Coryne came to us on a cold winter day. I had just taken a job as an editor at a city magazine, and my husband and I were interviewing a long list of candidates to care for our one-year-old son, William.
She showed up with ruddy cheeks and a long scarf that she left draped around her neck as we sat in the playroom and talked. I offered her tea but she declined, choosing instead to pop a couple of Muppet finger puppets onto one of her hands. She seemed to forget that they were there and, as she talked about the games she’d like to teach William and the places she’d like to take him, Kermit and Gonzo flew in front of her like tiny, brightly colored acrobats.
When she told us she’d left her previous job at the battered women’s shelter because she’d become too attached to the families there, I saw my husband’s eyebrows rise almost imperceptibly and his head nod in a way that, after seven years together, I recognized as monumental surprise. We didn’t know many 23-year-olds whose problem was overcommitment to a cause. We hired Coryne then and there.
During the interview, Coryne had mentioned that she lived with her partner, a filmmaker and graduate student named “Graham.” But it wasn’t until later, when we learned that G-R-A-M was the correct spelling of her partner’s name and that Gram’s name was “Marg” spelled backward, that we realized Coryne was gay.
The first time I met Gram, when she stopped by to pick Coryne up after work a few weeks later, I was struck by her tomboyish charisma. She had close-cropped hair, bleached at the tips; thick-rimmed glasses; and baggy, skateboarder-style clothes. William liked her so much he ran in frantic circles as she chased him, calling out, “Hi, guy!” I remember watching Coryne and Gram through the window after they left the house that evening. It was the first official day of spring, and they were walking arm in arm. Halfway down the block they stopped, leaned in to kiss each other, and then disappeared into the night like smitten teenagers.
A year later, I came home from a day of reporting for a magazine story I was writing about the legislative convention on whether to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts. Sitting on the playroom floor with Coryne and William, I took off my coat and recounted what I’d seen. I told Coryne about the middle-aged lesbian couple and three-month-old baby boy who’d arrived in the hallway outside the legislative chamber of the State House at 8:00 a.m. and were still standing there when I left ten hours later.
The baby had remained remarkably calm throughout the day, alternately dozing and looking wide-eyed at the spectacle before him. Maybe he was comforted by all the people singing and chanting patriotic anthems and ’60s protest songs, which echoed up into the chamber’s cavernous dome. But from where he was ensconced, face-out in one of those strap-on baby carriers, he couldn’t see the grim look on his two mothers’ faces. They had about them an air of resignation: a sense that even if gay marriage were legalized, they had already suffered a lifetime of hurt and misunderstanding that the historic vote could never erase. I couldn’t quite voice to Coryne how sad their faces had made me, so I recalled the low point of the day instead.
“One guy had a sign that read, ‘God Abhors You,'” I blurted, realizing my mistake as Coryne’s face went white and tears sprang to her eyes. William was standing a few feet away at his Thomas the Tank Engine table, and she scooped him up and hugged him hard.
Several months later, Coryne asked if William could be the ring bearer in her and Gram’s wedding, set for Provincetown the following spring. He and Emily, the daughter of Gram’s close friend, would be the only members of the wedding party.
“Willie’s my best friend,” Coryne said, laughing. “Isn’t that sad?” It was the most touching thing she could have said. I smiled as I imagined what my conservative grandmother would think, were she alive, and set about searching for a white suit that would fit someone three feet tall.
As the wedding approached, my husband and I were surprised by how many people wondered aloud about the fact that William’s first wedding would be a gay one. When we told one friend about the nature of the wedding, she laughed and said, “Brilliant!” Another said, “Well, if that’s the way you want it to be. . . .” Others just stared blankly and tried to change the subject. The unstated premise seemed to be that we were going to harm him in some irreparable way. Because these were liberal-minded friends our own age, we began to think that maybe we were missing something. Were we about to do something we might regret?
On the day of the ceremony, I tried to see what William was gathering from the experience. After a failed attempt to get him to perform his singular duty as ring bearer, I had to carry him down the makeshift aisle to the point on the boardwalk where the officiant stood. My son’s hair was parted neatly down the side, and he was wearing a white Eton suit, holding a heart-shaped ring pillow, and begging for his sippy cup.
That day he was probably thinking that a wedding is an event to which you have to wear uncomfortable clothes and stay unnaturally quiet. That it’s a time when the mostly male members of a large Brooklyn family stand alongside young women who happen to be holding hands. That it’s a day when two of the people he loves most in the world — Coryne, in a long white gown and matching shawl, and Gram, in a trim gray suit with tails — kiss, and the 30 or so assembled guests clap for them. If he were paying close enough attention he would have noticed that, just beyond the wedding party, small waves were gently lapping the shore, as they always have and always will. That the world registered no seismic disruption, other than the little ripple you feel when life pauses for a moment and applauds the kismet with which two perfectly matched people manage to find each other among the billions.
On the drive home that night, we asked William whom he’d rather marry: Emily, the five-year-old flower girl he’d chased all evening with the desperation of a frat boy, or Alanna, the two-year-old at his preschool with the blond curls and sweet disposition.
“Uh,” he said and paused as the signs for Cape Cod towns flew past us. And then: “Emily and Alanna get married.”
My husband and I glanced at each other.
“But who will William marry?” I asked.
Another pause. “William to marry Niv,” he said matter-of-factly.
And there it was. Niv is a boy at William’s preschool. Our friends were right. So was my grandmother, who I imagined nodding at me solemnly from above, as if to say, “See? I told you so.”
I froze for a moment. His proclamation, innocuous though it was, brought on that panicked adrenaline rush I’ve had intermittently since he was born. I first had it hours after his birth. I’d just nestled into my hospital bed for a good night’s sleep when he woke suddenly, screaming like an animal. I felt it when he suffered his first episode of toddler violence when his friend hit him in the sandbox with an open hand, smack on top his head, and he sobbed: his mouth gaping like a huge, angry oval. I felt it the first time he skinned his knee and blood trickled down his milk-white shin.
It’s a feeling that reminds me how like an open wound I now am, how there is no barrier between what he experiences and what I feel. The thought of him grown and gay and standing in the foyer before a legislative chamber as men brandish angry signs outside and a congress debates his rights, summoned all the force of my maternal worry.
And yet. Every day he is becoming more and more his own person. As parents, my husband and I are already losing ground on the dangers, imagined and otherwise, from which we can save him. At two, William is at the beginning of the long struggle to make himself his own person, and I doubt we’ll have much say in who he ends up marrying — or even if he will.
My husband and I both must have been thinking something along those lines in the moments after our son expressed his desire to marry a boy because neither of us spoke. Instead, we stared out at the darkened highway speeding toward us and, in a rare, silent moment of perfect parental agreement, decided to let it go.