The fairy-tale beginning isn't restricted to fiction. It's omnipresent in real life, too. Referring to a golden era in one's life is a common ploy used to drive home a point.
For example, the woman whose waistline is now more of a wasteline looks at her reflection and sighs with regret at what has been lost (or gained in this case) to the ravages of time and childbearing. She consoles herself with the recollection of a time when she had an hourglass figure which was the envy of all her friends. Looking back, she recalls the envious comments from her more generously endowed peers and how she used to say with a laugh, "No, I don't believe in dieting. I eat what I want". This was followed by a discussion of metabolism and her best friend commenting ruefully that she only had to look at food for the calories to pile on.
So, she thinks of her golden age, her once upon a time.
There are many such moments within family settings. The sedate-looking, 50-something dad telling his disbelieving sons that in his heyday he was a star athlete and into sports in a big way.
They look at the sagging figure on the couch and try to visualise their father as a young jock. But, however hard they try, the two dichotomous images - past and present - are difficult to reconcile.
Depending on their relationship with this parent, they will either break up with laughter only to sober up when they glimpse the hurt expression on his face or they will sit there in silence, respectful of the fact that he is supposedly older and wiser and they have been taught better than to argue with their elders.
Or a mother telling her children about how handsome their father was when she first knew him with this thick mane of hair. He used to keep it long, she adds wistfully, as was the fashion in those days. Just then a follicle-challenged man walks into the room and finds himself the cynosure of all eyes, each wondering about the cruel hand of fate.
I recall a short story by the well-known Indian writer Khushwant Singh which was included in an English textbook back home. He made a very telling point on the same subject regarding his grandmother whom he had always known as a wizened old lady. He was told stories about the beauty she used to be and he just couldn't imagine her being young and attractive. It was as unbelievable as a fairy tale.
But, all these examples are testimony to a past that had its moments. At least there was a period one could look back on and bask in that faded glory. The light might have dimmed but the warmth lingers on. Isn't this better than not having anything one can recall with pride?
However, there is another facet to this phenomenon. People you meet who might be long in the tooth but whose beauty has not been obscured by the mists of time. Their stories of past glory are credible as you can see the magnificent foundation of the edifice even among the ruins.
Then there is the other side of the coin. The rags to riches story. Here the once-upon-a-time is about humble beginnings and the rise from obscurity to the dizzy heights of celebrity status or stardom.
These tales are so much more satisfying to read and are truly inspirational. Their success stories against all odds are what legends are all about. You read about a deprived childhood spent in extreme penury, devoid of all the comforts most of us take for granted and how they rose above all this to make their tryst with fame and fortune.