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Voices Spring-Summer 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the excerpt of “Zillah” by Thea Kluge here.
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Volume 29

Zillah by Theo Kluge

I am the oldest daughter (Thea) of an oldest daughter (Christine) of a an oldest daughter (Louise) of an oldest daughter (Zillah) of an oldest daughter (Bertha). My family says I resemble Zillah the most. This story is about her, and it takes place in Schenectady.
Photo of Zillah

Zillah at age 19 or 20, with her first daughter. Photo: Ives family, Kluge family.

My mother grew up in Schenectady. To this day, I can spot people from upstate New York by their immunity to the cold. Many of her family members were employees of General Electric. In fact, Schenectady was often called "The Electric City." My mother worked there, briefly. Her father and uncle worked there, and her mother worked there. Even her grandmother, Zillah, worked there.

My great-grandmother died when I was eight years old, so I knew her mostly through stories. One story, told to me by my mother, stands out. As an elderly woman, Zillah was mugged on her way home. When she refused to give up her bag, which could not possibly have contained more than a few dollars and change, the muggers beat her to death—or so they thought. They left her in an alley, where a vision of her late father appeared to her, saying, "It’s not your time yet." Zillah survived and made a full recovery.

I remember thinking that the moral of the story was about her stubbornness—she would rather have been killed than give up her purse—and her strength. Zillah’s story fascinated me.

Tonight, I ask my mother to recount the story again. Since I had heard the story mostly through her, it was not very different from what I remembered ... I call my Great Aunt Nancy for her recollection. ... she remembers the mugging very clearly because it was she whom Zillah named at the hospital as an emergency contact, and she who went to collect her mother. Her story is more detailed than my mother’s... While I am talking with Aunt Nancy, my mother calls her cousin Connie, Nancy’s daughter. Connie remembers more about the visit by Zillah’s father’s ghost, saying that he comforted her and stayed with her until she was found.

Different people in different generations remember and retell their family stories in different ways. Some find lessons, some find strength, some define themselves, and some attach spiritualism and faith. Each person stretched the details of the story about Zillah to create the message that she got from the story...


Thea Kluge was born and raised in northern Westchester County, New York. She moved to New York City in 2000 to attend the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where she is now a third-year art and design major. She is spending the current semester in Basel, Switzerland, studying graphic design and typography at the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst Basel HGK.Photo of Theo Kluge
Photo: Ives family, Kluge family.

Different people in different generations remember and retell their family stories in different ways.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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