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Too Close to the Falls

July 11, 2014

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?

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2014 11:50 pm

    I honed knives and chopped firewood.

    • July 14, 2014 11:37 am

      That sounds pretty dangerous! And yet you still have all your limbs.

  2. July 12, 2014 6:20 am

    I don’t remember doing anything dangerous as a child, I spent all my time reading 🙂 And I grew up into the sort of person who liked reading The Faerie Queene!

    • July 14, 2014 11:38 am

      My theory is that people who spent much of their time reading did dangerous things and weren’t paying that much attention. For instance, reading while walking. For some of us, that’s pretty dangerous.

  3. July 12, 2014 10:41 am

    Okay, well, for an extremely law-abiding and fairly docile child, I actually did do some really, really dangerous stuff. But the thing that probably brought me closest to premature death was so silly and looked so safe! We had had a HUGE snowfall (over 3 feet) and then the temps dropped to around 20 below and school was cancelled, so I decided to got visit my friend, which entailed crossing a large field. The snow was waist-high, and it was frightfully cold, and I wasn’t that warmly dresed, and after 30 minutes of slogging through to the center of the field, I realized that I was completely exhausted and would never be able to cross the entire field to safety. I can remember staring at the houses just a few hundred yards away and thinking, “This is the stupidest thing I have ever done.” But I was resourceful! (And also, very lucky to be the skinniest 13-yer-old in the world.) I managed to stretch out on the top of the snow and guerrilla-crawl the rest of the way, and I never told anyone what a complete idiot I had been. Except my kids. And now, the world.

    • July 14, 2014 11:39 am

      That is a great story. I’m so glad you’ve told it to that small segment of the world who read these comments.

  4. July 12, 2014 12:34 pm

    I’m afraid I was never long enough with my head out of a book to do anything dangerous as a child – or as an adult really. I suspect the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done is to walk around reading a book and very nearly get run over as a result. I do love the description of the stagnant birthday parties, though. Oh how I hated those when I was small. In fact I still don’t do parties unless I know there is going to be someone there that I can talk to about either books or the theatre.

    • July 14, 2014 11:41 am

      Walking around reading while crossing streets kind of takes danger to a new level! I certainly identify with you about going to parties–one of the best ways I know to find someone to talk to about books is to find some bookshelves and look at what’s on them, so someone can join me and we can talk about what we’ve read from that particular shelf in someone else’s house.

      • July 14, 2014 1:02 pm

        What a brilliant idea. I hope you will recognise that imitation is the best form of flattery if I say it is one I shall adopt immediately.

  5. July 12, 2014 2:08 pm

    Climbing a very tall spruce tree so I could read books at the top of it (all the time), whittling, riding in the back of a pick up truck, swimming in a riptide (accidentally). Mostly I was pretty law-abiding. The kids across the street from us in Illinois once built a ramp on the dock at the river, tied life jackets to their bikes, got a good long head start, and rode hell bent for leather along the (very narrow) dock, up the ramp and into the murky water. I always wished I was the kind of kid who’ do things like that, which looked like so much fun, but I wasn’t.

    • July 14, 2014 11:43 am

      I asked my kids this question and got an answer about riding in the back of a pick-up truck. Some children do court danger, but I think swimming in a riptide can be more dangerous even though you feel less daring. My mother still worries about how “fearless” I am about swimming!

  6. July 13, 2014 12:47 pm

    I never did anything dumb as a kid. I was the most sincerely responsible of human children. I very occasionally did disobedient things, but mostly not that either. May have been a wasted life. :p

    • July 14, 2014 11:45 am

      Wait, now “dangerous” equals “dumb”?
      In answer to “I have wasted my life” I give you the James Wright poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm.” You already knew that.

  7. July 14, 2014 1:03 pm

    What a nice host to have left you such an interesting book on your nightstand! Dangerous things I did as a kid? Can’t think of any unless you count being among the 10 teenagers we managed to pile into a car that was supposed to seat five because only one person had a car. I’m sure I did other things but just wasn’t paying attention or didn’t think they were dangerous because no one got hurt.

    • July 14, 2014 1:17 pm

      She was a great host, and she stayed up way past her own bedtime talking to me and Ron…
      10 teenagers in a 5-seater car sounds dangerous enough! I do think it counts if no one gets hurt. In fact, what I’m most interested in is those things we got away with.

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