We’re Not Ugly Ducklings — We’re Little Cygnets

‘The Handsome Little Cygnet,’ written by Matt Mehan and illustrated by John Folley, evokes the joy and beauty of a soul’s pilgrimage through life in the Church.

‘The Handsome Little Cygnet’ book cover
‘The Handsome Little Cygnet’ book cover (photo: TAN Books)

Being the mother of a large family definitely has its perks. Built-in babysitters for the younger ones are an obvious plus. My parenting mistakes — some of them colossal –- have certainly helped me grow in the humility department. With more than two decades of mothering under my belt (this past year feeling more or less like another decade) I’m thankful that I could help form the Christian consciences of each of my 10 children — while sharpening my own along the way.  

Each child is his or her own unique universe. Some of my kids are athletes. A few prefer to be lost in a book. I’ve got Great Debaters seated at the dinner table and a couple who stay out of the fray. This past year has affected each one in different ways. 

My eldest son at home, a rising high school senior, was hit with the disappointment of a canceled soccer season. And when a classmate, battling the coronavirus, was hospitalized for more than a month and a half, my son confronted the fragility of life and the power of prayer.

Things are beginning to return to normal. My teens have summer jobs and have gone to summer camps. The younger ones are honing their reading skills and learning how not to sink to the bottom of a pool. We’re even taking a road trip to visit college campuses and the grandparents. With so much going on, it’s easy to forget that the best part of parenting is accompaniment. I was reminded of this recently as I read a new book to my youngest, a precocious 5-year-old boy. 

The Handsome Little Cygnet, written by Matt Mehan and illustrated in stunning watercolors by John Folley, is the story of a swan family living in Manhattan’s Central Park. The little cygnet is lovingly cared for by his parents. “Handsome little cygnet, so dear to me, stay close to your mother and stay close to me,” remarks Father Swan as the three glide through the water. And the little cygnet responds, perched on top of his mother’s back, “I will, I will! I love you so, Why would I wander? Where would I go?” 

Adorable, right? I couldn’t help but reminisce as I read those lines. Even the most willful of my offspring always seemed to be within my reach during their childhood. The swan family enjoys a good few pages-worth of waddling adventures around Central Park. 

Until one day.  

Sure enough, the handsome little cygnet goes off exploring on his own. He swims beneath a bridge covered in graffiti. “So many colors, and I’m only gray. The paint is still wet. I just can’t keep away,” nervously exclaims the little bird. And then he rolls around in the wet paint. To his shock and horror, “his soft handsome down went from gray to greenish-brown.” 

With a tear in his eye, the little swan paddled to his mother and asked what to do. Mother Swan submerges the little bird to the waters below where fish kiss the cygnet clean. And “just as soon as it happened, just that soon did it end, when his mother pulled him up from the waters again.” 

Did I think of myself as the Mother Swan at this point in the story? A bit. I mean, parents are often there to help get a son or a daughter out of a bind. But, more than seeing myself in this part of the story, the mother swan who dunked the paint-stained cygnet down into the water, where he was kissed clean by the fish below, is a lot like the Catholic Church. Her sacraments of baptism and confession, like the deep waters and kisses of the fish below, cleanse and restore, even when some of her leaders disappoint us.

At some stage, we all end up rolling around in sticky paint and messing up our pretty feathers. Mother Church is ready to accompany my children. After all, they are her little cygnets too. The tale of The Handsome Little Cygnet ends with this important reminder as Father Swan says: “O my handsome cygnet, we know that you must leave us, when you have grown. Yet even then, we three swans will not be alone.”