Meta Mendel-Reyes is a professor of Peace and Social Justice Studies at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. After graduating from college in her home state of California, she spent fifteen years as a labor organizer, including four years with migrant farm workers. Meta is the author of Reclaiming Democracy: The Sixties in Politics and Memory (New York: Routledge, 1995). She has lived in Kentucky since 2000, and serves on the steering committee of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC). “Limbo” is her first creative nonfiction essay to be published.
The roof of the garage had inclining parts and flat parts. To get on, you had to climb a tree and reach onto the roof, grab the asphalt slates with nothing to hold on to. A brief moment of hesitation, then over the air, fingernails gripping, using your weight to hold you on, gravity as handhold. Crouched, you slowly straightened up, balanced the weight on your legs, and looked. First, make sure Mom is not in sight, climbing the roof is strictly forbidden.
A feeling of fear and power as I gaze over the driveway, house, back fence, lawn, the street beyond. In my memory, the sky is piercing, impossibly blue. Slowly step up to the highest part of the roof, where the electric wires hang low. The perfect place for limbo! But wait for my little sister to inch her way up the roof, she is afraid. I enjoy that – it was important to be braver or more foolhardy than anyone else. Then limbo! Bent backward, inching forward, the wires are in front, then directly over, then out of sight. Now you do it. Watching my sister approach the wires. Feeling guilty at making her do this, gloating, feeling the joy of being free at the top of my world.
It’s hard to imagine anything like this today. I have gone on the roof to clean the gutters, terrified to take a step. The view was not my domain, but a succession of places to fall down to. Where has the fearlessness gone? Or perhaps it was not fearlessness but the ability to conquer it, to subsume it under the daring triumph, a time when I felt that I could climb anything, do anything, striding atop my world. No place I could see that wasn’t mine – the sky, the house, the tree, the street. Or was it really about terrorizing my sister, that feeling of power inextricably bound to demeaning another? I wonder how she remembers it? Maybe it was power for her too—I don’t own the memory.
And why am I so afraid today. And what happened to a challenge so clear as climbing a roof? Now I am uncertain, confused, and fearful. Is it because I am a mother, have a daughter that I fear will climb too high? The garage is still there, mocking me, and I am the same person, the child is inside my skin. Do I fear climbing, or yearn to climb?
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