When I was in college and I lived in the top story of a old yellow home in downtown Charleston I used to climb on the roof a lot. We all did it, and we weren’t supposed to. Our lease specifically said so, and even if it hadn’t, our landlord told us enough to burn it into our brains, but we didn’t listen.
The house was beautiful on the outside, and a little run down on the inside. The space we shared in what we affectionately called “the penthouse” was probably too small for four girls, but we made it work. Each room had a window to the second floor roof. You could step right out onto it and walk around to the back of the house to climb up on top of our home. I’m not saying you could see the entire city, but you could see enough to make it worth the risk of eviction.
When I was twenty I didn’t know a whole lot about who I was by myself yet. I knew who I was around other people. I knew how to share space and live in it with three other girls. I knew what meals we all liked to cook and how to balance the cleanliness of the kitchen against our deep desires to avoid cleaning it. I knew which itunes mixes would get us all dancing and singing. I knew we’d all watch Ellen together in the afternoons and Grey’s Anatomy on Thursday nights. I knew all of these things about myself as a person surrounded, but very little when it was just me.
So I spent a lot of time on the roof. At first I’d go up there just to look out at the city. I’ve always loved settings that make me feel small. 6’1″ rarely feels small. So I’d sit on the chimney top with my arms wrapped around my folded legs and just compare myself to the wide world around me. It felt like I was learning something about myself, and simultaneously understanding how little I knew.
When you’re a kid you pick adults to look up to. You can identify who you’d like to be like when you’re older. You can understand that a person has the qualities you hope to hold later in life, but until you really get there you can’t actually get it. Mamaw left before I had a chance to get it. I was just 18 when she died, which I guess was old enough to understand why and how we lost her, but too young to realize how many questions she’d left me with.
It was on that roof that I started talking to Mamaw. Two years after she was gone, I realized that she wasn’t really gone. I don’t mean to sound crazy. I don’t hear Mamaw talking back to me. I don’t believe in ghosts (except I try not to say it out loud, in case some smartass ghost feels like she has to PROVE her existence.. I’m not superstitious, but I’m just covering my bases… or something). It’s just that you can talk to someone and you don’t have to always get a response. I spent more nights than I can count sitting on that roof, staring up at the sky, and asking questions to the air around me. I watched stars twinkle, and I usually cried a little, but I always found a few answers. They were never verbal, more like a settling feeling, something telling me I actually knew the answers before I even asked the questions.
On the third story roof of a downtown Charleston home I threw my rambling thoughts out into the sky, hoped someone special could hear them, and somehow learned more about myself than I had in the entire two decades before.