Too Close to the Falls
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The author of a memoir must strike a delicate balance. Drama is necessary, but melodrama tips the scales. The sweetness of nostalgia occasionally turns saccharine. Readers want honesty, not exhibitionism, and writers struggle to revisit tender memories without being sentimental. But when that balance is struck, the resulting work is as richor richerthan a finely wrought piece of fiction. Catherine Gildiner's Too Close to the Falls is an example of such a memoir, a fresh chronicle of the author's own awakeningsof the mind, spirit, and body.
Catherine grew up in Lewiston, a small town in upstate New York, not far from Niagara Falls (the "Falls" referred to in the title). The Niagara River, she points out, is visible from both Canada and America. To the casual onlooker, the river appears calm, but the acute observer senses the dangerous eddies and currents beneath its surface. Young Catherine was clearly the latter, and even at the tender age of four, had an uncanny knack for asking the unanswerable questionor the question that no one wanted to answer. In a series of vignettes, the reader is introduced to the residents of Lewiston who field precocious Catherine's inquiries. On the front-line are her parents, Mr. and Mrs. McClure, who were blessed with Catherine's birth late in their marriage. Mrs. McClure was a fascinating departure from the typical 1950s housewife. She used the stove only to warm mittens, dodged drop-in visitors by "hitting the floor," had an insatiable appetite for history, and was meticulous in her fashion sense. Mr. McClurekind and hardworkingowned the local pharmacy. While the McClures fostered Catherine's inquisitive nature, her excessive energy drove them to solicit a local physician's advice. His prescription: put her to work. And so began Catherine's childhood careeraccompanying Roy, an employee of the pharmacy, on his deliveries. In the opening chapter, a snowstorm prevents Roy from getting Catherine, only six years old, home safely after a party. He takes her to Niagara Falls for the night. They dine on "Sassy-fried" chicken; Catherine drinks Shirley Temples and eats Maraschino cherries. She didn't imagine that a world even existed where everyone looked like Roy. When Roy brings Catherine home the next morning, a policeman and a tearful Mrs. McClure greet him. Catherine's gleeful recounting of the night's adventure only inflame the situation. What's the big deal, Catherine wants to know, and why is everyone being so rude to Roy? Roy left an indelible impression on Catherine, and it is in his presence that she begins to suspect that reality is relative, and that life deals everyone a different hand. But Catherine also recognizes that one immutable fact is that everyone needs medicine, even Marilyn Monroe. When the film star is in town filming a movie, Catherine and Roy deliver a prescription to her hotel room. Catherine is shocked that the actress parades around in her slip, stands too close to Roy, and has a bad dye job. She thinks Marilyn looks trashy. Roy, obviously, thinks otherwise. Again, Catherine has a hunch that things just aren't what they seem.
As Catherine comes of age, asking difficult questions no longer sufficesshe wants answers. The double standards embedded in the town's social order, and in Catholicism, enrage her. Her genuinely heartfelt efforts to figure out life within the boundaries of "acceptable" behavior either go unnoticed, such as her attempt to canonize Warty, or are altogether used against her. Engaging in spirited debates within Mother Agnes's classroom earns her the nickname "doubting Thomas."
While Catherine has a ferociously questioning attitude during her teenage years, the author manages to maintain throughout her memoir a gentle yet vigorous tone as her perception of the world begins to crystallize. In the powerful and ironic scene for which this memoir was titled, Catherine discovers a painful truth about Father Rod, the first man to respect Catherine as a woman, to embrace rather than squash her vigorous questions. Does this revelation represent the ultimate betrayal, or just another example of the duplicity and moral ambiguity ever present in life? One only assumes that that is the very question that drove Catherine Gildiner to craft such a probing and eloquent retelling of her childhood in Lewiston, a small town in upstate New York, not too far from Niagara Falls.
Catherine Gildiner has been in private practice in clinical psychology for nearly twenty years. She writes a monthly advice column for Chatelaine, a popular Canadian magazine, and contributes regularly to countless other Canadian newspapers and magazines. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three sons.
Are you a fan of the memoir genre? Whose work do you enjoy reading?
As a child in the 1950s, I devoured all the bright orange books in the library that were biographies of famous women. I read and reread Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, and Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross. I used to leap off my bed at night pretending that I was Clara jumping off the horse-drawn ambulance to care for the wounded. As a teenager I devoured The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Soul on Ice. As an adult I still like memoirs, particularly childhood volumes. For example, I loved Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and Prime of Life. I also liked Jill Kerr Conway's The Road from Corrain about her childhood in Australia. I preferred it to her second volume, True North. In the last few years I would say my favorites are The Liars' Club and Cherry by Mary Karr.
What was the most difficult part of telling your story? Was the editing process difficult? Do you feel like the vignettes included here represent the "turning points" in your life?
The most difficult part of telling my story was dropping the childhood veneer of toughness that has always served me so well. In my first draft I only told the funny stories about Roy and our adventures. It was hard for me to voice my attachment to him and the loss I felt when he was gone. Sentiment has always been hard for me to express.
Another difficult part was Father Rodwick. Anger and a quick tongue are my fortes, but that part of my story forced me to expose my vulnerability, which took a few drafts. It was a good thing to have to do because it helped me to grow and to realize feelings I didn't even know I had until I saw them on the page.
The editing process was not difficult. Early on the editor suggested that I jettison my last chapter where I tell what happened to everyone as an adult. He suggested that although it was interesting, it broke the childhood voice. I recognized right away that he was right and we just pressed "delete." The editor made very few other changes. In fact, it took me less than an hour to deal with his suggestions.
I feel that the events included in the book were defining in terms of way stations on the route to adulthood. But there are still some more turning points in my life that I haven't explored in the book. It is difficult to decide when childhood ends. The death of my parents, leaving the United States, and marrying a man from Europe are all turning points that occurred after the conclusion of Too Close to the Falls. Gee, as I'm saying this I'm wondering if I should write a sequel!
In your book, you alluded to the fact that both of your parents died relatively young, and possibly from illnesses related to industry in surrounding Lewiston. Was there ever a point where that was the focus of your memoir? Did you undergo a shift in emphasis while writing your book?
I decided to write a childhood memoir and end it at the age of thirteen, when my family moved to Buffalo and my father sold the store. It would have been too difficult at that point to introduce new characters. My parents' illness occurred after that move and was not a part of the carefree mood of what I felt was my childhood. This, of course, changed abruptly when my parents were ill and eventually passed away. My life in the 1950s in Lewiston was light years away from my life in public school in Buffalo. Just as the '50s were politically innocent and carefree in the Eisenhower years, so was my life. The 1960s and '70s were full of political tumult, as was my life. In fact, the events in my life mirrored the political arena as we all watched Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., die. Those of us who had never questioned the U.S. government to make the right choice lost our innocence as the Vietnam War unfolded and the Nixon tapes came to light.
How long did it take for you to finish Too Close to the Falls? Did you keep a journal growing up? If so, was it helpful in crafting this work?
It took me seven months. I never kept a journal as a child other than the useless kind that had a key and wide lines called "my ponytail diary." I threw it out when I lost the key. (It was blue plastic and matched "my ponytail jewelry box" and "my ponytail tote record carrier.") Actually I never planned to write a memoir until a friend told me I had a weird childhood and should write about it. I wrote one chapter and sent it in. To my shock I received an advance check in the mail with a post-it note on it that said, "finish it"so, I did.
Do you think that it is necessary for memoirs to incorporate certain elements of fiction? Is it "fair" to fictionalize memories? Where do you draw the line?
A memoir is different from a history or biography. Memory is made up of many unconscious elements and each psyche filters or distorts reality differently, or maybe I should say, experiences reality differently. Whatever has happened to us as children is filed in our memories and then gets used as a kind of kaleidoscope in viewing and interpreting subsequent events.
Age plays another important role in a memoir. The way a child experiences things is certainly different from how an adult sees them. When I went back to Lewiston to look at my home, which I experienced as a "huge rambling home," I realized that it was in reality quite smallmuch smaller than the home I live in now, which I have never thought of as huge. However, I experienced my childhood home as large. Should I describe my home as I experienced it then or as it seems to me now?
Growing up, your friendships seemed to fall into three phases: Roy, the Bloods, and Miranda. How did these friendships mirror and shape your development? Which friendship felt the most comfortable to you? We know that Roy left Lewiston, but have any other of the friendships in the book been sustained throughout your adult life?
Roy is gone, but he still travels within me in that whenever I feel judgmental or avaricious, I think of how Roy would have behaved and snap put of it. When things happen that are minor tragedies, I look at it through his eyes and try to see the humor in it. Sometimes when bad things happen I pretend I'm telling the story to Roy, and then within a few minutes, I'm laughing at some absurd part of the tale.
I cherished my years with the Bloods. There is nothing as marvelous as the open air and riding bicycles on the first day of spring. There is something so freeing about leaving your parents in the morning, hopping on your bike, and exploring. I never remember having as much fun as we had building the snowball forts and leaf forts, making battle strategies in our clubhouse, and doing idiotic daredevil stunts by the river. In terms of personal friendship I would not say I was as close to the Bloods as I was to Roy. Like many friendships between males (except that I was a female), my relationship with the Bloods was defined by the activities we did together and our shared sense of adventure rather than emotional closeness.
Roy provided a role I think each child should have: someone who is not a parent and not a friend but something in between, through whose example you learn but who is far more a confidante than a parent ever can be, the kind of friend who knows more than you but never judges you or your questions. The Bloods were my attempt to belong to a group, a club. I saw them as the route to adventure in the wilds of Lewiston. They were also a means of belonging, e.g., the red Pez dispenser. Miranda was the symbol of my emerging female identity and the beginning of my teenage rebellion years. Aside from everything else about her, she was genuinely amusing and she was my first introduction to irony. I had no idea that jadedness existed until I met her. (Of course, as I'm saying this, I'm realizing that my mother was the queen of irony.) I also admired how she understood the world and what made it tick. I knew I had a lot to learn and that with her I was at the foot of the master.
I haven't maintained close ties with Lewiston as I no longer live in the country. However, the Schmidts (the Bloods) have been very supportive. They have come to every reading in the vicinity and have come up to Canada to see me. The youngest brother, whom I was closest to, lives a block from his parents in Lewiston, is married with children, and works at the power plant, as did his dad. When we get together we have many laughs about how crazy we were and the Schmidt brothers marvel at all the silly details I remember, such as the "decor" of our clubhouse.
After the book was published, Mrs. Schmidt said she had "one bone to pick," and that was that she "never felt her dog Skippy was yappy. After all he was a watch dog." I was amazed that, given all that she could have objected to, that was her only objection. She still remains one of those kind warm women who remember everyone's birthday and makes sure they get a card. When I stopped in after fifty years she remembered all my favorite foods.
Mother Agnes was right about Miranda when she said that Miranda would do well in this world because she knew what people wanted. She started her own executive recruiting firm. She lives in Chicago and lives in a huge penthouse and never married. I visited her about five years ago when I was in town on business. When the book was published she sent a terrarium (go figure!) with a note that said, "Dear goody two shoes. I heard you wrote a book. It better be good." I have no idea if she has read it.
Do you still visit Lewiston? It's evident that your life has been greatly enriched by its residents. Discuss the pros and cons of growing up in a small town like Lewiston.
I don't visit Lewiston often. I have no living relatives there and nearly everyone my parents' age is dead. Many of my friends have moved away, but those that remain all showed up for my reading of the book and it was great seeing them all again. The class as a whole seems to have done very wellit must have been all those years with Mother Agnese. Even Anthony McDougall was there.
Growing up in Lewiston felt perfect at the time. It was a beautiful town with lots of history. I think small towns give children a sense of security and a lot of freedom. There is something wonderful about feeling that you are a part of daily routines and knowing all those around you. Thornton Wilder's Our Town explores that theme and the town in the play reminds me exactly of Lewiston. Wilder also makes it clear that you never appreciate the feeling of belonging until it's gone. My children laugh at me because I like the personal greeters at the Gapit feels so Lewiston. I think once you have acquired that secure foundation or "sense of belonging," you carry that with you in terms of self-confidence no matter how big your world becomes. Small town life has a real pull for me and I'd go back in a minute.
Of course, the irony is that the same thing that is good about a small town is also its limitation. It is a warm cocoon that you can grow within, but at times we can experience that as stifling and feel hemmed in. A cocoon is only good as long as you want to stay in it.
People in small towns have a ledger in their minds and everything you or your family does gets marked in that mental ledger. Nothing ever seems to be lived downfor generations. For example, instead of saying, "Meet Sue Smith," people in a small town would say, "Meet Sue; she's from the Smith family who live down by the river." Because everyone knows that living down by the river is déclassé, there is a sort of permanent branding. Sue might marry into a great family and become a rocket scientist but she would forever be "Sue from the Smith family." That's probably changed since I lived in a small town, but that's how I experienced it.
Lewiston was only a stone's throw away from the Canadian border. Did that infuse the town with a character different than that of other small American towns?
I never lived in other American small towns so I have no idea. I tend to doubt that it was very different since Americans are fairly nationalistic. They would pay far more attention to what was happening in Washington, D.C., or New York that they would to what was going on in Canada. I know that we had a cottage in Canada for many years and everyone listened to the American news and never paid the slightest attention to the Canadian news.
The Americans experienced the Canadians as a far different group of people. They were more reserved and formal. They had beautiful gardens and drank tea out of cups and saucers while Americans had coffee in mugs. Americans would come right up and plop their towel next to yours or wave from their boat even if they didn't know you. Canadians didn't do that kind of thing. What Americans experience as friendly, Canadians experience as intrusive.
You spent a significant amount of energy wrestling with the Catholic faith. Do you ever wonder what institution would have been the focus of your rebellion if not the Church? Other than providing a forum for honing debating skills, what did you learn from growing up Catholic?
I was originally going to call my book Formidable Opponents but my editor came up with the far better title of Too Close to the Falls . I think Mother Agnese, Father Flanagan, and the Catholic Church were the kind of opponents you need in life, the kind that keep you on your toes. I have great respect for Mother Agnese today.
I seem to always have needed to have something to rebel against as I moved on to high school and college. I always liked Marlon Brando's line in The Wild Ones when he drove onto town on his motorcycle: A waitress asked him what he was rebelling against, and, while revving his engine, he asked, "What have you got?" I think that was fairly close to my thought process as a child and teenager. I never rebelled against my parents for some reason that remains a mystery to me. I never acted angry at home so I had to rebel somewhere else.
The great thing about Catholic school was that religion class forced you into thinking about real philosophical questions. Where else would you read on the board every day, "What are you going to do to tidy up your soul this morning?" We had to confront a lot of different issues: Why do people sin when God died for us? Do we have free will? What does it mean to live a good life? What does it mean to be a good Samaritan? These are important questions for little kids to think about. I don't think it is any accident that so many people that have gone to Catholic school eventually become writers. We were forced to sort out good and evil early on. Not that we ever sorted it out, but it got us thinking about issues that were larger than the spelling bee.
Of course, there is a lot of dogma in the Catholic Church, and eventually it became too much for me, but there is so much of that religious education that I remember fondly. I certainly remember the lives of the saints better than I remember the stories in my nondenominational Dick and Jane reader. I think we all have a spiritual component in our brains and it is important to tap into it before it atrophies from reason.
What kind of mother do you think you would have been during the 1950s? What kind of mother would your own mother have been now, in the new millennium? Do you think your mother felt stifled?
I have no idea what kind of mother I would have been. I have always had a fantasy of being a farm wife. I love the outdoors, and I picture myself mending fences and saddling horses. But realized a husband and children don't figure into that fantasy. Well, back to the drawing board.
Everyone likes to think that they would have been the first feminist, but I probably would have done what my mother didsqueak by with one child and live a secret life. Or else, knowing myself as I do, I might have tried to do the whole shooting match: have six children, sew their clothes, design Halloween costumes, and make perfect balanced meals and Christmas decorations. Then one day I would have been carried away muttering in a straight-jacket.
I think if my mother had been in the new millennium, she would have been an anthropologist and probably an academic. She might have never have had children or if she did just one and a nanny who lived in and cooked. Although maybe she would do today just what she did in the 1950s. Maybe she would have been unable to go out on her own and the '50s were a great cover for her. We'll never know.
How has your work in psychology influenced your writing, and vice versa?
As a psychologist I have had thousands of patients over twenty-five years, and when each one came into my office I did a history. I asked each one, even if I only saw them once, "What is your most significant childhood memorybest and worst." I have a pretty good idea what stands out in people's minds. I think that gave me the idea that although the superficial details of my childhood are a little unusual, we are all concerned about the same fundamental things. In order to grow up we have to realize that the world has an underbelly; sex and aggression are civilization's underpinnings and it's just a matter of time until you hit upon them. That's what a loss of innocence that leads us out of childhood is all about.
You have to realize your parents' life is only one mode of reality, and that is shocking for everyone. We all feel shame over things that are somehow violations of our family's little rules or society's taboos. We all confront death. No matter what the trappings of our childhood are, the psychical milestones are the same.
Hearing all of my patients' histories gave me the courage to tell my story. All of our stories are just variations on the same theme. I think being a psychologist gave me an inside track on that.
In terms of how my writing influenced me as a psychologist, that is an interesting question that I don't know the answer to. Patients have often said they are amazed that I remember so many details about their lives. I think that is because I see them as storieshuman stories.
- Discuss what makes a good memoir. How did Too Close to the Falls incorporate these qualities?
- How did you feel about Catherine's childhood "career"? Did it place her in situations that were inappropriate for a child of her age? Elaborate. How do you think being exposed to these realities affected her?
- If Roy were to describe young Catherine McClure, what do you think he would say? What about Mother Agnes? Father Rodwick?
- Early on in the book, the reader understands that Catherine feels she is a misfit. How much of that can be attributed to her natural character? Should her parents have made more of an attempt to force Catherine to conform? More importantly, is it wrong for a child to feel "different" from everyone else? Can it build character?
- Catherine struggles throughout Too Close to the Falls with double standards and issues of moral hypocrisy. In which scenarios did you find these themes especially pronounced?
- Did Catherine experience a loss of innocence? If so, when? Do you remember a particular moment in your life that contributed to a "loss of innocence"? Is that moment an unavoidable part of growing older?
- Is the spirit of rebellion evident in Catherine's character simply innate in certain individuals, or does growing up among particularly restrictive institutions (a strict Catholic school, a small conservative town, for instance) incite rebellion where there may otherwise have been none? Are there any people or institutions that you rebelled against as a teenager, but later embraced?
- Consider the women Catherine comes into contact with: her mother, Miranda, Marie Sweeny, Marilyn Monroe, Warty, and Mother Agnes. What did she learn from each of them?
- How did you react to the last scene in the book, the evening that Catherine spent with Father Rodwick? Was is surprising that Catherinethe adult looking backseemed not to be judging the priest's actions? Do you think that the time they spent together was inappropriate? Might she have drawn something positive from that night?
- "There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in."Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
If you could choose that significant moment in Too Close to the Falls , what would it be? What about in your own life?