Tom Petty, who died last year, wrote two of my favorite lines of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll: “Two cars parked on the overpass/rocks hit the water like broken glass.”
At various times I’ve tried to unravel why those two lines have lodged in my head . The first line is great because there is so much that could be behind it. Parked on an overpass. Why? What’s happening? Make-out session, knife fight, accident, throwing-up drunk? The second is great because it combines, in seven words, imagery that is both aural and visual, creating not just an unforgettable scene for the listener but a scene that is unforgettable for the song’s character.
It occurred to me this week that my obsession with writing memoir is, as I’ve written before, not just about remembering the good old days, but about capturing events that can never be again, and that in their never-can-be-againess, have their painful poignancy and power.
One mysterious example for me: I’m 10 or 11 years old, walking home from school. It’s a sunny afternoon, late winter, and it’s warmer than it’s been–above freezing, maybe for the first time in weeks. There is still some snow on the ground, but it’s melting, slushy on the grass and sidewalks. I look down to see where water had been frozen along the curb, but it’s melted underneath now, and I can see through the remaining ice the water flowing underneath, and I can hear it, too. It is beautiful and promising; winter is ending, spring is coming. Not quite an olive branch carried by a dove on the 40th day of the flood, but something like that. And that image–the sun glistening off the ice, the cold water rushing underneath, the feel of cold and warmth and change in the air, all at the same time–it sticks with me. When I think about it long enough even now, 40 years later, it still seems fresh and hopeful and sad.
Ice shatters. Glass shatters. Waves splash. Rocks fall. A ker-plunk and a splash and concentric waves fading at the edges.
I see myself now, standing in my rubber boots, book bag in hand, looking at the crystal-clear ice with the water flowing underneath, hearing the gurgle of it, the air fresh and cold–today I think, what wonders am I missing around me now? What is there, still in my past, that will never be again exactly as it was? And how can I capture it with just words so that others can see them, hear them, feel them?