Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman who would have understood this story and with gratitude for my time as a girl in the Appalachian Mountains.
Ephraim tied his bow tie while looking in the mirror. He remembered the first time he saw a bow tie. He was a freshman at a university in Boston and was in a professor's office. His professor was saying something, but he wasn’t paying close attention. His attention was fixed on the man’s bow tie, something he’d never seen.
“Ephraim, could you answer my question?”
“I am sorry, sir. Could you repeat it? I wasn’t paying close attention. I admit, sir, that I was looking at your tie.”
“Judging by your accent, I’d surmise that you’ve never seen a bow tie.”
“No, sir, I have not.”
In the mirror, he saw his wife Sarah walk into the room. “Wife”, he nearly detested the word. “Wife”, like something you picked off a shelf in the store or ordered in a catalogue. What Sarah was, what their life was, was much more than the word “wife” could embody.
She smiled her California smile, complements of pricey dental work as a teenager. She looked her age in a polished way: hair dyed just enough to erase the grimness of age, trim, elegant black dress ornamented with an understated, somewhat expensive necklace.
“You look beautiful as always.”
“Once you put that jacket on, you’ll be dressed for your role tonight.”
This was the night they would attend a reception to recognize Ephraim’s retirement as Chancellor of their city’s University. There would be mingling, hors d’oeuvres, drinks, short tributes, and then, the main event, Ephraim’s speech.
They arrived fifteen minutes after the scheduled start time of the reception. There was already a crowd, talking and laughing, eating food that Ephraim still, after all these years, had never completely acclimated to, drinking wine from long stemmed glasses.
One of the army of “help” that circulated to distribute the drinks and food offered Ephraim a drink, which he declined, saying he needed to be clear headed to make a speech. But the real reason was that he never was able to completely shake his Bible belt, teetotaler upbringing.
He remembered again the conversation about the bow tie and the stinging observation about his accent. He had never been outside the valley in which he was born and, though he was aware that the people around him at the university spoke differently, it didn’t occur to him that the way he spoke identified him and his background.
Ephraim was born in the Cowee Valley in North Carolina. There were eight children, all with Biblical names. Their father owned a bit of farmable land and spent too much time hoping to find a ruby in the creek nearby. He had found a ruby once and bought “the farm” with it. He sold some of what he grew on it, and the family lived on this and the food they grew in their garden, fish caught in the river, and wildlife their father hunted. Later he learned this is what’s called subsistence.
The state required the children to attend the one-room schoolhouse a mile’s walk away until age sixteen. A program that brought young Northerners in to teach for a year at a time began the year Ephraim was sixteen. The new young teacher brought a rigor the little school had not experienced, and Ephraim thrived on the challenge. His aptitude and thirst for learning were easy for the young teacher to spot, and he took a special interest in cultivating Ephraim’s overall learning.
About six months into the school year, the new teacher showed up on the porch of Ephraim’s family home and spoke to his parents about the possibilities for Ephraim after this last year of school, explaining that there were scholarships available, and, if Ephraim tested well-enough, he could enter at as a Freshman in an East Coast university. His parents had no way to conceptualize what this meant. What they knew is that there would be one less mouth to feed and that one of their children had a chance for something better.
Ephraim met the challenge and at a youthful age of seventeen found himself far North of the Cowee Valley in Boston. Since no one in his extended family had any formal education, the notion of picking a major was foreign, so he began with a general liberal arts curriculum. He lived in the dorms, began with the basic requirements, and worked twenty hours a week in the dorm cafeteria.
Formal education was new to him, and so was the entire culture. It was the first time in his life he didn’t have biscuits three meals a day. He became aware that the few cloths he had pegged him as quickly as his accent. He studied the way other people dressed and found church thrift shops to help modify his wardrobe. He listened carefully to the way people spoke and practiced pronunciation while running the dishwasher in the cafeteria and while walking to and from class.
In his second semester, one of his courses was Introduction to Sociology. He now had a name for what he had been observing in the first six months away from the valley. When he met with his undergraduate advisor, he told her that this is what he would like to study in more depth, and with that, his life as a sociologist began.
He dove in, taking whatever classes he needed to and applying himself with vigor. He befriended the professors in the department and asked for books to read on the side. He stayed on in the summer, working two part time jobs, one in the cafeteria and one as a janitor in the dorms in exchange for room and board. He was determined to complete his education through the doctoral level.
It was a warm Spring the second semester he was in graduate school, and, to cool the buildings, doors were propped open all over campus. As he walked past the music building, he heard a flautist practicing alone in the recital hall. Music was not a part of his life for cultural and socio-economic reasons, so he never sought it out. But the sound of this flute captivated him.
The flautist was a student, a petit young woman with gently wavy blond hair, standing in the middle of the stage playing a wood flute.
She stopped when she noticed him.
“I’m sorry, miss. I’ll leave. I’ve just never heard anything like it.”
“You don’t have to leave; I’m just warning you that it is practicing, not a performance.”
“What is the difference?”
She smiled with the straightest, whitest teeth he’d ever seen. “That means this will be more of a mess than the recital.”
“My graduate recital, this Friday. It’s free if you want to come.”
Ephraim usually spent Friday evenings in the library when it was extra quiet. “I usually spend Friday evenings in the library, but if it isn’t too long, maybe I could do both.”
“Is an hour too long?”
“I don’t think so.”
Ephraim went to the recital. He had never been to a live music performance in his life, let alone classical music. He wasn’t even sure how to dress but decided to err on the side of somewhat dressed up, as much as his wardrobe allowed.
The flautist was beautiful and poised and played music with her wood flute standing alone on the stage and sometimes accompanied by an instrument that the later learned was a harpsichord. And he learned from the program that her name was Sarah, that she was from California, and that she was pursuing a double major in baroque flute and something called fiber art.
As he did with all these new experiences, he observed every detail around him, how people sat and dressed and responded to the music. He wanted to act correctly. He also wanted to understand how people functioned in different settings.
There was a line to greet Sarah after the recital, and he decided to join it. He saw that people shook her hand and said a sentence or two and smiled. When it was his turn, he did the same.
“Thank you for inviting me, Miss,” he looked down at his program to find her last name.
She smiled, “Please call me Sarah. I’m honored that you took time away from your studies. Are you in the library every Friday night?”
“I’ll come meet you there next Friday.”
And that is how it began. Sarah came to the library. He had not dated and didn’t know what this culture would expect of him.
He looked into her beautiful, open face and said, “I don’t know what to do next.”
She paused and then asked, “I hear something of an accent. Where are you from?”
It wasn’t a question he had to answer much anymore and wasn’t sure what the consequences would be, but he answered, “The Cowee Valley in North Carolina.”
“Do you ever go back?”
Sarah’s open face processed this answer. “Let’s go for a walk. You can tell me why you don’t go home.”
They walked around campus and through the adjoining neighborhoods. He told her of growing up and leaving, of the infrequent letters he received, his sisters marrying at seventeen and bearing children, his brothers also marrying and eking out a living, his parents dying young but without explanation. No one ever expected him to come home. It was assumed to be too costly and difficult.
“Do you WANT to go home?”
“I am home now. Now, I have a question for you. What is fiber art?”
“Come to my studio sometime this week. Do you have any time on Thursday?”
That Thursday, he visited her studio. It reminded him of the quilts certain women in the valley made. They would take them to the co-op in the nearest town and sell them to wealthy Floridians who wanted a “fine” example of local culture. One woman sold hers for enough to put indoor plumbing in their house.
“Did your mother make quilts, too?”
“We didn’t have enough extra fabric in the house to make a quilt.”
For reasons he could never pinpoint, Sarah and Ephraim grew very close and married within two years of meeting each other.
Life unfolded. Ephraim finished his PhD, found a tenure track position at a modest state university in the Upper Midwest, obtained tenure, and gradually began to be tapped for administrative positions. His equanimity, work ethic, and the ability to discern the needs and concerns of various groups of people made him an ideal candidate for these positions.
Beginning a family eluded the couple, but Sarah’s life as a musician and artist and Ephraim’s at the university and their love of each other made their life rich.
The reception concluded, and everyone found places at the tables set up in the large room. There were various speeches given by fellow professors and administrators, alumni, current students. All the speeches spoke of Ephraim’s humility and hard work. People clapped. Sarah clapped the hardest. Ephraim smiled, sometimes shaking his head. The last person on the slate to speak that evening was Ephraim.
He took his place at the podium and looked down at his prepared speech and collected himself.
In those few moments, his life passed before him, the persistent hunger and grime of his early life in Appalachian Mountains, the chance encounter with a teacher who would radically change the course of his life, the equally unexpected meeting of Sarah after hearing strains of her flute wafting out an open doorway. The feeling he never quite shed of being an outsider was present, and, though always uncomfortable, also grateful for the way it formed his scholarship and his administrative demeaner. The familiar pang of guilt of never returning to his family welled up in his throat. They never asked for him to come back, never considered that it was well within his means to do so. He didn’t go back because he didn’t know how to reconcile his life and theirs.
“I had a prepared speech, but my reflections demand a different course than the one I had planned. I was going to begin with a quote by the somewhat controversial psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich, who wrote, ‘Love, work, and knowledge are the wellsprings of our lives, they should also govern it.’ Indeed, my life has been governed by these things.
But I’d like to begin differently. My name is Ephraim, and I am one of eight children born in the Cowee Valley of Western North Carolina. Though I left the valley at age seventeen, never to return, my whole life has, metaphorically, been lived in the shadow of those beautiful and majestic mountains. Even at a distance, they have continued to form me, guide me, and inspire me.”