What my mother taught me – Catherine Ryan Hyde

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By Catherine Ryan Hyde

Before you decide a person’s mother is different and doesn’t count, I should mention that my mother was never much the mothering type. She was always the first to admit she probably wouldn’t have had kids if the 1950s hadn’t convinced her that childbearing was not as optional as it seems today. She was careful to add that she was thrilled to have us once we were grown. She lived with me for 25 years between her retirement and her passing at age 90, and we were always the best of friends.

Once I was an adult, the fact that she lacked that nurturing gene was a good thing. She didn’t try to mother me in ways I had long outgrown. When I was a child, it was a bit more of a challenge. But kids are nothing if not adaptable. She seemed to be more in the market for a friend than a child, so that’s how I reached her and where I met her: at the level of two equal friends. I credit my childhood friendship with my mother for my growing up to be an optimist.

So the following scene played out again and again in my childhood.

My mom and I would come up with a great plan. We’d drive across the Peace Bridge into Canada (not a long drive from Buffalo, NY, where we lived), spend the afternoon having a picnic by the lake, visit a castle or enjoy a concert in some charming Canadian town, then drive home late.

We would share this great plan with my dad, who would then begin to school us in the dangers we had failed to take into account. The car might break down. The car’s battery might die in the cold. We could be held up at the border crossing. The list would go on. Nothing against my dad, but I have to note that he was well short of optimistic. Coming from a rough upbringing, I guess he felt it was his job to keep us safe. He knew all too well the dangers of the world and wanted to make sure we knew them, too — before they caught us. Somehow, his list of reservations never stopped us from seeing the best in everything.Allie & Bea_300dpi

There’s nothing wrong with knowing your pitfalls and being prepared. In that, my father contributed to my pragmatic knowledge of the world. But when it came to my mother and I — unlikely best friends, with 32 years between our ages — I can’t help but notice that we gave each other permission to be optimistic. So, though there’s no hard and fast rule about gender, I do think female friends can help each other to be more in touch with their emotions, more creative, more spontaneous. And yes, more optimistic.

My breakout book, Pay It Forward (adapted into a Warner Brothers film), could not have been written by a pessimist. Not even by someone who embraced my father’s gritty pragmatism. So it’s not hard to see how that intergenerational bond with another woman shaped my future.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be best friends with her mother, but if there’s one thing I do stress in my fiction it’s that we can grow up to find our own families. Allie has few older relatives besides her parents. Two of her grandparents are deceased, two are confined to nursing homes. But she finds a new grandmother in Bea, proving that we are not limited to the hand we were dealt at birth.

Family is ultimately where you find it.

Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of 32 published books. Her bestselling 1999 novel, Pay It Forward, was adapted into a major Warner Bros. motion picture starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, made the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults list, and has been translated into more than two dozen languages in 30 countries. Hyde is the founder and former president of the Pay It Forward Foundation. Her new novel, Allie and Bea, is out today.


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