Kristyna Jadwiga Rychter Mercer died Saturday, September 3rd, after a fifteen-year journey into the numbing snowstorm of Alzheimer’s disease. Born seventy-five years ago in war-torn Europe, Kris’s American persona was so complete that most never knew she came from the rubble of a distant planet. But much like famed immigrant Clark Kent before her, her superpowers were numerous.
To consider, a partial list: her beauty was so renowned that as a newborn, three German families tried to purchase her from her work camp hospital near Hornburg, Germany. It was also near Hornburg that her mother Helena, father Jan, and sister Barbara awaited their fate — whether they would get a chance to sail to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or if they would be sent back to the uncertainty of Poland and the Eastern Bloc. When the miracle came in 1951 and she and her family earned a coveted passage to Ellis Island on a steam tramper, it was remarked that the Statue of Liberty herself winked at four-year-old Kris. To this day, people say that as stunning as she was on the outside, Kris’s real beauty lay within.
Kris’s second superpower was the sharp intelligence she used as a shield. Growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania, she was a strong student at St. Hedwig’s Catholic Church, where the masses were Latin, the nuns strict, and the Polish-immigrant community tight-knit. She kept to herself and claimed to have read every last book of the Notre Dame high school library. Though she could be considered aloof by some, Kris kept a keen eye on her classmates, developing a firm grasp of all gossip, and remaining determined to stay out of it. Deep inside, Kris maintained faith that she could make an unlikely second exodus onward from her gritty Polish enclave and into the heart of the American dream itself. While catching the eye of every Tomasz, Dmitri, and Harry in the neighborhood, Kris made sure to get good grades, take her night classes, and achieve what was then considered the pinnacle of ambition for an immigrant high school grad: pool secretary at an office.
It was there, at the offices of American Viscose in the curious industrial city of Marcus Hook, that one day her knight in shining armor walked in, a funny-looking new textile engineer sent up from Eastern North Carolina. Young Donald had come to make his name in the world of “artificial silk,” now called rayon. When Donald first saw Kristyna, he declared her to be the prettiest girl in the world, to which her only reply was that he “talked funny.” He countered, to their co-workers’ great disbelief, that he would marry her. But what they couldn’t see was that in this redheaded, skinny Southern boy, Kristyna had identified a partner who matched her steely intelligence, her wide ambition, and her love of people, adventure, and family. To everyone’s surprise, the kid from the sticks’ premonition proved true, and six months later, Kris married Don on December 2, 1967, at St. Hedwig’s Church, where legend has it even the fussy old nuns kicked up their heels at the basement after-party. Kris was always grateful to her mother Helena for bringing her to this new world, and like her mother before her, Kris knew she needed to ship out in search of a better life.
She immigrated again, this time from the North to the South, landing in Richmond, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia, before finally settling down in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In each of these cities, she inserted herself so effortlessly into the social fabric that most could not begin to fathom the hardship, determination, and lucky breaks required to earn a starter home in the suburbs. In the nursery of these split-level ranch homes, she brought two children into the world, son Jason and daughter Vanessa, and a raft of pets: dogs, cats, hamsters, and snakes among them. To her children she bestowed her lifelong love of reading—always working through several books on the nightstand—and lo the worlds those pages opened up to her. She traveled to the past, present, and future across the universe as surely as she had crossed the ocean: potboilers like Ludlum, Grishman, and Michener, mysteries sleuthed by Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot and Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling, and literary sensations like Salmon Rushdie and Toni Morrisson and William Somerset Maugham and John Irving—to Kris, the world was always according to Garp.
Kris traveled between all these spheres as a professional outsider: observant, curious, and deeply touched by the people she met during her all-too brief stay on our planet. She learned to travel with her home in her heart, keeping her motives pure despite the turbulence so many transitions caused. Every once in a while, the facade would lift and she would shout flawless Polish to alert her stepfather Eugene that the Oldsmobile he was piloting had indeed missed that exit on I-95.
Kris was a friend to all who met her as well as an avid tennis player, a fan of felines, and a tolerator of dogs (no yapping, please). She was an early booster of bagels, when the sight of one of those “funny-looking donuts” would cause quite a stir in a Southern home. A lifelong film buff, she dragged her children to anything long, complicated, and filled with period dialogue–as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars multiple times. She loved sitting in the dark as these cinematic sensations unspooled, and she insisted upon engaging her fellow movie-goers who sat near her, whether they wanted to chat or not. It was at movie theaters where she revealed herself to be a champion of unloved candies. (Yes, she was the one who unfailingly bought that dusty box of Jordan Almonds at Litchfield Cinemas.) She brought the cinema experience with her wherever she went. You knew she would be arriving soon in her convertible when you heard the relentless beat of Chariots of Fire or the fiery tenors of The Phantom of the Opera blocks away.
In terms of correspondence, she was ahead of her time, predating Facebook by several decades with her habit of sending bizarre newspaper clippings to her children—including snippets about Long Island Lolitas and snakes in Florida outhouses sprinkled amongst the graduation notices and achievements of friends. She also used her considerable social grace, intelligence, and grit to fundraise for the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Guild and the Chambliss Center for Children.
Of all her gifts, Kris’s greatest superpower was her fearlessness. At age 48, she dared to jump off New Zealand’s Kawaru Bridge, the world’s first permanent bungee jump site. She hiked along the Great Wall of China and explored beneath the Great Pyramids of Giza. She skied Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and enjoyed more than a few glasses of wine along the Champs-Élysées. She returned to Poland with her children, communing with relatives cut-off for a half-century by the Iron Curtain, while also visiting the world’s largest underground salt mine in Wieliczka (yes, there’s an actual cathedral carved out of salt three-hundred feet below) and bearing witness to her homeland’s transformation in the years after the Soviet Union.
Kris never met anyone she did not like and appreciate. She also insisted on listening to talk radio at all times, no matter that the subject often tended towards things she cared very little about (sorry college football!). She was a colorful driver, aiming her sharp tongue at any “jabroni” who dared cut her off. She was a one-woman army against Pollack jokes and would go so far as to interrupt strangers to spoil a punchline (“Let me save you the time. The Polish bride is the only one who didn’t shave under her arms”), flatly declare the premise false, and sashay out of the ladies bathroom.
Kris loved feeling alive and connected to current events. She read Time magazine every week (a major source of those early clippings) and got swept up into the Jazzercise craze of ‘85 an appropriate amount. She clamored for Broadway musicals (she was low-key proud that her 12-year old son resembled “Little Orphan Annie,” the lead character of her favorite Broadway musical) and fed off the energy of New York’s glamour and nightlife and shopping. In 1983, she walked down the largest red carpet in the world at The Night of the 100 Stars event and rubbed elbows with Liza Minnelli, Lana Turner, Walter Cronkite, Robin Williams, and Princess Grace Kelly. It was Kris’s smile, though, that outshone them all.
She believed in the beauty of the human soul, that everyone had a redeeming quality. After getting her associates degree by night at University of Richmond, she worked as a paralegal with personal-injury powerhouse Allen, Allen, Allen, & Allen. She always worked to be a better person. She took photography classes, computer lessons, and even swimming lessons at the YMCA in Petersburg, Virginia, while her children watched from the stands.
Kris is survived by her mother Helena Olsziewski and her sister Barbara Hentosh as well as by her adoring husband Donald Glenn Mercer, son Jason, daughter Vanessa, son-in-law Byron, daughter-in-law Meghan, and grandchildren Harper, Rhodes, August, Ezekiel, and Orion. She is preceded in death by her father Jan Rychter and her stepfather Eugene Olsziewski. A funeral mass for family was held Wednesday, September 7th, with a Celebration of Life event to be held later in the fall. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made on Kris’s behalf to the Tivoli Restoration Foundation.
Arrangements are by Heritage Funeral Home & Crematory, Battlefield Parkway