Too Close to the Falls
Sometimes Ron tells me that other people don’t have so much inner monologue or that they don’t measure a situation in as much detail as I usually do, both before and after. When I went to visit my formerly imaginary friend Nancy, though, I got evidence that a few other people do measure a situation in pretty thorough detail, because in addition to making up a bed for us, Nancy left out a book she thought I’d like.
While it’s true that I usually read before bed, I don’t often manage this while traveling, due to the fact that I need more sleep than anyone else I know so am always running a deficit. However, if you tell me you think I might like a certain book, I will make an effort to read it. One of the most memorable moments in my adolescence came from being told I was the only person my high school speech teacher had ever met who “might actually like reading The Fairie Queene.” So of course, I did like it as soon as I got my hands on it.
The book Nancy left out for me was Too Close to the Falls, by Catherine Gildiner. It’s a memoir, and I don’t read too many of those. When I do, however, it’s usually as a houseguest, and often it happens early in the morning, like the spring morning I woke up in my great-aunt’s Hyattsville apartment and started reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which begins with:
“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.”
We got up early at Nancy’s house and went out for beignets, so it wasn’t until I got home that I tracked down a copy of Too Close to the Falls and began reading it. At first it seems like little Cathy Gildiner’s life isn’t like anyone else’s, but then I started to have the same feeling that Jo Walton once described about reader reactions to Among Others, that the childhood which seemed so different from anyone else’s usually strikes a chord among like-minded souls who have found each other over the internet. Many of us can identify with a child who did peculiar things and didn’t realize they were peculiar. We had mothers who read and perhaps didn’t pay attention to many of the household duties that occupied other mothers. My own mother, for example, never learned to type for the same reason Cathy’s mother gives for not learning to type or cook, because then “you’d be requested to do both against your will forever.” Probably there are other mothers from the 1950’s and 60’s who did the same thing and gave the same advice to their daughters.
Even though I don’t find little Cathy’s upbringing as odd as she seems to want me to, I did find that not many of us can write as well as adult Catherine. I love the part where she describes “normal” life for four-year-olds in a small town near Niagara Falls in the 1950’s:
“other four-year-olds spent their time behind fences at home with their moms and dads, stuck in their own backyards making pretend cakes in hot metal sandboxes or going to stagnant events like girls’ birthday parties where you sat motionless as the birthday girl opened her presents and then you waited in line to stick a pin into a wall while blindfolded, hoping it would hit the rear end of a jackass….”
The best parts of the memoir are the details about young Cathy’s life delivering prescriptions from her father’s drugstore with Roy, a kind and intelligent black man who never learned to read, but who knew how to keep a smart and energetic little girl on her toes: “Roy and I made up complicated systems for working together efficiently…..Roy loved to bet, and after I got the hang of it from him, I found that it gave life just that bit of edge it needed. Our days were packed with exciting wagers.”
Roy also gives Cathy her first tastes of perspective on her own family. When he laughingly calls her “the angel of exactitude” to a group of people who laugh knowingly, she “understood for the first time that not all the world shared the values of my family. I thought it was inherently good to be exacting.”
I got tired of the parts about Catholic school. It takes Cathy a very long time to realize “that advertisers only wanted to sell products and nuns and priests and parents only gave the party line but grew up with the same prejudices and instincts that everyone else had.” She is naive about sexuality for what seems a very long time, although her story about the first time Elvis was on TV is brightened up by the sentence she gets out of the long recounting of her prolonged state of innocence: “by this time many people had their own television, but they got together to watch history in the making, I guess in case something lustful happened and it was really scary they could turn to each other.”
The title comes from the kinds of danger an unsupervised and adventurous child could skirt in those days. Cathy gets “too close to the falls” literally, sliding down an icy slope towards them as a child and slipping drunkenly down some steps towards them as an almost-adult.
The geographical marvel I lived near as a child was utterly and completely forbidden–we were told that if any of us so much as put a toe into the Mississippi river we would be pulled immediately under by the current and never seen again, and even as teenagers we retained enough terror of the currents to resist partying on the sand bars, as a few of the bravest did. But I managed to find some pretty dangerous things to do. Most of these involved riding around on cars, in places other than the seats. Once we got stopped by the police for flapping tennis rackets out of the windows of a car to make it fly. Perhaps the police thought we had been drinking, but we had not. My friend Brad was driving, and he asked me to open the glove compartment to get his registration–when I did, a couple of rolls of toilet paper fell out because we sometimes went around t.p.-ing friends’ houses in those days, sometimes by going in, visiting a while, and then asking to use their bathroom. We didn’t always t.p. the yard; sometimes just the room itself.
What’s the most dangerous thing you did as a child?