After The Falls by Catherine Gildiner
I first came across Catherine Gildiner when I picked up a copy of Too Close To The Falls a few years ago in my local library. I remember it being a sweet, funny, touching collection of stories from her childhood in 1950s Lewiston, New York. I liked the book so much I had to go out and by a copy of my own to reread and share.
So, when I saw that she had written a follow up memoir about her family's move to Buffalo and the ensuing high school and college years, I knew I had to have my own copy of that one too. Her childhood in Lewiston was unusual (probably 'neglectful' by today's standards) but at the same time idyllic, with her parents' unwavering love and support and the town's palpable sense of community; I was curious to see how this plucky girl with 'an Irish temper' navigated her transition from child to teen to adult.
Gildiner's writing, again, is lovely. I was glad that she periodically referred back to the scenes and characters from her first book because there were some especially endearing ones (and it helped jog my memory). Her relationship with Roy, the black delivery man at her father's pharmacy, was so sweet, and after arriving in Buffalo, in a moment of loneliness and frustration, she conjures up his presence.
'He was ageless, just as he had been in my childhood. Was it the music, the season or my loneliness that had made him appear? At the time I didn't ask myself. I was just happy to see him. There he sat, in the black pants with the perfect crease he once wore and his starched white tailored shirt that he always picked up from the dry cleaners on Fridays.
Gradually I began telling him all that had happened since moving. It poured out: the ugliness of the neighborhood, the tiny house, the four lane highways and the restaurants where the unhappy worked and the unhappier ate.' pg 30
'I inhaled and blew smoke rings. Sorry for whining. I know that was the one thing you "couldn't abide," as you used to say.
As I was beginning to feel better, Roy slowly disappeared. I sat there for another hour, still feeling his presence. When you grow up with someone, you know what they would say and you can forever travel with them tucked away snugly in your heart, and ask them for help when you need it.' pg 31
I also loved how she retold someone else's words and how her young ears took it in as grown-up wisdom. The first book is peppered with these asides because of course she was that much younger, and I was tickled to see her use them in After The Falls as well.
'One of the reason's I remembered this so vividly is that my mother and father disagreed about it. My parents rarely had, as my mother put it "words." They disagreed about once every five years and it always sent me for a loop.' pg 69
And then from her friend Fran:
'Did she actually believe these cretins could be helpful? She said that no boy from Amherst Junior High could know, as she put it, "the workings of the night world." 'pg 76
I don't know why, but I loved these little recalled quotes.
Another passage that made me smile:
'Nineteen Sixty-Three was shaping up to be the most boring year God ever created. I was fifteen years old, and grade ten was beyond deadening. You had to sit at a desk in an overheated classroom that smelled of disinfectant and floor polish while some teacher droned for an hour. Then the bell rang and we somnambulated like the living dead to the next overheated room. It was worse than prison because at least there you could read what you wanted.' pg 83
Makes you cringe with recognition, doesn't it? Ugh, high school.
And then this passage -last one, promise- about her first love, Laurie (Lawrence).
'For most of my life I had kept my emotions, particularly about males, under lock and key in a cobwebbed basement below a trap door where there was yet another locked cellar -like the Underground Railroad on the Niagara River in Lewiston, where there was a series of locked cellars as you descended the gorge. I only kept one emotion accessible in my back pocket -anger- and pulled that out whenever any emotion was required. Meeting Laurie had caused a fire in the cellar, and all of the stored emotions were rising and coming out like smoke and escaping through cracks in the floor. Somehow I knew there was no way I could ever gather them back up and return them to the cellar.' pg 221
A well written memoir doesn't have to be a grand and sweeping tale, sometimes the best ones are the stories of everyday life and everyday people just trying to make their way in the world. What I'm drawn to is the author's voice and writing, and Gildiner had me on both. I'd come to care about her and her family and friends as if they were my own. Her stories drew me in and kept me captivated.