The Swans of Our Youth

Most of us are familiar with the story of the ugly duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. We learn of it as children, whether read to us by a parent or teacher or seen in one of the animated versions available on television (to us old folks) or on-line for a younger generation.

It is a wonderful tale of transformation as a seemingly ugly duckling matures into a beautiful swan. The change comes as a blessed surprise as the homely protagonist emerges from a long winter of despair and alienation to be welcomed into the society of its own majestic kind.

The joy we feel on the duckling’s behalf clouds the issue, for me at least, that the animal wasn’t a duck at all. And this case of mistaken identity has nothing really to do with being ugly but about being rejected for being different. And while the intent of the author may have been one of making a symbolic statement about an inner transformation we all can experience, the truth is that it could only be told in this type of romantic format by acknowledging the harsh reality that we rank physical beauty as being supreme in our selection of the most desirable attributes.

For people maturity is not so kind. We age and the signs of our passage mark us in ways, which leave us humbled both in stature and visage. The swans of humanity appear in our youth, age being the untamed uglifier we wish to curtail with whatever cosmetic remedy is within our means to effect.

Cute kids may become adorable teenagers and beautiful young adults. But beyond those chronological boundaries, there be monsters. Weight, wrinkles and receding hairlines conspire with poor circulation and aching (needing to be replaced) joints to render us fatigued shadows of the swans of our youth.

My rant against this beloved fairytale of my youth, submitted here with all due to respect to Andersen’s creative genius, began with my own real life version of Driving Miss Daisy. It involved taking my mother on her once a week outings to dine out and to shop. As her strength declined, the shopping was easily sacrificed for the enjoyment of dining out and that usually a breakfast since mornings were the best part of her day. She came to eschew the use of makeup as a waste of time on a lost cause, except for one thing. She always put on lipstick before entering any restaurant. “Otherwise,” she said, “people will think I’m dead.”

It occurred to me that the story of the ugly duckling, though well intended, was false. We adults cannot ignore the gross inequities that come to us all as we age. It was once said of women, who did not marry while still teenagers or at most in their very early twenties, that they had been put on the shelf. We who are elders in the hyper-fast, high-intensity Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter era can commiserate with our spinster ancestors. Any marketing outreach targeting us concerns remedies for erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure and the joys of assisted living.

We are today’s ugly ducklings and the passage of another winter will not reveal our true nature as having the beauty of any graceful swan. We will spend our time looking at seed catalogues, planning next year’s garden, and relishing the maxim that hope springs eternal, Spring being the season which captures our flagging hopes in reincarnation here or in any heavenly realm promising us a chance at Nirvana.

The plastic surgeon is our Anderson. Both make their living spinning fairytales of surreptitious beauty.

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