Too Close to the Falls
ECW Press, 2009
ISBN 10:1 55022 396 8
Review by Margot Fedoruk
Too Close to the Falls, Catherine Gildiner’s award-winning memoir about her unconventional childhood in the sleepy town of Lewiston, New York in the ’50s will have readers holding onto their seats as feisty Cathy McClure hangs out at Shim-Shacks tavern on the edge of the Tuscarora reservation as a minor, delivers medicine through a snowstorm, and sleds down a steep escarpment toward the icy waters of Niagara. Gildiner’s memoir will have readers in tears of laughter and loss right up to the nail-biting conclusion when she is seduced by a handsome priest at the Rainbow Inn.
Each of the book’s thirteen chapters begin with black and white photographs or drawings, as if opening the pages of a family album and is devoted to a memorable person or event.
Chapter one is about Roy, a Black, illiterate delivery driver for McClure’s Drugs, Cathy’s father’s pharmacy where at four she is put to work full-time to remedy her hyperactive nature. Gildiner spends her days in the passenger seat reading out addresses to Roy, her “soul mate in experience” who “made chestnuts into jewels, bottle tops into art, music into part of our joy together, and he always saw the comedy in tragedy.”
Gildiner says, “I was exposed to situations I later realized were unusual for a child. For over ten years I never once had a meal at home, and that included Christmas. I worked and went to restaurants and delivered everything from band-aids to morphine in the Niagara Frontier.” Gildiner’s memoir uses the roiling waters of the Niagara as a metaphor for this unsettling childhood. She describes the Niagara river as “calm, rarely making waves, it has deadly whirlpools swirling on its surface which can suck anything into their vortices in seconds.”
Though the setting is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, a storyabout growing up in the shadow of Buck’s Peak in rural Idaho, it is not about being dominated by a strict, religious father, but instead about being raised by a loving father and quirky mother:
Mother and I took imaginary travels back to a time when the Indians ruled the cataract and threw a virgin over the Falls every year to appease the fierce god who roared at the bottom of the foam. The legend suggested the spray from the Falls was the tears of weeping Indian virgins who were dubbed the “maids of the mist.” At that time, I thought “virgin” meant a woman who gave birth to a child who was the son of God. Mother said anyone who gives birth to a son usually thinks he’s the son of God, anyway.
Chapter four is devoted to her mother who has embraced a “carefree lifestyle.” She is thin, pretty and looks the part of a ’50s housewife, but refuses to cook or shop for her family, eating instead at Schoonmaker’s restaurant every night. Their refrigerator is empty, and the oven is only used to dry mittens. Gildiner explains, “The strength of her passive resistance put Gandhi and Martin Luther King to shame.” Her philosophy on Thanksgiving further illustrates her character: “Can you imagine putting your hand in either end of some dead fowl, pulling out its innards, then restuffing it with your own concoction and boiling up the gizzard? Sounds like Hansel and Gretel.” Her mother’s hands-off style of parenting creates a child with a feisty, independent spirit that even the nuns and priests from her strict Catholic school can’t stifle.
Gildiner moves from innocent child to pre-adolescence revealing her misconceptions with trademark humour: “I began to pray fervently that I did not have a baby like Sara Welch did at the age of fifteen. Sara got pregnant from reading filthy magazines at the bus station and had to go to a home for unwed mothers in Lancaster.”
The tension rises in the final chapter, where Gildiner experiences what she calls the “execution of her innocence” and learns her beloved philosophy teacher, Father Rodwick, has been having sexual relations with her attractive 15-year-old friend, Miranda Doyle, at the Sunset Motel.
Father Rodwick takes her out for cocktails at the Rainbow Inn:
He turned his face into the wall of rock, lit two cigarettes, and handed me one. I leaned back against the rock and smoked. We couldn’t talk because of the deafening torrent. I had calmed down by the end of my cigarette and looked up at him. He looked at me, and I couldn’t help smiling at the absurdity of us, too close to the Falls, damp, crouching on a bird roost, having a cigarette… That was the best cigarette I ever had…
Gildiner said, “It’s interesting that people have figured out how to pickle, freeze, dry, and cure foods, how to preserve history in a book, events on television, but how do you preserve a moment in your memory?” This memoir is proof she figured it out; Too Close to the Falls preserves vivid scenes of her childhood as overflowing with humour and compassion as the falls themselves.
Gildiner’s second memoir, After the Falls (2009), picks up when her family leaves Lewiston to start a new life in Buffalo, and is followed by Coming Ashore (2014). Gildiner’s other works include a novel, Seduction (2005), and her most recent book, Good Morning Monster: Five Heroic Journeys to Recovery (2019) stories of patients overcoming trauma during her 25 years as a professional psychologist.
Check out her author website: http://www.gildiner.com/