reading Awards! The Evergreen Award is a program aimed at adult readers of all ages who participate in the program through public libraries and book clubs, and the books are selected for the program by expert librarians who share their favourite Canadian non-fiction and fiction with the adult readers. Readers from over 120 libraries participated, and THEY LEFT US EVERYTHING was a clear favourite!