PORT COLBORNE – Catherine Gildiner is pretty much an adopted local.
The Toronto-based author was born in Lewiston, N.Y., in 1948, raised in Niagara Falls, N.Y., then spent her teen years and early 20s in Amherst, just outside of Buffalo.
During all that time, she spent 13 summers at Wainfleet’s Long Beach.
On Thursday, Gildiner was the fourth author to grace the Roselawn Centre stage during this season’s Canadian Authors’ Series. It was her third time here during the past seven years. This time she was reading from her latest autobiographical novel, After The Falls.
The book is a sequel to her first novel, Too Close To The Falls, which chronicled her life from the ages of four to her early teens and which was the focus of Gildiner’s first visit to Roselawn. She has also been in town to read from her novel, Seduction, which looked at Charles Darwin’s influence on Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.
After The Falls picks up Gildiner’s childhood story at 13 and carries it into her early 20s. Reminiscing to the crowd about her summers in Wainfleet, she wondered aloud.
“Does anybody remember Concessi’s store?”
As the audience sent a collective affirmative to the stage, Gildiner said, “We used to go there every day. They used to have those blow-up dolls in the front window, the kind that you could take down to the lake and use in the water.”
Her trip down the local memory lane continued.
“We would go to Welland to visit the locks at the canal.”
She recalled Pleasant Beach and Sherkston – “That was a real going concern. I guess it still is.”
And how about Morgan’s Point?
“I was going to say, ‘Is that still here’? Well, of course it’s still here. There hasn’t been a geological shift.”
Now 61, Gildiner has lived in Toronto since 1970.
During her childhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Gildiner’s father owned McClure’s Pharmacy. She was precocious, even then.
When a local doctor diagnosed her as being hyperactive, the doctor suggested to her parents that young Cathy McClure get a job. She was four.
“In those days, in the early ’50s, you didn’t look for a second opinion on a doctor. The doctor’s word was God’s. So when my mother heard this, she told my father and they wondered where I could get a job.”
Gildiner’s father hired his young daughter to ride along with the pharmacy’s driver.
“Roy was a black man who had worked for Dad for 15 years.”
And so the youngster became Roy’s sidekick, riding shotgun on drug deliveries.
“Later in life people would wonder, ‘Who would allow their four-year-old to deliver narcotics across the Niagara Frontier?’ But I’d point out I’m a self-confident woman and a lot of that came from that time.
“People love you when you show up with drugs,” she recalled to laughter. “Nobody ever said, ‘Don’t come in.’ ”
Gildiner latest book showcases her coming into the teen years, a time when she pushed back against her parents, especially her father.
“In our teen years, we still have the same hormones we had when we were hunters and gatherers. You were supposed to get married and have children at 13 or 14 but, of course, that changed over the years as we became so-called ‘civilized,'” she said.
“In our civilized society, we stay at home until 17 or 18 or 19 but our hormones haven’t changed. They want to be out on their own but they can’t be. So you have teens who say, ‘cook me dinner; I hate you.'”
It was the very wall Gildiner hit as she entered her teens.
“I had worked for my father from age four. He was my boss and my best friend. But then at 13, I decided I had to be a girl. I went through … that whole separation from your parents.”
After The Falls chronicles those years and the trouble Gildiner often found herself in.
“I remember vividly the (Adolf) Eichmann trial. Do any of you remember that?”
Many did. Eichmann was a Nazi often referred to as the architect of the Holocaust. During the Second World War, he was charged with the task of organizing and managing the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and death camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. He fled to Argentina after the war.
“The Israelis captured him and brought him back to Israel and kept him in a glass cage during his trial in 1961. This trial caused one of the few rifts between my parents. They were divided.
“My dad said, ‘He was only following orders.’ My mom said, ‘You have to follow your conscience.’ Now that’s a dangerous thing to tell a 13-year-old,” Gildiner said to laughter.
Shortly after, Gildiner and her Grade 8 friends set up an elimination squad for garden gnomes.
“You know, those little black jockeys in people’s yards? God, how I hated them. They were just so demeaning. We took it upon ourselves to go out and paint them white.”
Her rebellious streak led Gildiner to eventually be investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
“I was involved in civil rights, then black power, then the next natural progression to (the FBI) I suppose was the (1960s African-American revolutionary organization) Black Panthers. I don’t know why. I don’t resemble a Black Panther.”
Gildiner had plenty more anecdotes to share with the Roselawn audience and she read a poignant passage from her book spotlighting the time she worked in a doughnut factory, caused a fire and nearly died in that fire. Her friends protected her from death and from getting fired that day.
Gildiner and her husband have three sons. She said she never went into detail with them about her childhood or her parents.
“My husband’s parents lived through the Holocaust and they’ve shared their stories with the boys so I just always felt my story was so historically insignificant compared to theirs.”
But now, with Too Close To The Falls and with After The Falls, the boys are finally learning about their maternal history.
“It’s been a real eye-opener, I think, for them.”