"I don't want to go," said six-year-old Ruben, with his hands placed firmly on his hips.
"Don't want to go where?" Ruben's dad, Nic, asked as he rolled back on his heels from where he was kneeling in the rose bed.
"To the family playground picnic," Ruben said.
"I thought you wanted to see all your playground friends. We just baked cookies and made the sandwiches," his father said.
"We're not going because everyone will be there with their families," said Ruben. "Jason who lives down the street has two big brothers, a sister, and a mom. Our family does not have a mom and I do not have sisters and brothers so we can't go. We aren't a real family," he continued.
"Hmmm," said Nic, standing up. "Let's sit on the garden bench and talk."
Ruben sat on the wrought iron bench he and his dad had picked out for the garden. Ruben snuggled into his father's arms and felt safe.
"Ruben," said his father, "It sounds like you are worried about what others think. We are a family and so are the others you mentioned. There are all kinds of families. Let's go to the playground and see what we notice about how different and the same families are."
"Do we have to?" Ruben asked.
"Yes, we do," said Nic.
Later that afternoon, Ruben and Nic walked down to the playground on Besta Street. Ruben's dad carried the picnic basket and Ruben carried the red picnic blanket. Ruben peeked through the playground fence. The playground was busy with a lot of people, some he knew and others he didn't.
"Do we have to go?" Ruben tried one more time.
"Yes," Ruben's dad said.
They spread the picnic blanket on the ground by a newly planted tree. Ruben munched on a cheese sandwich while he looked over the crowd.
There was Hannah and her grandma and grandpa. Hannah and her brother, Jake, were living with her grandparents while their parents served in the military overseas. Hannah and Ruben like to swing high on the swing set.
A mom helped a set of triplets get a drink of water at the water fountain. They were in kindergarten and not quite tall enough to reach the spigot. Her name was Nancy and she brought the triplets to the playground each day when she was working at home. Sometimes Nancy flew to Hong Kong and other places for work and then the babysitter, Cassandra, brought the triplets to play.
Ralph, Ruben's best playground friend, came running over and yelled, "Hey, Ruben, I want you to meet my dads!"
"Dads?" asked Ruben. "How did you get two?"
"Just lucky," said Ralph. "That's why I'm so super at baseball. If one of my dads gets tired out, there's another one to take my wild pitches." Ralph acted out his very unique way of pitching a baseball, which involved multiple steps in a circle and a rotating arm. He looked a little like a windmill going crazy.
Ruben's dad smiled at Ralph's antics as he shook hands with both of Ralph's dads named Marcello and Clyde.
"Nice to meet you," Nic said. "I often wish that I had the energy of two for following around Ruben."
Just then the playground director, Ginny, came by and said, "Hey, everyone, games start in ten minutes. I hope you are ready to throw some water balloons."
Ralph started to warm up his pitch and everyone stepped back two steps, hoping not to get hit by a swinging arm.
Later that night Ruben and his dad walked home in silence. As they entered their yard, they sat down on the wrought iron bench. Nic waited as the stars twinkled and the bullfrog in the pond sang to them. Finally he asked the question.
"So, Ruben, what did you learn tonight?"
Ruben took a deep breath and launched into his answer.
"I learned that all families are different. And I learned that all families can have fun and I learned that sometimes you have to do things you are not sure will turn out okay."
"Good job," said Nic, "but there's one other message I'd like you to learn about tonight."
Ruben thought and thought. Finally, Nic said, "Look at that rose bush. It's growing. What does it need to grow?"
"The rose needs water and sun and dirt," said Ruben, not quite sure of the connection between the rose bush and families.
"The rose needs love, too," said Nic, gently. "Even with the basics, the rose still needs weeding and fertilizing and mulching to keep it safe."
"I get it, Dad," exclaimed Ruben. "Love grows all kinds of families!"
"You got it, Ruben. No matter the color, shape, or size of a family, love helps it grow."