Too Close to the Falls
(This column was first published in the May 17, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
Read this book!
If you heed no other recommendation of this column, pay attention to this one. You owe it to yourself to read Catherine Goldiner's Too Close to the Falls (Viking, 2001). This novel is an absolute delight and, as a bonus for us here in western New York, it is about Lewiston and Niagara Falls in the 1950s.
The heroine and narrator, Catherine McClure, is a character of whom Mark Twain would have been proud. Daughter of a druggist and, even before she is old enough to attend school, an assistant to Roy, the black deliveryman for her father, she interacts with all kinds of local characters including even Marilyn Monroe, in town working on the movie Niagara.
And what wonderful characters are the locals, among them Mad Bear, the violent Tuscarora chief; Warty, the stricken woman who runs the town dump; and at school her classmate Anthony McDougall and her crosses-to-bear, Sister Agnese and Father Flanagan.
There are so many wonderful passages in this book that I have a great deal of difficulty choosing among them. But my favorite character is Catherine's mother, a very different woman of her times. Here are some of the passages about Mrs. McClure and the problems she creates for her daughter:
"She committed herself to none of the everyday duties of the fifties housewife. In my entire childhood I never recall her making a meal. We ate all of our dinners in restaurants. My father worked most evenings, and Mother and I went to Schoonmaker's Restaurant almost every night for twelve years where we had a dinner of beef-on-wecks. Since we were regulars there I would often wander into the kitchen, perch on a high stool, and talk to Marge Vavershack, the waitress, as she sped around. I watched the world of the kitchen with fascination, wondering how they kept everything straight and how all the food came out cooked at the same time.... It never occurred to me that people accomplished these same feats in their homes. Our fridge contained only allergy serum, Coke and maraschino cherries. Our oven was only turned on to dry wet mittens on the door and the only cooking smell I remember from my youth was that of burning wool....
"After the age of seven or so, I ate dinner at a friend's house once in a while. I was shocked that they ate at a table, together, at home, and that the mothers did the cooking. When I asked why the Canavans ate at home my mother said, 'Because they have food at home.'
"When I played with my friend Susan I could see that her mother seemed to be run ragged. She was always taking care of a baby or cooking or ironing. I asked why Mrs. Canavan did all that work and my mother said she had always wondered the same thing. As far as babies were concerned, Mother said it was a mystery to her why, after people had one baby, they went ahead and had another. She thought the odd part was that women considered themselves holy or virtuous when they announced they had houses bursting with six children. My mother reminded me that the Holy Family had only one child, as our family did. I was a bit confused by this entire discussion because I assumed God decided how many children a woman had, but Mother was implying that she and other women played some role in the decision. I finally realized the link: the mother prays to God to give her a certain number of children. Depending on how pleased God is with her behavior on earth, He heeds her request. 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.
"Mother was convinced that it was important 'never to learn to cook or type or you'd be requested to do both against your will forever.' When I told her that Mrs. Canavan had a big ironing machine on a giant roller and even ironed bed linen, she replied that Mrs. Canavan would someday be a saint. My mother said -- and this conversation was 'not to be taken outside of our home' -- she thought I should throw out any irons I might receive someday as wedding gifts, because there might be too much of a temptation to use them. She said for every seam you iron there will be fifty you wish you hadn't bothered doing. She said her rule of thumb was, if it wasn't important enough to go to the cleaners it wasn't worth ironing.
"I first realized my family life was not like everyone else's when the public health nurse was giving a lecture at our school. She carried a lot of clout because she was not a nun, not even Catholic, and therefore somewhat exotic. She wore a starched white uniform, was middle-aged, unmarried and accepted being referred to as Miss Stayner on the street, but she insisted on Head Nurse Stayner when performing her public role as health educator. Mother Agnese, our principal, said we had to set a good example for Head Nurse Stayner so she could see how orderly Catholic children could be. She reminded us that it was not just the job of missionaries to convert the heathen, but our personal job every day to convert those in our midst to Catholicism through our holy example.
"When Head Nurse Stayner lectured us on nutrition and advised against the heinous crime of eating between meals -- clandestine munching would 'spoil our dinners' -- she called upon me to name three snack foods from my icebox (my mother told me to inform her we had a Frigidaire), which could ruin a meal. I looked blank, having no idea what a 'snack food' was. She rephrased the question, asking me what food we had for snacks. I was totally relieved to finally understand the question. 'Oh, we don't have any food, so we don't have anything between meals.' I sat down, relieved at having answered the question correctly. I heard sniggers from the back of the class and then everyone was laughing. I had no idea why our culinary habits should cause such mirth. Before I had a chance to understand what was going on around me, Head Nurse Stayner said something which seared my brain: 'If you have a mother then you sometimes have dinner at home.' Knowing I did have a mother, but knowing I didn't eat at home, I was momentarily thrown into panic. However, I recovered my equilibrium, assuming she was mistaken as only Protestants can be, and I quickly rose to the occasion rather haughtily assured that I had truth on my side, telling her I knew I'd never had dinner at home, nor had I ever had a snack other than a Coke at my father's store, and I assumed liquids didn't count. I then sat down, feeling I had outfoxed her.
"Suddenly there was muffled giggling which turned into outright guffaws all around me. All the grade twos and threes who were older than me were laughing, and Head Nurse Stayner said, and I quote because I remember it verbatim, 'Miss McClure, I don't know who you think you are. Obviously you fancy yourself a comedienne; however, I advise you to remember that people are laughing at you and not with you.' I was devastated by that phrase, which was forever branded with a white-hot poker into my tender memory. Were people laughing at me? I pictured people hiding behind telephone poles or the altar at church, laughing at me....
"Needless to say I was very quiet for the next few days and finally my mother asked if I was on a private retreat. I told her what happened, and she said Miss Stayner was jealous of our 'carefree lifestyle.' Since I never saw our life as having any particular style at all, I looked a bit dubious. Picking up on my skepticism she asked me if I'd rather be a frowzy old woman washing out my white stockings at night, making a dinner from a greasy fry pan, going to a church where they didn't even have an altar, or would I like to be a young girl dining out from a full-page menu. As for the 'comedienne' part, my mother said it was not uncommon for Protestants to lack a funny bone and if Head Nurse could appreciate humor she wouldn't be a Unitarian who wore her uniform on the weekend.... My mother concluded by saying that if we listened to the Head Nurse Stayners of this world no one would do anything more important or fun than eat a balanced diet. The most consoling part of my mother's speech was that we both agreed that she was the type who probably found Topo Gigio funny, especially when he kissed Ed Sullivan good night....
"In those days, in Lewiston, at any rate, people didn't seem to make formal arrangements to visit one another, they simply dropped in unannounced. My mother had a system for such spontaneous occurrences. Whenever headlights hit the curtains of the picture window, we all had to drop to the floor in hopes that they hadn't already seen our shadows. When the company rang the doorbell, the dog would bark furiously, growling and biting the throw rug in the hall, shaking it mercilessly as though to warn the visitor what might happen to him. When Mother yelled, 'Hit the floor!' we'd all lie prostrate until the caller gave up and left. Sometimes the more tenacious visitors would go around to the back door and we'd hear them say in a bewildered tone, 'All the lights are on,' or 'The car's in the driveway' When they left, my mother would say 'Thank God,' and my father and I shared her relief.
"A number of years later, the day after he died of a brain tumor, some robbers read about my father in the obituary section of the paper and broke into the house to steal things. The police who came to our house explained that this is a common scam because valuables are unattended and everyone is supposed to be at the funeral home at the times announced in the paper. My mother, who had returned home for her headache pills minutes before the robbers arrived, was, of course, well-hidden behind the couch by the time the robbers got in and she was never detected. She wrote down what each of them said, got their car license number through a slit in the curtain, and was later able to identify all of them. The police were amazed she could have hidden so quickly and that she was so self-possessed. Little did they know she found them no more frightening than anyone else who may have dropped in.
"One thing I admired about my mother was she never stepped out of character. She died as she lived. When she found out she had leukemia, she said that at least now she would have an excuse for sleeping in and people would say she was brave for getting up at all. One of the perks of a fatal disease is no one pushes you to host the bridge club.
"When I told her that I believed Hooker Chemical had poisoned my family with carcinogens more toxic than Love Canal, citing evidence that my father died young from a brain tumor and our dog died the same year -- also young -- from the same brain tumor, she said, 'Relax, everyone has to die of something.' When I suggested that everyone in our immediate and extended family had died young of cancer she said that at least now no one would have to go to old-age homes, which was fortunate because she'd spent all of her retirement income on restaurants.
"After her diagnosis, one of her major worries was what season she would die in.... After she explained the full seasonal fashion agenda to the funeral director, he said, 'I guess you re worried about leaving your daughter alone.' My mother looked puzzled and said, 'She's taken care of me since the age of four. I'm not worried about leaving her, but I'll miss her.'"
I was surprised to learn after reading this book that Mrs. Gildiner is a clinical psychologist practicing in Toronto. Although that certainly suggests some of the basis for her insights into character, it also adds to my appreciation because the psychologist who appears briefly in this book is not treated kindly.
Read and reread this extraordinary book! It will make you feel better about the region in which you live — and about yourself.