THE TITLE IS TAKEN FROM a line in Mark Twain’s Roughing It, and it always comes to mind when I hear someone (or myself) voice a semiserious regret. I don’t carry many of these — not out of “holiness;” it just doesn’t occur to me — and I only say it out loud whenever Ann or I regret something trivial: “Our favorite Twilight Zone episode was on last night” or “The store was out of Brand X” or even “Looks like they’re not repealing the Patriot Act.” It’s part of the private language of people who’ve been together long enough to know and willingly co-conspire with each other’s zigs, zags and wild-eyed lunacies.
Knowing the right thing to say is an art, although less so than knowing what not to say. Speech is a gamble — speech during a crisis more so. I was once on a wooden boat which was about to be hit by a much, MUCH bigger freighter and actually found myself saying to my shipmates, “You know? It really has been nice knowing you all.” It seemed appropriate at the time, and still does in memory, but I wasn’t trying to be witty. “Wit” sometimes backfires; in my youth, I once repeated verbatim to an arriving roommate a phone message containing a racial slur about the man in the doorway right behind him. (Did I say “wit?” Meant “twit.” Among the other lessons learned: There is no convenient trap door to hide in.)
But sometimes the “time we might have had” is too good to ignore. I’m specifically thinking of this tonight, which is Christmas Eve for Christians and Erev Shabbat for Jews. Adding Eid would be wondrously ecumenicalendrical. (Since Islam uses a purely uncorrected lunar calendar, where Ramadan can pop up in any season, it could still conceivably happen.) Billions of the world’s faithful could sit apart together, munching ham, chicken and lamb, and wondering what the other fellow’s up to. Braver, more moneyed souls could host Shabbeidmas parties and try not to look uncomfortable. Songs and laughter and happy curiosity could rule the day, and perhaps the days after.
What a time we might yet have.