Sometimes a family fits together so perfectly, the interactions seem effortless
As Rose O'Neill and her partner of 20 years, Tessa Pagones, posed for pictures with two of their children, the jokes flew. In the kitchen of their home in Westminster, they laughed about doing poses from the film "Zoolander." How about "Blue Steel"? Rose suggested. No, "Le Tigre," responded her daughter, Kelly O'Neill.
They all complement one another. Just a look to another family member can silently convey a feeling or a thought. There's never just one person laughing — they laugh together. As a family.
"The household is laid back," said their son, James O'Neill, 29. "They're accepting of what we want to do with our lives. This house is a drama-free zone."
And they all nodded in agreement. As a family.
Rose O'Neill, who turns 56 at the end of the month, met Tessa Pagones, 46, through riding and showing horses. They were friends for a few years; Rose O'Neill was married when they met. They became a couple a few years later, when Rose's biological children were young — James was 9; middle son Colin O'Neill was 3; Kelly was a newborn.
"My mom and dad had split up, and Tessa being a part of our lives was nothing like an imposition for us," said James. "It was never a problem. I never really cared about what they were or what other people said. I remember hearing the word 'gay,' and I asked Mom what it was and she told me, and talked about her and Tessa."
Even as a toddler, Kelly gravitated to Pagones. "I remember meeting her and her looking at me," said Pagones. "She was wary of strangers, but she kind of backed up slowly and ended up somehow sitting in my lap."
"When I was 5, I got an understanding of what marriage was," said Colin, 25, who was with his family in the kitchen, on a laptop via Skype from his home in West Philadelphia. "I always had this concept of love without boundaries."
The three children spent time divided between their father and their mom and Pagones. O'Neill and Pagones moved to Westminster a decade ago, and eventually Kelly and Colin came to live with them. Colin took comfort in moving in with his moms after he came out himself.
There has been much happiness over the years, but difficulties. At one point O'Neill and Pagones broke up — O'Neill considered trying to make things work with her husband. "It was like all of a sudden my kids were gone," said Pagones. Eventually Colin helped guide his mother. "I remember telling her, 'You don't need to try to make it work.'" As he said this, a face and voice on a laptop, his mom, standing behind the screen, seemed to connect with her son in a remarkable way. She smiled to herself, pondered his words, put her head down, and lifted it to reveal a look that acknowledged that her child had been right.
"I would hear people say meanly, 'You have two moms,' and I would say, 'I know,' he said. "That stopped the show."
The children were never embarrassed — they were proud. Their moms were heavily involved in their children's school activities: sports for James, music for Kelly and Colin (though O'Neill mentioned that she once volunteered to help with Girl Scouts and was never taken up on it). And the three noticed a change in their mother. "Beyond her just being happier and her true self, she became more adventurous — it was always 'Let's go here and do this' when before everything was planned," James said. "There was much more confidence."
It was their love and support that helped get them through some trying times. They said that some neighbors who learned the two were a couple stopped speaking to them. James was once told by a friend's mother that "We'll pray for your moms." Other times, interactions have been humorous. Pagones recalled a man who came to their house when they first moved in, asked them if they had husbands, and when they told him no, he said, 'Hell, I guess you girls know what you want."
Through 20 years and a rough divorce —O'Neill and her husband are now civil, she said — the couple has had a commitment ceremony, but has not married. "We're holding out for DOMA," said the women, almost at the same time, referring to a possible repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act law.
"I feel the whole gay factor has been a large 'So what?' for us," said Pagones. "And I would really like society to catch up."
But they will celebrate another wedding soon. Colin just got engaged to his partner and plans to marry in his moms' backyard, perhaps next spring. "At the end of the day I take comfort in having three amazing parents who love me," Colin said. "I wouldn't change anything for that."
Would the kids want their mothers to get married?
"If anyone deserves to get married, it's you guys," said Kelly. "They are it."
They are "it" as in good parents? As in a model of love?
"Both," said Kelly.
"Absolutely both," said James.