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September 25, 2014
Reviewed by LeDayne McLeese Polaski
Near the end of her often-painful, always-powerful memoir, Peggy Haymes tells the story of moving her parents out of the house they’ve shared for decades. The house has been home to their family and now-grown children; it has been the gathering place to which the family has returned; it is the spot where her mother’s gardens overflow and the one place in which there enough space for her mother’s hats. Clearing out the house is a process of deep grief, especially as she knows that the school next door which covets the land will raze the house and gardens.
On the last day, a stranger walks in, saying that the school has agreed to give him the house if he takes on the task of moving it. He explains that his son, daughter-in-law, and their new baby need a house. Haymes breaks into tears, “At least [it] won’t be destroyed. At least another family will grow up there, and nurturing family is what this house does best.”
The story is a powerful metaphor for what Haymes herself is doing in her book I Don’t Remember Signing Up for this Class: A life of darkness, light and surprising grace. She’s pulling apart her story, a story of an almost idyllic childhood marked by the love of family, the sustenance of church, the call to write, and . . . years of violent sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbor. The story would be too hard to bear if Haymes were not, as she writes, rebuilding the story into a place of growth and nurture for her readers, reconstructing her life with searing honesty and yet persistent hope. That she is able to share awful details of not only the abuse itself but also the grueling, lengthy and ongoing work of recovery even while remaining true to the subtitle’s promise of light and grace is a testament to her talents as a writer and to the spiritual depth and strength displayed throughout the book. That she is able to wrestle with important questions offering hard-won insights and leaving some questions unanswered is a gift to readers making their way through their own struggles.
The book will be a rich resource for anyone who has known deep suffering, acknowledging as it does the lasting scars, the always-unfinished struggle of recovery, some of the specific tools necessary to survive and to thrive, and doing so with hope and even humor. The book will also be a help to those who’ve never experienced such pain but long to understand those who have, especially those in church settings who too often believe “things like that don’t happen to people like us.”
As Haymes sits by her father in the hospice house in the last days of his life, she realizes that her experiences have given her the ability to sit with his suffering, bearing witness and being present as he makes his slow way from one life to the next. One afternoon he raises his head from the pillow and asks in a weak voice, “Do I need anything for the journey?” “No,” she replies, “You have everything you need.”
Though Haymes never indulges in easy answers or simple platitudes, she is able to affirm,“[E]very day in which I serve God I bear witness to the light that triumphs over the darkness.” Her book, like her life, attests to truth that, however difficult the journey, we do indeed have everything we need, including darkness, light, and surprising grace.
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