The first time someone calls your mommies that word, you are five.
When Momma leaves her job at the college – she teaches people about books – and picks you up after school, she asks you why you look so sad. You kick your little legs (Momma says you were graced with Mom's height gene, whatever that means) against the car seat, ignoring the movie playing on the little drop down dvd player in the back of the van.
You ask her what the word means.
You recognize that look in your Momma's eyes and you know she's angry. Sometimes she gives you that look, when you forget to pick up your toys or you say no to her when she tells you it's time for bed. Other times that look is for Mom, when fingers are flying way too fast for you to understand. Either way, the look in Momma's pretty hazel eyes never lasts that long.
That day, it lasts until you get home, and both Momma and Mom are sitting on the couch, and Mom has you snuggled in her lap.
"Mom? Are you and Momma mad at me?" you ask.
"No, Levi," she signs, and kisses your forehead. She looks tired; Mom works as a special music teacher at a school for deaf children, and you know she loves it, but it can be "exhausting," Momma said once.
"Levi," Momma speaks to you, and signs for Mom. "Who said that word to you today?"
Mom nudges your Momma. "What word?" she signs.
You can hear Momma sigh, and slowly, her fingers spell it out into the air.
Joey Casone said it on the playground during recess, you tell your parents then. He said that you had a Mom and a Momma because they were dykes, and it was gross. That you needed to watch out or you'd be gross just like them. And when you'd told your teacher Mrs. Hamilton about it, she'd just told you to ignore it, and that you'd better get used to hearing that word.
Mom makes a funny noise and now she looks mad, and you're really scared, because you must have done something wrong. And then you're thumped on Momma's lap while Mom paces up and down the floor, signing for all she's worth, and you're still not that good at understanding her when she signs – or talks – so fast, but you think that you see the letters a, c, l and u pretty well.
"Mom likes those letters a lot," Momma whispers into your ear and nuzzles your cheek, then tickles your belly.
You giggle, and she sets you on your feet and pats your bottom – you swat her hand away because you're five, not a baby – then tells you to go play until dinnertime.
You can't help but peek your head out your door a few minutes later, and you see your Mom holding Momma on her lap, rocking her as she cries, like she does for you late at night when you have a bad dream. And Mom doesn't talk a whole lot anymore, because she can't hear how loud she gets sometimes, but you know Momma doesn't mind right then because Mom keeps her voice low when she says "I love you, I love you" over and over into Momma's ear.
Mom sounds a little rough but kind of pretty, you think, before you go back to playing with your soldiers.
When you're eleven years old, Mom and Momma think you're old enough to walk yourself and your little sister Amelia home from school, but you're pretty sure that's about to be revoked, as you come into the house with your arm around a crying Amelia, and Mom's mouth drops open when she sees your black eye.
Momma swoops Amelia into her arms and takes her into her bedroom to calm her down; you get to sit on the couch, almost cowering, as Mom paces and angrily signs to you.
You might be taller than she is, even at eleven years old, but she's Mom and she can put the fear of God into pretty much anyone, if she gets mad enough.
"Violence is never the answer, Levi," she says, and she speaks a couple of the words as she signs. You know that Mom has stayed in speech therapy ever since she lost her hearing, so that she can keep some use of her voice.
She doesn't sing anymore, but she'd made cds for you (her "little man," she called you on the cd) and for Amelia ("baby girl") when she was 19 years old and things started to get worse.
On the cds, Mom sang a couple of songs, gave you "words of wisdom," as she called them. She'd even read a couple of children's books, bedtime stories, in between each song.
Neither Mom nor Momma knows that you and Amelia have put those cds on your ipods; and sometimes you listen to it late at night when everyone has gone to bed. Now you know Mom's voice is beautiful, and you're kind of mad at whoever decided that she couldn't sing anymore.
But Mom's still going at it in her lecture, and Momma hasn't come out of Amelia's room yet, so you know this is bad. You just sit there without a word and let her ground you for a month for fighting with Jason.
Just as Momma comes out of Amelia's bedroom, Mom asks you the question you don't want to answer.
"Levi, honey, why did you hit Jason?"
You look at her and you might be eleven years old but all you want to do is cry, and the look of frustration on her face is replaced by worry when a tear slips down your cheek.
But you grit your teeth, and you look her straight in the eye as you speak slowly.
You are not going to sign this. You can't do that to her. The words are bad enough.
Maybe if she can't hear them it won't hurt as much.
"He called you a deaf retard, Mom."
You go to Amelia's room to play with her before dinner, and soon she starts laughing again and forgets about what happened that day, forgets about seeing you go after a boy who was nearly a foot taller than you and weighed twice as much.
When you come out of her room to go to the bathroom, you see Momma on the couch with Mom on her lap, rocking and singing to her as Mom sobs.
Momma's voice is pretty, too, you think.
It hurts to know that Mom can't hear her, hasn't been able to hear her for fourteen years.
Later that night, you listen through your headphones to Mom singing I Dreamed a Dream, and you hate God.
When you hear her voice say "I love you, my little man," you don't care that you are eleven years old and that you are a boy. You bury your face in your pillow, and you cry.
Amelia is fourteen years old when she's given her first solo in a choir recital. You and Momma and your sister laugh at Mom, who is armed for the recital with a video camera, a digital camera, and a voice recorder. Mom just sticks her tongue out at all of you and signs that she has to make sure all of Amelia's performances are recorded, so that she'll have ample material when she needs to make her biopic.
Momma rolls her eyes and pulls Mom in for a kiss, and you and Amelia laugh as you make gagging gestures with your fingers.
Both Mom and Momma look so proud when Amelia takes the stage, and yeah, you might fight with your little sister – a lot – because come on, you're sixteen and she's annoying, but the minute she opens her mouth, yours drops open – because she sounds just like Mom.
Momma cries because of that. Mom cries because Amelia's eyes stay on her the entire time, and she signs the words as she sings a Journey song.
When she sings and signs the last word – faithfully – you notice that Momma and Mom are holding hands with their fingers linked tightly together, the electronics forgotten on Mom's lap.
Two years later, you're nervous as you sit up on the stage; you look out over the audience until your eyes land on Momma's hazel ones, and she smiles at you while making a motion that clearly says "stop playing with your tassel." You smirk, but you quit.
Aunt Brittany and Aunt Santana are beaming at you, even though Aunt Santana is trying her best to look bored out of her mind. You know better, though.
Amelia waves at you from next to Mom, who gives you a thumbs-up as she films with the latest video camera in your family. She says it's only because your granddads couldn't be there, but you'd also caught her signing something to Momma about your campaign needing good "the way he was" footage for when you decide to run for president.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming, representing the class of 2036, our valedictorian, Levi Nathaniel Berry-Fabray."
The applause is mild, but you grin when Aunt Santana lets rip with an ear-splitting whistle. The grin fades as you take your place behind the podium, and you look out at your peers, the ones who have, several times, tormented you in one way or another throughout your eighteen years of life.
You don't see them, though. You see your family.
You clear your throat and step back from the podium, moving to the left and signing as you begin your speech.
"As we graduate today, we feel like heroes. We've accomplished what we've set out to do in our early education, and we feel like we're on top of the world as we begin taking the necessary steps towards our higher education, towards whatever life chooses to bring us next."
You pause, and once again, your eyes find your family.
"But I want to talk for a minute about other heroes. The heroes that came before us, the heroes that brought us to where we are today, the heroes that I hope will have shaped our future. I want to talk about my heroes." You take a deep breath.
"I want to talk about my mother, Quinn, and her wife, my mother, Rachel."
There's an audible gasp from a few people in the audience, but you don't care. Aunt Brittany has grabbed the video camera from Mom because she's already crying; Aunt Santana takes the camera from her because she's trying to film you upside down.
"Our parents can teach us many things, valuable life lessons that I hope we will carry with us forever, and pass on to the next generation. When I have my own children, I want them to know what Momma taught me: that letting yourself be weak doesn't mean you're not strong. That true courage is standing up for what's right, even when others are fighting to hold you down. That it isn't who you love, as long as you love that person with your whole heart, no matter what life throws at you."
Momma is smiling at you, tears trickling down her cheeks, and her arm is wrapped around Mom's waist, holding her close. Her head is on Momma's shoulder, and the look on her face is full of so much pride you want to run off the stage and hug her.
"When I have children, I want to teach them what my Mom taught me: That always, it is in our greatest tragedy that we find our greatest strength. That you don't have to speak, or even have a voice, to be heard, and that you don't have to be able to hear, to listen. That sometimes the most beautiful song in the world is the silence of a kiss shared with the one you love."
Others are crying, now, even Aunt Santana, and you make a mental note to tease the hell out of her at dinner.
You're crying too, and that's okay.
"Momma, Mom… you are my heroes. No matter what happened, no matter what cruelties life has sent your way, you've faced it together, and never stopped taking care of each other. I love you, Momma," you say. "I love you, Mom," you sign. "Thank you for being my parents. Thank you for loving me. I am so proud to be your son."
You look again down at your peers, the ones who always took the time to make fun of you or your unconventional family. "I hope that all of you have had a hero in your life like I have. If you haven't, just remember: when you walk out of this auditorium, you have a chance to be someone else's hero. Congratulations, guys, we did it."
You don't even hear the applause this time, as you take your seat on the stage again.
Later on tonight, you'll say thank you to your other heroes.
To Aunt Santana, for beating up every single person who dared to make fun of your Mom, once she started losing her hearing.
To Aunt Brittany, who brought you ten stuffed ducks to the hospital when you had your tonsils out – at age twelve – just because she couldn't decide which one you'd like the most.
To Amelia, for getting how hard it could be sometimes to have gay parents, but who stubbornly talked about her two mommies any chance she could get.
For right now, though, all you see are two shining faces in the audience, staring at you with love.
You've been their little man for eighteen years. When you finally step off that stage you'll be just a man, but you won't ever forget how you became one.