To St. Anthony, in Gratitude for Favors Received

When you're enjoying an unusually peaceful Sunday Mass -- because your squirmy eleven month old is home with Dad, and your mother is in town and exerting a calming influence on his not-quite-three-year-old brother, and you remembered to pack the milk and bagel and other amusements that keep him still and satisfied through at least the first half of the liturgy -- and then, just as the offertory is coming to an end, your toddler climbs into your lap and takes your hand and asks, "Can I wear your ring?" you just might say yes.

You will think, "No, that's a bad idea. This is my engagement ring. It has a diamond. He is two. He cannot appreciate its value in either financial or sentimental terms. I should say no." But then you might think, "He's being so good and sweet. And taking the ring off and on could keep him quiet for at least some of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. And if I say no he will probably ask again, louder, because remembering to whisper is not his strong suit...."

They say becoming a parent changes your priorities. It would be nice to think that means it teaches you to value people before things (as my local La Leche League leader likes to remind us to do). But it may be that caring for a toddler simply conditions you to focus entirely on short-term consequences. So then you might say, "OK, but you have to sit in my lap," and think you've found a way to keep him still and keep the ring in your sights. Everybody wins.

And then the deacon motions for everyone to stand, so you hoist your child up in your arms and watch him sliding the ring up and down his little fingers as you answer the prayers, and then he suddenly jerks forward and fumbles with his hands, and the ring disappears.

Now you know for certain that you were right: allowing a not-yet-three-year-old child to play with an engagement ring is a bad idea. You also know that you will not be enjoying any more of this nice, quiet, prayerful Mass, because you're scanning the pew in front of you for any sign of your ring. It made no sound when it dropped. You didn't see it fall or bounce, not even a flash as it disappeared from view. You can't imagine where it could have gone. You check the rolled-up cuffs of your toddler's too-long 3T dress pants, and his pockets. No. Not in the pew-back rack with the hymnals; not anywhere on the floor. Your list of likely hiding places narrows down to the one place you can't hunt: the purse of the woman in the pew in front of you, the bag you were standing above when your kid dropped the ring. The slouchy one with all the pockets and nooks and crannies. The one you can only stare at while she prays, oblivious to your panic.

Meanwhile your child, who knows that you are unhappy and feels, not responsible, but concerned in a disinterested sort of way, will be not-whispering, "Mommy, where's the ring? Where did it go? Did you find it yet? ...THERE it is!" indicating your wedding band, the one with the slim profile that fits so nicely up against the engagement ring you've lost. The fact that your toddler can't tell the difference between a ring with a diamond and a plain band just reminds you how very stupid it was to hand him an engagement ring to amuse himself with in the first place. "Mommy is very sad about that ring," you say, thinking it will help somehow to impress on him the gravity of this loss. He leans back in your arms, studies your face, sees no tears. "Now you're not so sad," he says, reassuring himself.

You can't rifle through this woman's purse in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, so you resist the urge, figuring you'll wait till the end of Mass to bother her with your problem. But then you think, What if she's one of those people who leaves after Communion? What if she throws her purse over her shoulder, receives the host, and walks out the door? So, as the sign of peace approaches, you swallow your pride, tap her on the shoulder, and say, "Uh, my son...."

This stranger, bless her, interrupts her heretofore very focused prayers to do a vigorous full-purse search, shaking out her wallet and everything. No luck. After Communion she tries again, even searching under the pews and kneelers you can't reach. At the end of Mass, she takes your phone number so she can contact you if the ring turns up.

The church is emptying out now, and will soon be filling up for the next Mass. The two-year-old is wondering whether he will get to spin the pinwheels in the garden outside, his usual reward for good (or, more typically, not-awful) behavior. "Mommy, are you very sad? Or just a little bit sad?" He does not know how to read this situation. He clearly just wants to put all this unpleasantness behind him.

A man on his way out the door sees you on your hands and knees, peering under pews, and orders his ten-year-old son to get down and hunt with you. You take your toddler to the bathroom and shake out all his clothes. Finally, you thank the man and his son for their assistance and give up the search. There are only two things left to do: stop at the rectory to leave your name, in case someone finds it and turns it in; and say a prayer to St. Anthony and light a votive candle (well, "candle") in front of his statue on the way out. St. Anthony is so popular today in this Italian parish that all of the electric candles in his section of the rack have been lit, so you have to pick one in the section for the less-popular St. Patrick, but you figure it still counts. For good measure, you let your two-year-old press the button that turns the light on. (You also let him spin the pinwheels outside.) Then, you go home.

You're trying not to take this out on the kid, because it's really not his fault -- he didn't mean to drop the ring, and his carelessness was totally predictable. But he's not the one who has to tell his father what happened, and with that in your future you can't help being a little bit brusque. Daddy pales at the news. Lunch is a somber affair. Your two-year-old doesn't even finish his macaroni and cheese, and he loves mac and cheese. You wonder at his lack of appetite, but you're too distracted to think about it much.

He escapes to the playroom for a few minutes of solitude before naptime. Then Nana steps in to take the boy upstairs, change his diaper, read him stories, tuck him in for his nap. It's a good thing, because you don't have the heart for it. You keep checking your phone for a call or a text from the lady with the purse, but it is silent. They climb the steps, and after a moment, your mother shouts your name.

"I found it!" she says. "It was in his diaper!"

You run upstairs to fetch the ring, put it safely on your finger without even stopping to wash it, and tell your son, "Mommy is very happy now," hoping he'll forget the morning's distress. Then back downstairs with the baby, the one who will never know the simple pleasure of sliding his fat fingers into Mommy's engagement ring, and into the playroom, where you discover that your oldest son has worked out his anxiety over the morning's events in crayon all over the walls. He even stood on a chair to scribble on the windowpane. This is something he never does, something he knows well that he must not do. Normally he has no problems following that rule, but today, in those unsupervised moments after lunch, when he was still trying to shake the sense of being out of Mommy's good graces for reasons he couldn't grasp, he must have thought, Why not? Why shouldn't my behavior match the way I feel?

You know you'll have to scold him, but you can't really be mad. This, thank God, is a problem you can fix. Even, perhaps, a penance.

Maybe it's experiences like this that keep us Catholics so devoted to St. Anthony, who takes our petty concerns into his care and receives our sheepish thanks. He's the saint we invoke in those moments when our priorities collide, when we're anxious about something that our faith tells us doesn't really matter, but that we're not ready to give up caring about. St. Anthony always comes through, my own Nana told me -- I remember hunting in the lawn outside her house for some piece of jewelry, a plastic charm I'd dropped and couldn't go on without. She was patient enough to hunt for it with me instead of just telling me it didn't really matter, and she taught me to pray my way through the worry, however trivial that worry was. I hope my son is learning at least that much from me. And I have a renewed faith in the intercessory power of St. Anthony, the saint who holds the Christ Child yet doesn't roll his eyes -- or so we imagine -- at the lesser things that we hold dear.

It might have been better for my character if I'd lost that ring for good, to teach me a lesson about worldly attachments, or maybe just about reasonable expectations for toddler behavior. But it certainly would not have been better for my marriage, or for my relationship with my son. Now that I have it back, I hope it will always remind me of the morning I spent feeling irritated at my little boy, only to discover, just as I was losing hope, that he was carrying around a diamond in his diaper.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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