EXCERPTS FROM I AM ZOË HANDKE
(READ THE EXCERPTS IN
FROM PART I, "ALMA, ILLINOIS"
..........Born into the midst of her own youth, I am frightened often when I think
of my closeness in age to my mother. The numbers are capable of astonishing
me. When I was five years old and about to start school, my mother was
a girl of only twenty-four. When I was a decade old, she was not yet
thirty. I was a senior in college before my mother at last celebrated
her fortieth birthday.
..........Sometimes I think: We could have been sisters. On my mother’s
rather populous side of the family, I knew sisters whose ages in fact
were separated by more than nineteen years—my grandmother’s
sisters, my mother’s aunts. This closeness in age in the case
of myself and my mother—even now, when I have lived to the age
of forty and have children of my own—is able to confuse and alarm
me. Especially recently, it holds for me at certain moments an uprushing
of fear and panic that I have spoken of to no one and that draws me
unwillingly toward the stopped time that I think of as the past.
..........My mother, in keeping with the style of the 1940s, covered her mouth
generously with vivid red lipstick. Her dark hair, pinned back from
her ears, fell to her shoulders and ended there in a loose upturn of
curls that seemed to me a perfection of carefully planned disorder.
On her cheeks she wore a rouge of light rose, a color taken, it seems
to me now, from summertime in the country, where beaded dew lay early
in the morning on clustered flowers in sunlit gardens. Sitting on the
edge of the bed near my mother’s dressing table, I watched her
apply this rouge, touching it first to her cheek with the pads of two
fingers, then moving them in slowly expanding circles over her skin
until it seemed that the blood had rushed there permanently in a rose
blush of healthfulness, or of confusion, or desire.
..........Perhaps I was four years old at this time, perhaps slightly older. Quietly,
careful to be no disturbance, I watched my mother at her mirror. With
taps of a soft puff, she touched powder to her white forehead. She pressed
her fingers tightly against her temples and with painful attentiveness
scrutinized for long moments her image in the glass. She stood up from
her chair, placed her hands at her waist, and, her eyes still seeking
out the mirror, twirled around until her skirt flared out, rose up,
and billowed on the air.
FROM PART II, "THREE
..........My mother’s unremitting and fastidious housekeeping, the unflagging
energy she devoted to it, and the great strength of her desire for cleanliness
and order: washed windows and curtains, laundered rugs, vacuumed carpet,
folded linens, clean ashtrays, polished furniture. My father using a
tall ladder on weekends one spring to scrape and paint the outside of
our house. The particular and oddly secretive pleasantness especially
of the kitchen late at night, with everything in its place or hidden
and out of sight: the room lighted only by the one small lamp under
the cupboards above the sink, or by nothing but the faint beam from
the street light through the side window. The memory of my mother on
the back porch, squatting on her heels with a stiff brush, scrubbing
at the caked earth that clung to my father’s work boots.
..........That there was another side to everything about her: like a mirror that
reflects things normally but that also, like a window, lets you see
through into a shadowy world behind its surface: lets you see into a
place, beyond time, that can’t really exist.
.......... My mother’s way of looking at me, during periods of difficulty
or anger, as though she did not see me, or as though I weren’t
even there and she was looking through me. Her saying to Carlotta, once
when we were in high school: I’m sure your mother is a good mother.
..........My understanding none of this until later. Its being by then much too
..........The incident of my schoolbooks, near the end of eleventh grade. My mother
leaning in the doorway of the bathroom with her arms crossed over her
chest while, barefoot and wearing only my nightgown, I brushed my teeth
at the sink. My imagining later that my mother did not see me at all,
but instead saw my reflection in the bathroom window at my side: a ghost-image
of me, outside of time, suspended somewhere in the night air above our
yard, bent forward over the sink, brushing my teeth. That she saw not
me, but herself at my age, then despised me, because she was gone.
..........That I was ungrateful. My mother’s great, unleashed anger, her
accusing me afterward of ingratitude, when from the desk in my room
she took my notebooks and papers and books, carried them downstairs
and plunged them into the wastebasket under the sink before collapsing
at the table in sobs. My father going into the room. My mother telling
him, her passion unspent, that she never wanted to see me again.
..........I was a mirror. My mother wanted me broken.
FROM PART IV, "NEW YORK"Reprinted with permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
..........The building we lived in dated from 1926. The rooms of our apartment
itself were large, cunningly arranged, although not enormous. They were
blessed by plentiful windows that allowed in air and scent and light,
although sunshine itself came in only briefly, for short periods of
time each day, and to some degree in accordance with the seasons.
..........Through the front windows, facing north, sunlight came in only during
the airy summer months, after the sun had passed the solstice, and then
only obliquely, filling the rooms with astonishing light for an hour
or two not long after sunrise, when I, and the ghosts of all those who
had lived there before me, gathered near the windows in the brightness.
..........At the back of the house, where adjacent buildings rose higher than
ours, sunlight angled down to warm our windowsills and inch across our
floors in a short visit each afternoon, fleetingly in the thinner and
more narrow light of the cold winter months, but for a robust and lazy
hour in the languid afternoons of summer.
..........Of the comfortably worn and half-decrepit old apartment, I believed
this: that in the large bathroom, where I bathed my new daughters in
the smooth white basin of the sink, were mingled together with the greatest
intimacy and eloquence the building’s continuing life and its
far-reaching antiquity. The room was large enough for the uncrowded
luxuries of a chair, a painted wicker table, and a stool. I remember,
in it, whiteness and a soft clarity, a comfortably proportioned spaciousness:
and a Mediterranean air, cool and shadowy even in the hottest of summer
days, having something to do, it must have been, with the open window,
and with the light and air that came in (a plant hung at the window)
like flowing, leaf-shaded water, spreading out over creamy thicknesses
of aged white paint, over the huge claw-footed tub, the stone-tiled
floor and half-tiled walls, and over the smooth, softly glowing and
deep ceramic whiteness of the ponderous old bathroom sink, in which
my daughters, each in her turn, sat in regal, perfectly foolish and
happy splendor, slippery-skinned and wet-headed, splashing in cool water
that had been gathered a great distance away, drawn from the flanks
of wooded mountains; that had been brought through a remarkable intricacy
of ancient conduits to the calm, poised, generous, and old-fashioned
cool whiteness of this room; and that then, having bathed the small
bodies and smooth limbs of my young daughters, would be returned once
again to the patiently waiting chambers of the deep and green and light-filled