I first met Vanessa Gleason on Christmas Eve. Oh, I’m Pastor Dan Jacobson, pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church. I came to check things out for my Christmas Eve service and there she was next to the Nativity Scene. She turned toward me, holding a baby. I sensed the tension in her. I’m sure with the light behind me, she couldn’t see who I was right away.
I approached slowly, and she immediately relaxed when she realized I was a man of the cloth, and mistaking me for a priest. Normal mistake, many people mistook me for a priest. I'm sure it's the collar.
The baby wasn’t hers, she explained. She found it next to the crèche. Naturally, I was suspicious. Was she trying to pull a fast one? Her annoyance didn’t escape me as she pushed the note in my hand. Not that it proved anything, she could have written it. Thing is, she looked me in the eye, and I’ve discovered people who are lying don’t look you in the eye.
Her eyes held sorrow, grief. This was a woman who was suffering. We sat down, and I asked if she had children. Tears instantly sprang to her eyes. Slowly but surely, the story came out. She had a two year old daughter, whose father demanded custody, threatening Vanessa if she didn’t agree. She had no choice or chance of getting her daughter back if she didn’t take the money he offered and leave.
It wasn’t long before someone else entered the church. The baby’s mother raced toward us, crying. The poor girl was at wit’s end, not knowing where to turn. When she saw Vanessa come into the church, something made her scribble a note and run out. But, she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t leave her baby.
I knew I should call the police, but Vanessa came to the rescue, insisting the girl and baby stay with her. It was Christmas Eve and after the tale Vanessa just told me about her own child, well heck, how could I possibly call the police? So I got the address where they were staying and let them go, figuring I’d check on them later. Besides, I wanted to see Vanessa again.
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Vanessa’s stomach tensed. She had to get out of here. Needed some air, needed to escape.
She got in her car and started driving, to where was anyone’s guess. The quaintness of Strongsville, Ohio, especially the town square with the gazebo with all the Christmas decorations, brought tears to her eyes. Vanessa wiped the tears away and parked the car. Shoppers and carolers filled the sidewalks. Ignoring them, Vanessa hurried past decorated shops until she came to a small church. St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, the sign out front said. Two huge wreaths hung on the heavy oak doors. The small white building beckoned to her.
Vanessa opened the door, walked up the steps and stood at the entrance. The quiet of the empty church filled her soul. It had been too long since she had attended services. Charles wasn’t particularly religious, but at least he had allowed her to have Alyssa baptized. She should have gone to church more often by herself, but after spending Saturday evening at the club, it was all too easy to sleep in on Sunday morning.
Light showed through the stained glass windows, illuminating the red carpet-covered aisle way. A nativity scene at the front captured her attention and drew her forward. Memories from her childhood flashed through her mind.
Her father always helped set up the nativity at church when she was a little girl, and they let her put Baby Jesus in the crèche. A noise came from the side aisle, interrupting her thoughts. Vanessa stopped, saw a flash of red and the side door slammed. Funny, she hadn’t noticed anyone else when she came in.
Oh, well, Vanessa shrugged and continued to the front and knelt down. What in the world? Next to the nativity scene sat a car seat. An infant, three, maybe four months old with dark curly hair, opened its almond shaped dark eyes and reached its chubby arms out to her.
“What have we here?” Vanessa unbuckled the seat belt. “Hello, precious.” She picked up the baby and a note fell on the diaper bag next to the car seat. Vanessa picked up the paper and read the scribbled words.
Please take care of my baby. Her name is Grace. Mary.
“Who could leave someone as precious as you?” Vanessa looked around. No one lurked in the shadows. Who left the baby? How long had she been here? God, what should she do? The baby cuddled against her. Vanessa inhaled the sweet smell of baby lotion, bringing back memory of Alyssa. Tears filled her eyes. For a minute, she was tempted to take the baby and leave, but she couldn’t do it.
Startled, when the door at the back of the church slammed, Vanessa turned toward the sound. A shadow loomed at the entrance and moved toward her. A tall figure walked down the aisle, checking the pews along the way. Vanessa hugged the baby against her, held her breath, and let it out when she saw who it was.
“Father, I’m glad you’re here. I came in here and found this baby. I was just about to call the police.”
“I’m a minister, not a priest. Pastor Dan Jacobson, Pastor Dan will do,” he said. “You found a baby?” His brown eyes sparkled with a glint of gold below raised eyebrows. “Who do you suppose it belongs to?”
“Yes, I ... uh.” The look on his face told her he didn’t believe her. Heck, she could have pretended Grace was hers. He wouldn’t have known. “When I came in someone ran out through that side door. I came up here to see the nativity scene and….” Vanessa walked away and sat in a pew, cradling the baby against her chest. What was the use, he didn’t believe her. She didn’t need this. Not now. She had enough problems of her own.
“I see, pretty little thing, boy or girl?” Vanessa stood and took a step closer to him. “Girl.” She stopped next to him. “You aren’t suggesting this child is mine, are you?” Vanessa looked him straight in the eyes. How dare he? Minister or not, what gave him the right? “Look, I came in here and found the baby. I told you someone ran out that door.” Vanessa took a deep breath, let out an angry sigh. “Here.” She pushed the note toward him. “This was lying on the diaper bag. I didn’t touch anything else.”
Pastor Dan stared at her, like he was studying her.
Vanessa stared back at him. Disbelief showed in his face. Like she’d try to pull off such a stunt? Imagine her abandoning a baby like this. The memory of Alyssa, clinging to her when Charles tore her away, flashed in her mind. Even now, Alyssa’s cries when Charles slammed the door ripped her apart.
Pastor Dan brought her back to awareness. “I see. Well, I guess we’ll have to call Social Services.” He read the note, then picked up the diaper bag and looked through it.
Grace squirmed in Vanessa’s arms and began to cry.
“Probably hungry.” Vanessa hummed and cuddled the baby and rocked her.
Pastor Dan pulled out a bottle of formula.
The warmth of the baby against her chest opened a hole in her heart, missing Alyssa even more. Her insides trembled, tears burned her eyes, threatened to fall.
“You have children?” Pastor Dan’s tone softened.
A tear escaped, fell on her cheek. She nodded, a lump caught in her throat.
“One.” Vanessa choked out the word.
“Two.” The tears burst forth as if a damn had been unleashed. “I’m....” Vanessa couldn’t speak. She turned away, held back the tears, and paced across the front to the nativity scene, leaving him standing there.
Attractive woman and she held the baby like she cared about it. Was she trying to pull a fast one? Yet, something about her suggested she was telling the truth. Her eyes—that was it. She had honest eyes. Dan laughed inwardly. What was it with him and people’s eyes? He’d learned over the years that people telling the truth looked you in the eyes, whereas liars looked away, over your head, or down at the floor. This woman looked him full in the eyes.
And he’d gone and made her mad. She didn’t look like the sort of person he wanted mad at him. No, she looks like the sort of person who needed help. Like someone he wanted to know better. No wedding ring, but the pale mark on her tanned finger indicated she wore one recently.
Something bothered her, an inner conflict. The baby wasn’t hers, but there was something. A sorrow in her eyes, a deep hurt on her face. He had seen that look before, usually someone suffering from grief. He wanted to know more about this mysterious woman who showed up in his church and found a baby.