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RBC Taylor Prize Excerpt: They Left Us Everything

I look up at the windows. Every frame drips with icicles that thaw and freeze and thaw again in our wild, unpredictable winter. Sometimes they all melt away to nothing. Then, forty-eight hours later, the icicles are so long it feels like I'm imprisoned behind bars.
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They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson.

The RBC Taylor Prize recognizes excellence in Canadian non-fiction writing and emphasizes the development of the careers of the authors it celebrates. There are five authors in the running for this year's Prize. The $25,000 Prize for Literary Non-Fiction will be awarded on Monday March 2, 2015 at the Omni King Edward Hotel.

The five finalists and their books are: They Left Us Everything by PLUM JOHNSON (Toronto, Ontario), published by Penguin Canada; One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada's Tragedy at Dieppe by DAVID O'KEEFE (Montreal, Quebec), published by Random House Canada; The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times by BARBARA TAYLOR (London, England), published by Hamish Hamilton Canada; And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa by M. G. VASSANJI (Toronto, Ontario), published by Doubleday Canada; Boundless by KATHLEEN WINTER (Montreal, Quebec), published by House of Anansi Press.

Below is an excerpt from Plum Johnson's book courtesy of Penguin Books.

I look up at the windows. Every frame drips with icicles that thaw and freeze and thaw again in our wild, unpredictable winter. Sometimes they all melt away to nothing. Then, forty-eight hours later, the icicles are so long it feels like I'm imprisoned behind bars.

When I get back from the train station, I go upstairs to make the bed. I empty the hot water bottles into the sink and remember that Dad used to turn the furnace off at night. When we awoke, icicles had formed not only on the outside of the windows but on the inside, too. We slept in woollen socks, hats, sweaters, and nose cozies--my own invention that I started to knit as soon as I was old enough to hold knitting needles. They were cone-shaped affairs that covered our noses and had loops to hook over our ears. Dad supplemented with hot water bottles, but he'd pour in only a tablespoon of boiling water, and so they'd lie flat and floppy on our bellies. "Waste not, want not!" Dad would say. Then he'd climb into bed beside Mum, who he claimed was the best kind of furnace there was.

I pass by the open doors to all the bedrooms and reality finally hits. How am I ever going to untangle this mess? How am I ever going to separate the trash from the treasure in the overstuffed contents accumulated during Mum and Dad's combined lifetimes of more than 180 years? Some of the valuable items I know none of us will want, while junk of no apparent value has such memory-laden significance that we'll have to draw straws to see who gets it. All the grandchildren tell me they want the plastic sign of the gun on the mudroom window. I wonder where the nose cozies are?

I stomp down the wooden stairs to the basement with my load of dirty towels, keeping my head down low so my hair won't brush up against any spider webs lurking in the ceiling. Light filters in through the laundry-room windows behind pots of wispy dried geranium plants, casting splinters of cold morning sun on the concrete floor. A cat's cradle of empty clothesline zigzags across the room. The ironing board sits forlornly in the corner, an old flannelette cover clipped over it with wooden clothes pegs.

Then I look up. There's Mum's hornet's nest, which she saved in a brown paper bag to show to her grandchildren. It's grey and papery, about the size of a football. She'd found it in the garden, fallen from the eaves, and sliced it in half. She marvelled at its architecture, its complex geometry, and the sheer intelligence of the hornets that built it.

"Isn't it fascinating? Look at all those compartments! All those thin layers of paper packed together! Did you know hornets spend their whole lives flying back and forth just to build nests like this for their children?"

Mum used to take it in her car to show members of her bridge group, her Bible study group, her belly-dancing class, and her Alzheimer's support group after Dad got sick. She even called the mayor's office to see if they wanted it for their education department. The rest of the time it hung in its bag from the basement ceiling, along with an envelope of Dad's hollyhock seeds.

What should I do with it?

I can hear Mum's voice: "You can't throw that away!" And it stops me in my tracks.

This house I am now slicing apart is theirs--the place that we'd taken for granted would always be here as a backdrop to our lives.

Where do I start? I worry that one piece of pocket litter will lead to another until I'm following flakes of memory so deep into the woods I may never get out.

On the other hand, maybe I have this opportunity--this temporary stay of execution--to sift through a half-century of stuff, to see what everything means. Maybe I'm looking for answers instead of exits.

What answers?

How could I still have questions?

Friends warned me of this. They said, "When your mother dies, you'll wish you'd asked her some questions." I had more than sixty years to ask questions, but the questions didn't form until after she'd gone.

Now there are questions I didn't even know I had.


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