Roundtable

Cathy McClure Gildiner

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Riding along with Roy

(Poet, Amatoritsero Ede, in conversation with Cathy McClure Gildiner, memoirist, essayist and novelist) 

Amatoritsro Ede: You have written three bestselling memoirs; bestselling – not an easy feat! They begin with accounts of your childhood in Lewiston New York, a town on the other side of Niagara Falls across the Canadian border. This is the subject of the first autobiography, Too Close to the Falls (1999). It is followed by After the Falls (2009), which recalls life in a new city after your family moved from Lewiston to Buffalo, New York. The conclusion of this trilogy is Coming Ashore (2014), an account of your life as a young woman at Oxford University, and about your lived experiences in the UK generally. Could you give your readers a sense of the connecting tissues or ‘energies’ within the three works in a kind of panoramic sense; what motivated you?

Cathy McClure Gildiner: The books were easy to organize since they are chronological. They go from the age of four to twenty-five. I love writing memoir because the spine of the story is there since you have the facts and the chronological time line. After all it is your own life! I wrote the book as a bildungsroman (Where something is learned in each chapter in terms of character development.) I believe the unifying theme in the three books is the ‘fish out of water’ scenario. As my mother said, “I was born eccentric.” I have also had an unusual childhood which I only realized after I wrote the books and received so much feedback.  A unifying theme of the book is my reaction to ‘normal society.” I was not raised at home by a mother, but worked with a black man from the age of four.  I was not religious at a Catholic school. I was not a racist in southern Ohio, I was an American woman at Oxford when it was full of English men. I married a Jew from Europe when I am a Catholic Irish American.  I am, therefore always an outsider trying to understand another society.

A.E.: In Too Close to the Falls there is an incident where you are driven to a party by your childhood alter ego, Roy. On the way back from delivering McClure pharmaceuticals in a snow storm, your car gets stuck in the snow and comes to a dead stop far from home. Roy has to push while you ‘drive’ the car out of the snow drift. You must have been five years old. How did you manage that! What does this say about you as a young woman who crashes a bike at high speed into the local post office at Oxford or goes climbing a notoriously dangerous mountain in Wales in Coming Ashore.

C.M.G.: Clearly these incidents point to the fact that I am now and always have been a risk taker. I think if I’d been born fifty years later I would have been called hyperactive or ADHD. Thank God I was just called ‘busy, bossy and Irish”.  Risk taking is probably genetic as my father and my sons are risk takers. However, there is a lot that is also environmental. For example, Roy was always relaxed with me trying new things and when I made a mistake my father only laughed and said, “Well, now you learned something.”  Risk taking is the fastest way to learn and prevents you from getting in a rut.  However, it can be taken to extremes and I tried to show that in the mountain climbing scene.  I made light of the situation in the book, but I got cellulitis and was very ill.  I learned a lot on that trip and from then on balanced my risks more carefully.

A.E.: Considering the importance of Roy in your life as a child – he was your best friend, mentor and generally a larger specie of child to you. What impact could you say his sudden disappearance in Too Close to the Falls had on you over the years as you grew from a child into a woman. For example, in Coming Ashore you usually imagine what Roy would say or do in a particularly difficult situation and seem to instinctively make decisions accordingly.

C.M.G.: Roy’s loss was devastating to me.  I didn’t feel it at the time since it was the 50’s and I had parents who were firm believers in ‘moving on’ and “not crying over spilt milk”. I felt his loss much more when I wrote Too Close to the Falls than I did when he left.  I had tears that I had never shed streaming down my face as I wrote that book. I think that Roy worked so well as a character because I had fifty years of emotion built up.

A.E.: Roy was a young Black man and a ‘co-worker’ – even though you were a toddler still. You were very close to him and I guess you must have witnessed segregation in that 1950s era America. Would say that ‘apartheid’ had a hand in his not going to school and being unable to read?

C.M.G.: Oddly enough I witnessed racism only once when Roy and I were stuck in a snowstorm and Roy had to keep me over night.  The sheriff at the icy hill interrogated him somewhat sharply. I had no idea it was racism and told my parents the sheriff was slightly rude. Believe it or not that was the only thing I ever saw or heard in Lewiston. Remember there was no black community there—only one black man. There was a black community in Niagara Falls and I never heard a racist word there either.  Perhaps since my parents would never tolerate that people knew better than to say something racist.  I am sure that racism had something to do with Roy not being able to go to school.  It was mostly economic. (Although Economic circumstances and racism are intertwined.)  Roy’s mother had a handicapped child and had to work more than full time. To make ends meet Roy had to work by her side from an early age.  His father was a selfish man who left the family and whatever money he had he spent on women and good times and had no concern for his family or handicapped child.  It deprived Roy of an education.

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