Coming Home, by Beth Kephart

Illustration by Sibylle Schwartz





The University of Pennsylvania was always my father’s Alma Mater, the stage against which he set the choicest stories of his youth: sock-sliding races down polished corridors; football games in foulest weather. If it is true that my father got his degree in chemical engineering from Penn, it is also more significantly true that he forged true friendships in campus classes and dormitories. That he had a good time there, and that he still has the stowed-up wealth of memories.

A Place at the Table

    Penn was my father’s school, the nascency for what became and still remains a vibrant career in industry, familyhood, good works. By the time I arrived on campus in the fall of 1978, I saw myself first as the daughter of an alumnus and second as one obsessed with inconsequential, slightly purple-tainted pastimes: bad poetry (my own), and all things F. Scott Fitzgerald. On behalf of what I naively concluded was my own best interest, my brave if obfuscated future, I relegated my inchoate scribbles to the shadows beneath my dorm-room bed and signed up—with legions upon legions of prepossessed pre-meds—for Biology, Chemistry, and some advanced state of Calculus. Somehow not a single one of these proved any kinder than they’d been during high school.
    My freshman year, then, was dominated by huge, intimidating classes, by vast theater-style environments where one chose one’s seat like one chose one’s politics: with absolutely stalwart care. Front-row seats seemed reserved for teachers’ pets or subject-matter strugglers. The netherlands were for the confident of mind, the laid-back, note-passing, smart-enough-not-to-study types, of which there was an overwhelming majority. I was a struggler far to the right in the front rows, until finally (I remember the day), I gave up and slunk down in the back. In the float of my life that was my freshman year at Penn, I managed, I strained, I muddled through. It was a big place. I was a small person. I vaguely understood, as I faced the morning vats of granola and raisins, that if I could name or declare or just plain cling to the chain of an academic anchor, I’d be safer than I was, and also happier.
    Memory, my memory, is a sensory affair: chemically unreliable and inherently unstable, predisposed toward the irrelevant detail, the out-of-context truth. The shape of the window in my first dorm room. The emptiness of Locust Walk after an evening storm. The Quad at dawn on the day of my first Spring Fling. The fruit vendor on the bookstore side of the bridge who sold apples large as grapefruits and disappeared on weekends. I remember Billy Joel in airwave battle with Bruce Springsteen. I remember catering fancy dinners among mummies in the University Museum. I remember working the library desk, the sound of so many returned books as they tumbled into the carts. But in my mind I have lost much of what I wish I’d saved. The names of characters in books I read. The face of my lab partner. The wise if somewhat ironic counsel of my freshman year RA.
    Among the many things I can’t remember is the month, day, hour, reason, even, that the book that finally opened a door to me at Penn came into my possession. The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas. I have it still. A hefty paperback that fills the hand. An author—Charles Coulston Gillispie—whose name screams pedigree. Why did I buy it? Where was I when I did? How did I think that it would succor or inspire the poetry that I still hid beneath my bed? As much as I sit and arduously sift through my memories, I don’t find the answers to these questions. I have to believe that it doesn’t much matter, that what is significant here is this: between my freshman and sophomore year at Penn, Edge was my tome, my instructor, my provocateur, my friend, my companion of choice on a quiet South Carolina beach.



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