“Can I put some money in the pot, Daddy?”
The wind was whistling around us, stirring up loose papers, cups, napkins, plastic shopping bags — the detritus of an advanced civilization — swirling them around and redepositing them helter-skelter on the sidewalk and paved parking lot. I pulled my light jacket tighter around me. I would have shoved my hands deep into my pockets except for the bags of gifts I was carrying.
The atypical cold wasn’t subtle or selective. It was invading places, private places, that I preferred to keep warm. Just standing still was an annoyance. Movement gave at least the semblance of generating warmth.
But Denny had stopped, and when he stopped I had to stop, too. He was standing in front of a red bucket that was held off the ground on a tripod. A man in a Santa costume was next to it, ringing a handbell and repeating a mock-cheery, “Ho ho ho,” over and over. The occasional passerby would drop a coin or a bill into the pot, which caused the volume of the ho-ho-hoing to momentarily increase. At least the guy was putting some enthusiasm into his job.
The ratio of droppers to non-droppers was heavily weighed toward the latter.
“No, Denny. Let’s get to the car before we become icicles!”
Denny grinned his infectious grin. At seven and a half — you had to credit him with those extra six months or you’d hear about it — he was moving rapidly from cute to handsome, but it was the same grin he’d worn since his toddler years, and just as charming.
“What are icicles, Daddy?”
OK, we live in Southern California. Icicles are common in most of the country, but not here. We’d taken Denny up to Mount Baldy in the winter a few times where he could play in the snow and sled and build a communal snowman with other kids large and small. Kids that age just meld together with an ability for togetherness that, like their thin, high voices and unblemished cheeks, seems to evanesce in their teens. He’d loved the snow — those had been fun times — but there hadn’t been any icicles. The closest he’d come to them was a picture in the Little Golden Book version of ’Twas The Night Before Christmas that we’d been reading him for years. Evidently we’d never bothered to point the icicles out and explain them to him.
“I’ll show you a picture at home,” I said, starting to walk. I took a few steps, then looked back. Denny was still standing by the pot, unaffected by the droning ‘hos’ falling around him.
I stopped, then repressed a sigh. Recalcitrant seven-year-olds — well, seven-and-a-half-year-olds — can be a real bother, and Denny had that look on his face. He gets ‘stubborn’ from his other dad. Not from me.
I walked back to him.
“I want to put money in the pot.” He said it with an adamant voice while glaring at me, a glare I didn’t deserve. When I earn his disgruntlement, fine, but I hadn’t messed up here.
I had found, with him, that getting as disagreeable as he was able to get, fighting fire with fire, didn’t work. So, instead of getting mad or ordering him to come along, I spoke to him reasonably instead, all the time aware that the wind wasn’t getting any warmer and seemed to like searching for a home away from home as I crouched down, tickling up my trouser legs and investigating what lived at the top.
“Dennis,” I said, making him aware of the need to listen to me, “you can’t drop money in that pot now. I’ll explain why to you, and after that, I’ll give you the choice. The next time we’re here you can drop a coin in the pot, or not. But right now, I need to talk to you about it and I don’t want to do it standing in this wind with ho-ho-hos rattling against my eardrums.”
I’d been down at his level, speaking softly to him. He listened better when we spoke softly to him. Now I stood up straight. But I didn’t walk away, assuming the pressure that would exert on him would cause him to follow. I knew better. He was too independent for that. I didn’t hold out my hand for him to take, either. One, I was holding bags in each hand, and two, he’d stopped wanting us to hold his hands a year ago. Independence: that he got from me.
“OK?” I asked.
- - - -
Tom was the emotional one of us. I tended to overthink things. I like things to be calm, discussions to be logical and focused and productive, meals to be warm and happy and instructive. Tom relished the highs and lows of family life; he said that’s how people are and life should be, full of brio. Tom’s a musician.
Denny took it all in; he was an amalgam of the two of us. He tended to reflect my life-view when he was with me, staying rational and keeping his emotions in check; talking things over. When he was with Tom, the giggles and guffaws, the shouting and screaming, the ranting and wrestling were much more on display.
I sort of envied them, but that wasn’t me. I don’t know that Tom envied me at all. He kidded me about how I was now and then. But if he saw it affecting me — I had this unfortunate habit of allowing my feelings to be hurt too easily — he made sure to tell me he loved me because of how I was. He didn’t ever want me to change. Even if occasionally I wished I could.
Getting our tree that year was one such time. The three of us went out tree shopping, driving Tom’s decades-old pickup that he loved, Denny feeding off Tom’s exuberance.
“We’re getting the biggest tree on the lot,” Tom yelled as we walked to the truck, then reached up for a high five from Denny, who couldn’t reach that high. He knew it, Tom knew it, but Denny was jumping anyway, and both were laughing, and then Denny got back a few feet, looked calculatingly at that hand, and ran forward. Tom was sure he was going to leap as high as he could, but Denny had different ideas. Instead, he lowered his shoulder the way he’d seen it done on TV and ran right into Tom’s legs, wrapping his arms around his knees and bringing Tom tumbling to the ground on his back. Then Denny crawled up his body onto his chest, sat up, and smacked Tom’s hand.
“Yeah!” Denny yelled in triumph, but it was a short yell because Denny made the mistake of raising his arms in triumph to help proclaim his victory and Tom had the perfect tickle opportunity. Tom never missed one of those.
Funny. I watched them, standing off to the side, thoroughly enjoying their antics. Their roughhousing, their love. When they were done, it was time to climb into the truck. But before Denny did that, he came to me and gave me as big a hug as he’d given Tom. That boy!
We visited a couple of tree places. The last one had some really gorgeous trees. Tom and Denny kept looking at the huge ones. I was looking for one that would fit in the living room without the necessity of cutting a hole in the ceiling.
I couldn’t drag them away from the tall ones, so found a good one on my own. A practical one. It was about seven feet tall, well shaped and full, and was a Noble fir so would be easy to decorate without the lights and baubles getting lost in the needles and close-grown branches. I was afraid if I left it to go find Tom and Denny, someone else would snap it up; it was that fine a tree. So, I flagged down one of the sales people and told him we’d take that one and had him haul it to the sales counter while I went looking for my family.
They were still marveling at the big trees, 12-, 13-footers and taller, but now they had a sales guy with them.
“Hey Paul, we’ve bought this one,” Tom said.
“Isn’t it great, Daddy!” Denny gushed.
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” I said, frowning. “But we’d never get it in the door, let alone the living room.” I looked at Tom who was still smiling at the tree. “What were you thinking?”
Then before he could answer, I said, “Anyway, I already bought one.”
I’d thought that would put a damper on things. It didn’t. Tom looked at Denny and winked, and Denny smiled back at him, mischief in his twinkling eyes, and then Denny turned to me.
“It’ll fit. We can cut a hole in the ceiling, can’t we?”
I was about to go into a snit when the grins on both their faces clued me in. I spoke to Denny. “Tom told you to say that, didn’t he?”
Denny couldn’t hold a straight face. He tried. He tried to look innocent and confused, but it lasted about as long as it took for him to yell, “I do!” when one of us asked if anyone wanted to taste a new batch of chocolate chip cookies as they were fresh out of the oven and cooling on the counter. Innocence lost, confusion abated, he giggled his high-pitched merriment. Then he ran to me, guaranteeing that I’d join in the laughter.
“Dad told me you’d be worrying about having to cut a hole in the ceiling. We knew you’d pick the right tree all by yourself. We were just dreaming of these, that’s all.”
“Not just dreaming,” Tom said, looking at the magnificent tree the sales guy was holding erect.
So we ended up taking two trees home. Decorating two trees. One was in the living room
window, and one stood proudly in the front yard, toward the side where the decorative birch
trees grew. We had to use the step ladder to get to the top of the big one, but Tom and I held
the ladder steady and Denny climbed up and attached the star to the very tip of the tree
— a star which lit up with all the other lights when they were turned on. His proud smile
would have been worth the price of a forest of trees, all welcoming the coming day of
- - - - -
Because he was more emotional than I was, we thought it best if Tom let me be the one who’d talk to Denny about the Salvation Army and their prejudiced view of gay men. Denny was seven-and-a-half, but he was as wise to the ways of the world as a bright kid that age can be. It was a couple of years since we’d talked about why he had two fathers. He knew about men and women loving each other, and men and men, too. He understood two people could love each other, and that their gender didn’t get in the way. There was a kid in his class at school, Mickey, who had two moms. Denny told me they made jokes about us all living together and no one would think it strange because there’d be two men and two women in the household.
Tom thought that hilarious. I thought it showed that Denny understood that there were people who disapproved two same-sex people living together.
There were times, fewer now, that when we were out walking, all together, he’d reach out and take my hand in one of his and Tom’s hand it his other, and we’d walk along that way. I always wanted to ask him, when he did that, if there was something he was thinking about the caused him to do it. Tom wasn’t as reflective as I was, not as introspective, and perhaps not as curious. To use his expression, he just went with the flow. Once, a couple of years ago, when Denny did this, Tom said, “Hey, this is nice, champ.” He could have asked why Denny had done it. Instead, he glanced at me, raised his unencumbered hand so I could see it and clenched it tight while nodding his head forward, then suddenly jogged ahead. Prewarned, I jogged with him so we were a couple of steps ahead of Denny, then pulled our hands up and out and swung Denny from behind us so he was high in front of us, then back behind us again before returning him to the sidewalk between us.
That was a mistake, because we had to do it again and again. And I never did get to find out if there was anything behind that hand-taking other than just contentment that we were all together.
- - - - -
So we were all sitting at the kitchen table, and I was explaining to Denny why I didn’t want him putting his money in that red pot.
“The Salvation Army doesn’t like gay people. They don’t simply disapprove of us. That isn’t enough for them. They campaign against us. They try to get states to take away civil rights for gay people, like the right to marry, and the right to adopt.
“What that means is, if they had their way, we wouldn’t have you, Denny. They think only traditional families should adopt children. They think only conventional families can bring up children properly. They think many of the other rights we have — like fair employment and survivor’s rights and hospital visitations and a bunch of other things — shouldn’t be available to us. They don’t approve of us, and don’t think we should be allowed the same things other couples have. Even though our having those things doesn’t affect them at all.
“So if we give them money, we’re donating to people who not only don’t like us, but are actively trying to hurt us, to punish us just for being who we are.”
Tom was getting angry. I could see it. I didn’t think anger was the best way to get the point across to Denny. I wanted him to understand it intellectually, not emotionally. I wanted him to understand the unfairness of it. I didn’t mind if after thinking about it he got angry, but I wanted him to understand what he was angry about.
Tom wanted to go out and knock a couple of those bucket tripods over. I could feel the tension in him. Maybe pull some Santa whiskers, too. Tom didn’t have any brakes to engage when he saw someone being mistreated, saw something that was unfair.
I laid a hand on his. It seemed to calm him a little. He looked me in the eyes, and I looked back, and that might have helped, too.
Denny saw that. He saw my hand move over Tom’s, and he saw us look at each other. He didn’t miss much, that kid.
- - - -
We’d been lucky. We live in California and that helped, but we also ended up with a sympathetic social worker. We weren’t trying for a baby, so we had that going for us, too.
The social worker took us to see an almost-two-year-old whose mother was a young teenager. She’d thought she could cope, or thought having a baby would somehow make her special among her friends, but reality had set in. The first year of motherhood had convinced her that it wasn’t what she wanted, missing all her friends and parties and get-togethers, her time and energies sucked up by a baby. Her teenaged friends still had their lives, and she had a 24-7 responsibility. She stuck it out one year, then more and more turned the baby over to his grandmother, a lady who didn’t like her life being turned upside down and no longer had much interest in raising a kid.
We loved Denny as soon as we saw him. It took another few months, but then he was ours. Adoption papers signed. Ts crossed and Is dotted. Ours.
The parting with his mother and grandmother wasn’t as difficult as we’d imagined. We’d spent some time with him already, of course, first in their company, then alone with him. We’d taken him on some day trips, visiting the zoo and a few parks, eating in a child-friendly restaurant, just being with him. He got used to us, and seemed to like us.
He didn’t really talk much, and we wondered about that. It could have been that he was shy, but he didn’t seem to be. It could have been he wasn’t very intelligent, but his eyes told us differently, and his mother had been a good student, and the father, who was only 15 at the time of conception, had already been accepted at a good college. So it seemed to me that maybe his not talking much was because no one spoke to him much. Maybe it was because of neglect.
When Dennis’s mother told him he was going to live with us, we were right there with him. Surprisingly, it didn’t seem to bother him at all. Nor her, either. I really wondered what their relationship had been.
He had bonded with us to some degree even before we had him, and afterwards, well, very soon thereafter he didn’t even talk about her any longer. Of course, at about two, his talking wasn’t at a level where he could express his feelings very well. He was able to tell us what he wanted, however. He never told us he wanted his mother.
He was our boy, and while we worried about his lack of speech at the beginning, we weren’t worried for long. We paid scads of attention to him, and he responded. He was talking enough soon to make up for the months he hadn’t said much at all.
Tom had a musician’s lot in life. He worked days and nights, playing gigs when he had them, teaching students at his studio in our home, even teaching a class or two as a part-time faculty member at a local university. He kept busy, but also had a lot of time to take care of Denny during the day. Denny stayed with him when Tom was teaching in his studio. I imagined the kid knowing more music theory by the age of four than Tom’s teenage students would ever learn.
I worked at the university, too. Full time, as the registrar. It was a well-paying job. Between us, we were very comfortable. We’d been missing something, however, and Denny turned out to be the piece of the puzzle we needed. He added so much to our family. We both doted on the kid, and the way his eyes lit up whenever either of us appeared, we knew we were an important part of his world, too.
We lived in an attractive home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Tom saw to Dennis during the day, and we were both with him at night except when Tom had a gig. We both were with him most weekends. He flourished under our care, with our love. I got the impression his mother hadn’t paid that much attention to him. He loved our attention. And he was an affectionate kid. He loved being touched, and touching us.
There are grouchy kids, and rebellious kids, and whiny, crying kids and mischievous kids. And too, there are really sweet kids. Denny was one of those.
- - - - -
It was a week after we’d had our talk together, the three of us, that Denny and I were back at the store with the bright red Salvation Army collection pot in the front. There was a sign by the door saying that any solicitations near their store were not sanctioned by the store. Big deal, I thought: they didn’t seem to be discouraging this one at all.
The Santa was still there, replete with his assiduous ho-ho-hos. I didn’t think this Santa was the same one as before. There wasn’t the same enthusiasm in his hos. Did he also look a little seedier? Maybe it was just the costume was getting tawdrier as the season rolled on.
We had to pass him as we walked to the store’s main doors. As we did, the Santa glanced at Denny and me, and Denny glanced back at him, his face a mask. The Santa saw him looking and stopped his mantra for a moment. He spoke to Denny. “You want to throw some money in the pot to help the little children at Christmas?”
Denny stopped right in front of him. “You work for the Salvation Army, don’t you?” he asked in his light, juvenile voice. His sweet, friendly voice. I loved his voice.
“Yes I do!” said Santa, beaming proudly.
“My two dads are gay,” Denny said, drawing himself up as tall as he could, which wasn’t very tall at all. “And you can stick that pot of yours where the sun don’t shine!”
The Santa took a step backwards in shock. My mouth dropped open and my eyes widened to the max. “Denny!” I said, aghast.
He didn’t say a word as he spun around to face me. He looked very serious, but when he saw the stunned astonishment on my face, I did get to see that marvelous smile of his.
- - - - -
The house was all dressed up for Christmas. There were lots and lots of presents all wrapped up under the tree. A large majority of them had Denny’s name on them. He spent a lot of time by that tree, seeing what presents were for him, picking them up and shaking them, sniffing them, feeling how heavy they were, his dreams awash in his eyes as he checked them out.
Some of the gifts were from him to us. I’d helped him pick out his gift to Tom. The ‘help’ was just paying for it. Denny knew exactly what he wanted to give him. It was a perfect gift for Tom.
The day before Christmas Eve, we had company. We’d invited Mickey and his two moms over for dinner. The boys were up in Denny’s room, probably playing video games. Or maybe talking about things almost-8-year-olds talk about. Probably what they hoped they were getting for Christmas.
The moms, Judy and Ellen, and we were sitting in the living room, having canapés and drinking wine. Talk about stereotypes: the women were drinking chardonnay, Tom and I merlot. We hit it off very quickly; there was a commonality we shared from the get go, an empathetic comfort with each other that was palpable.
When there was a lull in the conversation, I found the nerve to bring up what had led to our inviting them. Well, Denny had had something to do with it when he heard us discussing it. He was all for it. And we liked the idea because his excitement as the big day drew nearer was getting difficult to control. Is there anything matching the excitement of a seven-year-old when Christmas is nigh? Having a friend in the house might give us a few moments of peace.
“So,” I said, taking a sip of wine and settling deeper into my chair, “I told Denny the other day why we don’t throw money into the red pots in front of stores.”
Both women nodded. “We’ve had that conversation with Mickey, too,” Judy announced.
“Oh?” I said, innocently. “How did he react.”
“He was pissed off,” said Ellen. She seemed to be the earthier of the two. “He gets pissed off easily. But I think we calmed him down. Still, I know he talked to Denny about it. He told me that Denny already knew.”
“Yeah, well, I thought Denny took it pretty well. Except there was an incident at that store the next time we went there. He said something to the Santa manning the pot. I was sort of surprised. I talked to him later, asked him about it. He said he’d heard Mickey say it.”
The two women looked at each other. Then Judy turned to me and asked, just a bit defensively it seemed to me, “What did Denny say to the man?”
“He told him to stick his pot where the sun don’t shine.” I said it with a straight face, but Tom ruined it. That man can’t help himself. He broke out in laughter, roaring really.
The two women turned red. Then Judy said, “When Ellen gets mad at someone, that’s one of her favorite expressions. But we’ve never heard Mickey say it. Never.”
I was laughing, too, by then. “I just thought you’d like to know.”
The women glanced at each other again, and then, confronted by both Tom’s and my laughter, started giggling.
“What did you say to Denny?” Ellen asked eventually.
“What could I say? I clapped him on the back and said, ‘Right on, young man! Well said. And don’t ever say that to an adult again!’ The fact I was having trouble not laughing, and he saw that, might have weakened the rebuke some.”
Dinner was great, and then the boys moved to the tree as though pulled by an invisible force to check what was there, and we adults remained at the table with cordials and coffee. It was all very pleasant. Judy and Ellen were having trouble controlling Mickey’s excited anticipation, too. Letting the two boys expend their energies with each other had been a great idea.
- - - - -
Christmas Eve was when we opened our presents. Christmas Day was when Santa had come; he’d always left things for Denny to discover when the boy came downstairs in the morning, big hard-to-wrap things like bicycles and puppies. Denny had to wait for us before going down. Hard and fast rule. But one he obeyed, surprisingly. Of course, he obeyed it by climbing in bed with us way too early, wriggling between us and making sure we were awake. An eager almost-eight-year-old can do that better than anyone.
He got so much stuff on the Eve, you’d think he’d be blasé about Christmas morning, but not Denny. It was remarkable to me that he seemed to appreciate it all. He didn’t do like so many kids do. He didn’t rip the paper off the wrapped gifts he opened on Christmas Eve, seeing what they were and tossing them aside immediately to grab the next one. He actually looked at each and told us how much he’d wanted that and why; he even took some of them out of their boxes to handle them. And on Christmas Day, seeing all the unwrapped Santa gifts arrayed before him, he was like a kid in a candy store, wild with excitement, but still in control, and still running back and forth to us while we stood watching him. He was making sure he shared his excitement with us. The joy in his eyes, though — what an incredible gift for us.
When we tucked him in bed that night, he was so sleepy he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open.
Tom kissed his forehead after brushing his hair back, and then I did the same thing. “Good night, champ,” I said. “I love you. We love you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to us.”
I thought he was asleep by then, but he wasn’t. He opened his eyes and said, “I love you. I was so lucky I got to come live with you.” He yawned a huge yawn, and almost under his breath he said, “Thanks, Dads.”
And then he was asleep.
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