“Yesterday and Tomorrow”


One can never really anticipate when the turning point of our life will be. In retrospect, it’s relatively easy to look back and see that our life changed for better—or worse—when we met a significant other, when we got a job, when a child was born, or maybe when we made a major decision in our lives.

Mine happened when my grandfather died.

I hadn’t really known my grandfather. My father and grandfather hadn’t been on speaking terms and I probably could count on one hand the number of times I had seen him or talked with him on the phone. Even after my dad died of cancer when I was a teenager, the alienation between my dad and his dad was continued by my mother perhaps out of respect for her dead husband, or maybe just because of force of habit.

So I was pretty surprised when I got a phone call from a lawyer’s office that my grandfather had died and left me something in his will. Apparently he didn’t have much. Taxes had eaten up his rickety old house and property, and he lived for the last few years strictly by claiming Social Security. But even though we didn’t really know each other, apparently blood was thicker than water. I visited the lawyer’s office, and left with an envelope from Gramps and a full-length antique mirror.

I waited until later that evening when I got back to my studio apartment to open the envelope. As for the mirror, I suspected that it was very old, and I had already made up my mind to sell it on Ebay and get what I could for it. My dreams of making a living as a web designer had been merely that, and I needed all the financial help I could get. Maybe Gramps had somehow anticipated that, and even though he didn’t have any cash, he had found a way to help me out in my present needs.

I lugged the mirror up three flights of stairs and stood it up in my apartment in the corner behind the front door and just to the left of the waterstained, flowered pull-out couch that also served as my bed. Then, without turning on the lights, I walked over to the window overlooking the street, sat down on a rickety wooden chair and tore open the envelope.

My eyebrows went up when I saw the letter inside. As soon as I saw it, I thought of Leonardo da Vinci. Because da Vinci was the creator of mirror writing—the art of writing documents backwards—and my grandfather had copied that technique. If I took my time, I knew that I could read the letter on my own, but it seemed odd to receive such a letter AND a mirror, and then not use them together.

And so I decided to turn the light on, something that I rarely did for budgetary reasons. The bare 75-watt bulb above my head put a harsh light into the room and odd shadows everywhere, but at least I could see better. I had received the mirror covered by an old canvas cover, which I kept on it, feeling that it would be more likely to stay Ebay friendly if I didn’t scar it up. Now I pulled that cover from the top, and let the canvas drop to the floor. I pulled my chair in front of the mirror and held the letter up to the mirror. I read:

Dear Grandson:

            Circumstances have prevented me from being a greater part of your life, but I hope to change that. If you have received this letter, it means that I am dead. But I am not gone.

            Our family has a special legacy, and that legacy comes in the form of this mirror. I don’t know how old the mirror is, or how it came to be. I suspect it is at least several hundred years old. I do know that it has been handed down from father to son, and in our case, grandfather to grandson, for many generations. I was once a young man, and I know you are probably considering the sale of the mirror and how it would help your immediate financial needs. Put that thought out of your head. The mirror is worth far, far more to you than you can ever dream.

            Somehow the mirror has bonded to our family, and we have bonded to it. In coming days, I encourage you to examine the mirror closely, and I trust that you will discover what I am talking about. Discovering the truth about this mirror will change your life.

            Sincerely, Harris Benjamin Parker (your grandfather).

The letter was dated a month ago. Apparently, grandfather had known that he would be gone soon, and it impressed me that he had been thinking of me when he wrote the letter. I stared at it for a long while, then let it drop to the floor.

Grandpa had said that I needed to examine the mirror closely, and so I decided to do just that. I turned it and looked at the back, the edges with their fine filigree on the wooden frame, the cracked base that seemed to be made of a darker, harder wood, and the chipped edge of the mirror itself. After almost half an hour, I shrugged. The mirror seemed to be simply that—a simple mirror—and there didn’t seem to be anything significant in its design.

What had the old man been talking about? I wondered. Dad never talked about his father, or even why they had a falling out. But I suspected that the old man had perhaps been a little odd to begin with. Perhaps I was wasting my time, I thought, and started thinking about Ebay again.

I sat and stared into the mirror again, frowning as I did so. I never liked the way I looked, and as I sat there, I found myself thinking about where I was in my life. I was independent; away from the control of my mother. But I had found myself on a dead-end street. There was no call for web designers these days, despite what the commercials on TV said. I looked around at the ratty furniture in my small apartment and sighed.

I turned back to my image in the mirror, and paused. As I watched, my image began to go out of focus, and in its place, the image of another young man appeared. The man looked a lot like me, and was my age. But the cut of the shirt, the hair style and a few facial details were all different. As the image slowly became sharper, I realized that I was looking at what my grandfather had probably looked like when he was my age.

I was admiring the likeness between his image and mine when the image moved. I jumped, falling backwards off of my chair. The person in the mirror turned his head and looked right back at me. And the young man’s face broke into a slow smile. I lay on the floor for a long moment, wondering what to do.

This is stupid, I thought, and pulled myself off the floor and sat back down.

“Hello,” I said quietly, nervously, waving my hand. The image in the mirror moved his lips and seemed to be saying the same thing, but I heard nothing. He then turned behind himself and found a small chalkboard and wrote on it. He held it up for me to read. Once again, the words were backwards, apparently because we were looking through a mirror.

My name is Ben Parker.”

I continue to stare at him, not sure how to believe what I was seeing. Finally, I looked around me and found a pad of paper. I wrote:

            “That was my grandfather’s name, but you’re too young. My grandfather was an old man.”

He read what I had written and started laughing. Again, there was no sound.

            “I am in the year 1948. What year are you in?”

I wrote my response, and his eyebrows went up when he read it. I then wrote:

“How is this possible? How can we be 65 years apart and talk face to face?”

He shrugged. Apparently the magic—or science—was beyond him, just as it was beyond me. He wrote again on the chalkboard:

“What can you tell me about what my life will be like?”

This time it my turn to shrug. I didn’t really know him, and I hesitated to tell him that he and his son were estranged. I did tell him that he had three children, where he lived, and what his occupation was. And answering him made me start thinking. I wrote:

            “If I can talk to you about your future, does that mean I can talk to my grandson?”

He nodded, and wrote:

“I have talked to six generations of our family, all the way back to the early 1800s. You and your father have yet to be born.”

My mind whirled with the possibilities. Not only would this give me an opportunity to talk to those before me, but also those who weren’t born yet.

We talked for another hour, and then we closed the evening off, he satisfied that he had learned something of his future, me with a feeling of bonding with my family and my legacy.

It was funny, I thought, sitting there in my small apartment on my seedy couch. I had been all alone in the world. It wasn’t until my grandfather died that I realized that I had never been alone, nor would I ever be alone. And because of that, I felt an obligation to my grandfather and those who came before me to be the best person I could be. And then I realized that I had even more of an duty to live my life for my son, and his son, and so on for as long as the mirror would exist.

I flicked off the light and wondered what tomorrow would bring, and all of the tomorrows beyond it.

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