I borrowed this prompt from a book on personal writing by Genie Zeiger. She wrote, “think of two opposing times, experiences, people, or…. and imaginatively contrast them. This idea came to me as I was looking at all the types of yogurt now available in supermarkets and remembered when “yogurt” was a word I’d never heard.” I followed the list style that she used in her piece called Now and Then.
Now and Then
Back then I always felt lucky. It didn’t matter what was happening. Closing my eyes and repeating my favorite mantra, “things could always be worse,” I found a silver lining. Then I had no trouble believing, when I read on a place mat in a Chinese restaurant, that I was born under the luckiest of all signs of the Chinese Zodiac, that I possessed the luck of the Rabbit.
Now, I still feel lucky but know well the capricious nature of fortune, of dumb, blind luck with her Janus-faced whim pulling simultaneously toward past and future, good and bad, life and death. Now I understand that luck isn’t something that happens. Luck is a way of seeing, a way of creating meaning and hope—the way I choose to organize my world. In the words of Amy Tan, “if you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.”
Back then I spent long hot summers in Jerusalem, my aunt’s small apartment, filled to the brim with cousins, aunts and grandparents. Miraculously, the tiny dining room seemed to fit all who came for Shabbat feasts along with their predictable cacophony of discussion and argument. The table seemed to groan under the weight of steaming plates of rice, bowls of slow roasted brown eggs, stews and soups wafting the smell of dill, cumin, parsley and lemon throughout the house.
I loved the feel of the smooth stone floors, the solid, wooden trundle beds and lack of clutter that enabled six of us girls to sleep in one room. Walking down the street I couldn’t help but notice the ancient sandy stones of Jerusalem’s buildings pockmarked from bullets of wars past. Safe in the apartment’s courtyard we played, soaking up the heat of the middle-eastern sun.
Now I live in a New England farmhouse. The house was moved to Amherst in the 30’s when three towns were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir and provide drinking water for Boston. The wood floors in the living room dip. If you jump up and down or step too hard the whole house rattles and shakes.
Now in the summer, we are lucky if my husband and I can pack up our car and son to get away to Cape Cod for a week. The few American cousins are scattered and we meet friends for long beach walks, the smell of salt, seaweed and fish thick in the moist air as we search for rocks, shells and sea glass and as we boogey board and swim. Back then when I travelled with my parents I missed my friends and wanted to write letters. Now when I travel with my own family, the Blackberry and work emails are never far from my twitching thumbs. No matter how I try to push them back, thoughts of work like the breaking waves, surface and intrude.
Back then my piano teacher, Mr. Negri, came to my house to give me lessons. While I practiced my scales and played my pieces, my mom puttered in the house, tending to my sisters, cooking dinner and cleaning. He told stories and drew pictures. On the inside cover of one of my John Thompson books he drew a beautiful hand with fingers perfectly curved for playing.
Today, we drive our son to piano lessons, violin lessons, chorus, Hebrew School, baseball and soccer. He changes clothes quickly in the car – expertly shuffling though backpacks and notebooks to find what he needs – hurriedly brushing crumbs off his shirt while I yell at him to keep the greasy empty pizza box on the floor of the car.
Then I was a child. Every night after all the kisses and tucking in, finally alone in my bed, I opened the shade and looked to tops of three pines and the stars beyond. My reliable sentinels, always there! I thanked them for the day, and yearning for tomorrow, asked for protection for my family and me.
Now I am a member of the Jewish Community of Amherst. I admire the folks that gather on Saturday mornings to hold services in the building that was once a church. The old melodies move me, even as I’m thinking to myself how out of place the historic organ feels. I pay particular attention when we get to the prayer for healing. These days when the Rabbi pauses to give congregants a chance to speak or contemplate the names of those in need of healing, the list of names is longer than it used to be. Then I only had one friend with cancer. Now I am surprised by how many family and friends have struggled with the disease that was once taboo to name.
Back then when I thought about my future I comforted myself with images of the hearty nonagenarians in my family, of Aga, my hundred-year-old grandma, and Mickey, my husband’s hundred-year-old grandma. Now when I ponder the future I see my son and his friends, their zest and energy reflected in the worlds of meaning and hope they are building for themselves.