Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Artist learns forgiveness after life in foster system

Cathy Hayden poses for a photo at Cafe 639 at the Quincy Senior & Family Resource Center where she volunteers. The artist struggled to forgive her foster mother, who said negative things to her. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 24, 2017 9:35 am Updated: Jul. 24, 2017 9:39 am

QUINCY -- To save herself, Cathy Hayden first had to forgive her foster mother.

Waitressing and working in a factory, Hayden was struggling to cope with life on her own, with the turbulence of her past -- growing up in an orphanage and then the foster system -- and shouldering the brunt of past trauma silently. A regular customer, a retired psychologist who had been watching her work, brought her back to her childhood to address the issues.

"He said, ‘You harbor some ill feelings toward her because of what she did,' " Hayden said recalling the pivotal conversation she had at 18. "He said he wanted me to forgive her. I don't even like her, why would I forgive her?

"I couldn't seem to get rid of the things that she would say to me. You can't tell a child -- whether it's your own or not -- that you're no good, that you're not going to amount to anything."

Hayden, 76, grew up in the 1950s on the South Side of Chicago. Her father died in an accident when she was 3, forcing her birth mother to turn their six children over to an orphanage.

"It was war-time," she said, noting that she was born in 1941, a few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "A lot of the fathers died, and so the mothers couldn't take care of a bunch of kids. There were hundreds of kids there."

Her mother worked in a factory, assembling bullets for the war effort, but it wasn't enough. Hayden has some positive memories of her mother before the orphanage. She has always understood her mother's decision, and the two had a healthy relationship when her mother died in 1970.

"Every generation has something pretty rough," she said. "That's just the way it was."

Her four years in the orphanage were peaceful. Young nuns cared for the children, kept them entertained and taught anyone old enough to walk. By the time she entered first grade, she could read and write proficiently. At 4, she and a sister were taken in by a foster family, but the rest of her siblings scattered. An older sister was in the process of becoming a nun, and two of her brothers ventured off on their own. She stayed close with her brother Bobby but is not sure what became of her other brothers.

"They were German, and we were raised the old German way," she said of her foster parents. "Very strict."

Lying, cheating, drinking, smoking were all expressly forbidden. These strict values with which she was raised, while not wholly negative -- Hayden still practices the religion imparted to her by her Catholic foster parents -- were jointly bundled with a level of emotional detachment.

She finished her education in a boarding school and went out on her own as soon as she turned 18. Less than one year after she was first wed, her husband died, leaving her widowed and with her daughter, Mary Catherine.

"I've been, really, on my own for most of my life," she said. "Some circumstances can't be helped."

Hayden never really enjoyed life until she moved to Quincy at 61 and was, for the first time, no longer isolated.

"The thing that drew me to Quincy more than anything is when I visited for the first time, I was walking down the street and someone said hello to me," she said. "After that, I started thinking about coming here permanently."

Hayden's brother and sister both lived in Quincy at the time, and after she moved, her daughter's family relocated to Palmyra, Mo.

Bobby, who had fallen through a skylight at 9 years old and suffered permanent damage from the incident, was living in a facility when she moved. After she found a place here to live, she invited him to stay with her, and he did until he died eight years later.

"I was going to church, and I was concerned about if he would understand it," she said. "I told him about the Lord, and he grasped it. He never missed church for eight years."

She spent a year working as a cook before she found a job in the senior center's craft workshop. After 10 years working at the senior center, she "retired" and became a volunteer.

"Moving to Quincy was the best thing I ever did," she said.

A love of painting and drawing had blossomed early for her, but she felt, without expendable income, she could never turn the hobby into a career. In the 1980s she went to art school and immersed herself in the culture, trying to grasp what it is artists do. She poured through art books and spoke with artists any time she had the chance. It has remained important in her life. She now teaches drawing classes to beginners at the Quincy Senior and Family Resource Center.

"It takes me out of this world," she said of her art.

The unfair circumstances of the majority of her life have given her a new perspective for her second act.

"You can't give up just because things don't turn out the way you wanted them to," she said. "If you have a purpose for living, you're going to do it."

Her encounter with the psychologist has also come full circle. When the psychologist offered his suggestion, it consumed her. It was all she thought about for days, so she decided to forgive her foster mother.

"I felt better," she said. "I left it there, and it was like I could just leave the past behind, and it was gone. I didn't have to worry about it."

She has shared the story -- albeit selectively -- with others who have had similar experiences and helped guide a friend to forgive the friend's mother after years of resentment.

"I told the woman whenever it comes into your head, you just have to say, ‘I forgive her,' " Hayden said. "It amazed me that by the time she got to her mother's room in the hospital, her mother asked for forgiveness. Her mother died in her arms. I think when we want to forgive somebody, God works on their heart. He has used things that happened in my past to help somebody else."

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