We’re still not sure what the phrase actually meant at its origin. The words are entirely contradictory. Does it mean yesterday? Tomorrow? Maybe a long-winded version of today? Or was he aiming for the day after tomorrow, but couldn’t wrap his child brain around the proper words to get there? We may never know.
The Golden Boy was somewhere around three-years-old when he first spoke the words to us: “Yesterday, the very tomorrow…”
He was referring to a trip to the park in search of turtles.
“And yesterday, the very tomorrow I saw five turtles!”
What an unusual description of time. It must mean yesterday...
But then the next day he said, “Yesterday, the very tomorrow, can we watch the train pass by?”
So he means tomorrow....
It was so marvelously complex that I never corrected him.
“No baby. It’s either tomorrow or yesterday. They imply two different days,” is something I would never have said. The cuteness of saying things the “wrong’ way was as precious to me as first laughs and watching my fifteen-month old slowly pump her chubby little legs to Janet Jackson. The innocence is fleeting. The inhibition vanishes in the blink of an eye. “Yesterday, the very tomorrow” is an oxymoron, but it’s also brilliant. My child said it when the world and the way things function were just beginning to churn to life around him. His time here was about to pop open and “yesterday, the very tomorrow” is how he measured it.
And he continued to switch up its usage until eventually my husband and I, befuddled by this most remarkable phrase, stopped translating. It was cute. It was perfectly Golden Boy to be so excited, so anxious about his yesterday, today, and tomorrow that he couldn’t bear to separate his fascinating life into pieces. I took it to mean we’d done something right and left it alone.
He said those words for years, eventually dropping them around the time he got to school. A teacher probably corrected him. I don’t fault her. Eventually he’d have to explain time normally. He couldn’t write a paper about Charlotte’s Web and get away with “...and yesterday, the very tomorrow, Charlotte spun a web for Wilbur so that Mr. Zuckerman wouldn’t eat him.” That simply wouldn’t have worked. His cuteness would have to be curbed for practical reasons.
Now he says yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and we never have to question what he means. But “yesterday, the very tomorrow” is permanently lodged in our family lexicon. We say it jokingly on road trips. “Are we there yet?” the kids whine. “We’ll get there yesterday, the very tomorrow,” my husband and I answer. Other times, I taunt the boy with his own words. “Mom, when are you gonna pay me for my chores?” he’ll pester me. “Yesterday, the very tomorrow,” I’ll wickedly grin back.
But beyond family lore and excuses to mess with my children, “yesterday, the very tomorrow” has legs. It could encompass myriad meanings and symbolize all sorts of virtues. I’ve chewed on the cleverness of the word play so much that I have several ideas of how to use it, like an alternative to “seize the day.” Why wait until tomorrow? Yesterday will be here before you know it. The time to be bold is now! Or, it could also be the new “tomorrow is another day.” Yesterday might have been terrible, but tomorrow is near. Don’t give up! It’s perfectly contradictory. And I love it for all that its strangeness is able to insinuate.
What a beautiful way to describe a great love, for example. I loved you yesterday, the very tomorrow -- I loved you all the days all at once. Doesn’t that bubble up all the best feels? The phrase can also capture the seriousness of our time here. Life is yesterday, the very tomorrow. We are the choices we’ve made and the choices we’ve yet to make. It’s both beautiful and terrifying, innocent and wise. And it came from the lips of a three-year-old, thirsty for more turtle sightings.
More than anything, I think “yesterday, the very tomorrow” is a reminder. Sometimes the very words we need to hear come from the most unlikely sources. Wisdom isn’t reserved for great philosophers, theologians, or grandparents alone. Experience is useful, but also a mere prediction. We can’t always find the answers to our riddles on the pages of Google or from a vetted article on social media. Pinterest won’t always nail it either. Man is no wiser than woman, just as woman is no smarter than man. One color has no more a leg up in the afterlife than the next. No party is less flawed than the other. Our weight is equal in the eyes of the magnificence that planted us here. So why, then, must we toy with one another’s value when the answers lay in all of us? We were here yesterday, the very tomorrow. We will be here yesterday, the very tomorrow. We are present together. All at once, in the past, and in the future. If you don’t understand the fragility of one another, of life, of time, of all things, just ask a three-year-old. He’ll explain it. Or she will. It doesn’t really matter who. Just be present for it.
I know enough to know that regardless “yesterday, the very tomorrow” is close to the present if nothing else -- right there on the brink of our now. Some days it feels like time is running out. Other days feel like the past will never end. Maybe to be present, open, and ready to receive all we’ve ever wanted, we just need to change things up -- our actions, our thoughts, and, perhaps most of all, our words.
Adventures with turtles through the years. Golden Boy eventually had his own turtle. (top right)
His name was Leonardo Snappy.