Firstborn by Don Noel

She looks for Stanley every morning in the vastness of Saint Anthony’s Cathedral.  Walking slowly down the long center aisle, she glances discreetly at the few others who have come for the seven o’clock Mass.  At the altar rail, she genuflects to the Christ silhouetted against the brightness of the stained glass, and turns right to light a candle at the statue of the saint, patron of lost things and missing persons.  She kneels a moment by the flickering bank, then stands to survey the sea of hard-backed pews, still nearly empty, before retreating to her usual spot near the back.

She is a fixture there:  Mary Margaret O’Brien, but Granny to everyone, an Irish biddy offering solace to people like Stanley.  A petite woman, weathered face tightly framed in a black bonnet and nun-like dress that make her blue eyes more arresting through cut-rim glasses.  In her rebellious youth she would have become a priest, had Rome allowed it, but never thought twice about entering a convent.  She thought subservience to God a blessing, but not servility to priests, and settled for a life as aide to the sisters in the parochial school.

Although her prayers are of thankfulness for what she has, rather than seeking divine intervention for herself, she often brings others to God’s attention.  In this composed, serene moment of her day, she is on the lookout for those whose body language or tearful faces reveal them as anything but composed and serene.

She hurries back to meet those troubled souls in the narthex.  “Child,” she says, “you seem to be hurting.”  With her white hair, she can get away with calling anyone child.  “Is there anything I can do to help?  I’m Granny O’Brien.”  After long years in classrooms, she is a good listener, less threatening than the men in the confessionals because she doesn’t mete out penances.

“Granny, I get so angry at my daughter that I hit her.”  “I can’t stop eating, and my husband says I’m too fat.”  “I lust after my neighbor.”  She has heard all the deadly sins and dozens of lesser frailties.  Most people who face decisions, she thinks, know what they ought to do.  Talking it through, they usually find their way to the right choice, and she can say, “Good for you, dear.”  If they don’t, she may say, “Let’s both think about it, and pray, and talk again soon?”  They usually come back with the right decisions.  The conversations often continue at the coffee shop across the square.  She gives her number to a select few so they can phone and come for a shoulder to cry on – or occasionally, to shed tears of joy on.

She first met Stanley on a lovely June morning when he came on the Feast of Saint Anthony.  His dark business suit, plain tie and shined shoes announced that he would spend the rest of the day at a well-paid job in some office, but she read in his face the need for something money could not buy.

She waited for him in the narthex.  “You must be here with a special prayer to Saint Anthony,” she guessed.

“How did you know?  I’ve lost my son.”

“Lost him?  When?  Where?”

“A few weeks after he was born.  His mother took him away.  Years ago.”

“Oh, my!  You must tell me more.”

Her intuition must have given him confidence.  He unburdened himself with great candor over the first of what would become many coffees.  He had been married at twenty-two, a college graduate beginning his ascent in banking.  “She was a waitress where I breakfasted, a smashing girl with hair that matched mine.”  He took from his wallet a worn photograph of a golden-crowned young beauty hardly out of her teens.  “Christina.  She had come to the city after high school somewhere in Texas.”

“A saintly name.”

“She confessed she had not always been saintly, Granny, but made a new start with me.”  They loved deeply, he said; they could hardly bear being apart when the bank sent him, soon after the wedding, to a weeklong seminar in New York.  “We couldn’t wait to be back together.”  He blushed.  “I am embarrassed to say, back in bed together.”

“Passion with your wife is nothing to be ashamed of, Stanley.  It is a sign of a good marriage.”

“We made love that night and next morning, and a few weeks later I was overjoyed to learn she was pregnant.”  He was an attentive father-to-be, and her pregnancy was uneventful.  They brought the new-born baby here to be christened Stanley Kaminski Junior.  And then Christina took him away.  He came home from the bank one day to find her note on the kitchen table:  “Sorry.  Going home,” was all it said.

Granny could only imagine how distraught he’d been.  The police put out a missing-person notice with the same picture he showed her, because the baby in the family christening photo looked like every baby.  The Texas police circulated the picture, but warned that she had probably cut and dyed her hair to become unrecognizable, and indeed she was not found.

“It was suffocating.  I was so distracted that I almost lost my job.”  He never stopped grieving for his son, but after two years stopped longing for Christina, had the marriage annulled, and re-married.  Happily.  “Two girls, and teen and a pre-teen.”

“Your wife knows about your first marriage?”

“She is a generous woman.  She would happily take my son into our family if we could find him.”  The bank had made him not rich, but more than comfortable, and he had a house in the suburbs with an extra, waiting bedroom.  An irregular but faithful Catholic, he prayed whenever he came that his firstborn child be found, and never failed to come for the Feast of Saint Anthony.

“Then you know the novena to the saint?”

“Saint Anthony,” he recited, “who received from God the special gift of restoring lost things, grant that I may find the son I have lost.”

“At least restore to me peace and tranquility,” she completed the classic prayer.  “May I always remain in possession of the true good that is God.  Let me rather lose all things than lose God, my supreme good.”

“I come every feast day, and say the novena,” he said.

“And repeat it every day for nine days?”

“Of course.”

“I will join you in that prayer this very day,” she assured him.  “I will say it every day, all year.  I believe your prayers will be answered.”

He came the next eight days.  After a few coffees at the shop, she invited him to her sparsely prim apartment, antimacassar doilies on the only two comfortable chairs in the sitting-room, half-facing each other and looking out at the tall cathedral, sipping from the gold-veined porcelain cups she had from her grandmother, God rest her soul.

He became her special case.  When Christmas came, he took her to his house for a glass of sherry, so she met his wife Peggy and their daughters and saw the yearning, empty bedroom.  He phoned her now and then, and the holiday visit became a ritual.

She had not known the boy’s exact birthday until Stanley asked her to meet at church the day he turned eighteen -- the age of emancipation -- so she could add her prayers directly to his.  “I wonder if he knows his real name?” he mused as they emerged into the sunlight.  Maybe, she said, but maybe not.  She went back to pray more insistently on his behalf.  She was still ardent and confident in prayer.

His jubilant call came only a few days later: “Granny, he’s found me!”

She went straight across to the church to offer a prayer of thanksgiving and stand outside to wait for him.

“Christina had remarried,” he told her, “but she had him keep my name.”

“So the boy knew her new husband was a stepfather?”

“Exactly.  Finally, she told him I might still live here somewhere.”

“Our prayers have not been in vain,” Granny said.  “How did he find you?”

“Would you believe?  He got a phone book and called every Kaminski in the book.  He had a new cell phone with all those free minutes.  He spent a couple of nights at it.”

“And finally got to you?”

“I answered the phone, and this strange young voice said ‘Hello.  My name is Stan Kaminski Junior.  I’m calling from Texas, looking for a Stanley Kaminski who had a son eighteen years ago.’”

“Thank you, Saint Anthony.”

“Granny, my heart about stopped.  My tongue felt trapped in my mouth.  Finally I said ‘I’m the father you’re looking for.’  I think that’s exactly the way I put it, because he said ‘At last!  Hello, Dad!’ and we both burst out crying.”

“Oh, Stanley,” she said.  “I’m so glad for you.”

“It was your prayers that helped him find me.”

“No, praise the saint.  What happens next?  You’ll go down to see him?”

“He’s coming here.  Next week Wednesday, by bus.”

“You’ll bring him?”

“Of course.  How about Thursday morning?  Ten o’clock?”

“Oh, yes!”  She was so happy for him that she would have agreed if he’d said two a.m.

She went to church Thursday morning, and prayed that young Stanley would like her.  She bought cookies and soda in case the young man didn’t like tea or coffee.  She was so keyed up by the time Stanley knocked that you’d have thought it was her own son coming.  It wasn’t, of course.

But it wasn’t Stanley’s son, either.  She knew at first glance.  He didn’t look a particle like Stanley.  Different build, different nose, dark hair.

They had coffee.  Young Stan deferentially sat on the hard-backed chair, ate the cookies, and told her about himself.  Stanley must already have heard the whole story, but listened again.  “When I started school, I found out my name was different.  Mom said my real father was dead.”

“And you accepted that?”

“Somehow, Mrs. O’Brien, it didn’t seem right.”

“Granny.”

“Okay.  Granny.”

He had a troubled youth, had to take two primary grades over, but got it together by high school.  His stepfather was kind but not close.  “I began to hope I must have a real Dad somewhere.”

“You prayed to find him?”  She wanted to draw him out, see into his soul as she always tried to do.  She had not yet assimilated the saint’s susceptibility to fraud.

He fidgeted.  “We aren’t a very religious family.”

“Not your fault, dear.  We must remedy that.  When did you begin searching?”

In his senior year, he applied to colleges.  “I was accepted at my first choice, with almost enough scholarship to make it work.”  His guidance counselor – Granny wished it had been a nun – encouraged him to look for his father, and went to the house, urging his mother to help.

But she knew nothing about Stanley’s life after she left him.  “Mom said he could have been dead in a war, or emigrated to Australia, for all she knew.”  Young Stan grinned, apparently remembering that conversation.  “Or a surfer in California.”  All she knew was where they met and married and christened the boy.  “The important thing,” he said, “was that she had no reason to think my father wasn’t still alive.  So I began looking.”

“And now that you’ve found him you’ll come here to live?”  She was still testing him.

“My college is in Texas.  And I love my Mom.  But I hope to come for visits on vacations.”

Either he genuinely wanted to find his father and thought he had, Granny pondered, or he was a very good liar.  He needed help to get through college.  They talked about how long he would stay before starting back, and what he would study, and then went together across the square to pray together.  For the first time in her life, she was uncertain about the efficacy of her entreaties, but took care not to let that show.  “Do you know how to pray, young Stanley?”

“Not really.”

“It isn’t complicated.  Let the silence wash over you, and tell your mind to let go of all thoughts save gratitude for finding your father.  This church is dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of finding things and people.  You should give silent thanks to him.”

They knelt and bowed their heads, but her thanks to the saint stuck in her silent throat.  She wondered what Stanley believed.  He was perhaps in such a fog of happiness that he wouldn’t let anything penetrate the haze.  She hoped so.  Or did he know when this boy got off the bus that it wasn’t his flesh and blood?  Maybe he’d chosen to carry the charade through, make the best of it.

It came to her that when Christina left, she must have been moving away from the boy’s real father, too.  Despite whatever happened in that week Stanley was in New York, she loved him, and didn’t want him to suspect the child wasn’t his, so took the baby away and made a new life.  And now that her son faced the costs of college, she made it possible for him to find Stanley.

Granny found herself able to pray that the guilty mother be absolved.

Young Stan stayed a week before boarding the bus back home with new clothes and a laptop for college and a guitar because he’d always wanted to learn.  Stanley brought her to see him off.  He left her his address in a departure of tears and flapdoodle.

Stanley came back the next morning to thank her for her comfort and prayers.  They walked across to the church to pray together.

She didn’t know what he prayed for.  She prayed that the young man and his mother wouldn’t fleece Stanley too badly.  That he might continue to believe that he and his firstborn child had at last been re-united.

But she knew he had been cheated.  It was weeks before she could bring herself to light a candle at the feet of the saint.  She prayed then for Stanley, for his equanimity, for a fruitful outcome in this hollow father-son convergence.

And it came to her then, in the words of the novena: “At least restore to me peace and tranquility.”  Perhaps Stanley’s peace of mind was best served by believing he had found his son.  Certainly not in discovering his beloved Christina’s infidelity.  Might his joy last and last.

That was a year ago.  He hasn’t been back to Saint Anthony’s.  Hasn’t phoned.  She looks for him every morning in the silence of the vaulted cathedral.  Perhaps he has found another church, nearer his home.  Or another saint.

She prays that his faith has not been shattered beyond reclamation. Nor hers.


Don Noel retired after four decades' prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford CT. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University last year. His work has so far been chosen for publication by Calliope, Shark Reef and Indian River Review.