45: Twenty-Five Reasons Why

45: Twenty-Five Reasons Why

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

Twenty-Five Reasons Why

If ever two were one, then surely we.

~Anne Bradstreet

In 1956, after high school graduation, I found myself aboard the Michigan Empire State Express train en route to New York City. Along with a steamer trunk of clothing, I carried my Screen Actors Guild card representing fifteen years of professional childhood acting, modeling, and singing experience punctuated by hours of piano study and competitions. My parents had invested in me; the New York trip was a gift, their way of giving me wings. I wanted to make them proud. Always the obedient Catholic daughter, my pattern of daily life had been cut with my mother’s scissors. I was leaving behind a childhood I had never visited.

Like many other ingénues harboring dreams of Broadway and billboards, I moved into the prestigious Barbizon Hotel for Women on East 63rd Street. The hotel’s previous residents included the likes of Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly. Excitement and possibility coursed through me as I planned my new start in Manhattan. I’d continue my training at the American Theatre Wing, go on casting calls, and seek commercial work and parts in off-Broadway plays.

What I hadn’t planned on was the loneliness. Perhaps that’s what drove me inside the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer one afternoon as I walked down busy Lexington Avenue. I had stopped to admire the church’s magnificent architecture and suddenly remembered a prayer card I’d once found: St. Francis, please lead me to those I seek and to those who are seeking me.

An invisible hand seemed to push me inside the attached five-story brick priory that day. There I found Father Francis. He wore a white robe and a long rosary around his neck. He extended a warm hand. I laughed at his introduction. “Really?” I said. “Francis?” Then I told him about the prayer card.

He seemed amused. “Do you often pray to St. Francis?”

I blushed. “Only when seeking God’s direction.”

“Well, then.” His eyes looked into mine. “God has directed you to me.”

Father Francis became my spiritual advisor and friend. His church became a refuge from the chaotic city. On certain nights, I’d rush from the theater straight to St. Vincent’s to watch cloistered monks chant the evening service. Amazingly, I learned that Father Francis had a theatre background. In addition to his theological wisdom, this Dominican priest knew the lure of the stage as well as its pitfalls.

One day, feeling disillusioned by the proverbial “casting couch,” I told Father Francis that I was thinking of giving it all up to become a nun, something I had considered as a young teenager. “I saw an ad for the Carmelite Sisters of St. Teresa,” I explained, waiting for his enthusiastic response. “I’ve started my application.”

Father Francis chuckled. “Jocelyn, my dear, do you realize that the Carmelites take a perpetual vow of silence? You wouldn’t last a day!”

Then he told me I should start dating.

Strangely, a few days later, I got a phone call from a man who introduced himself as a friend of Bill Friedberg, the jewelry store owner I had worked for before leaving Detroit. “Bill gave me your number,” the stranger on the phone said. He introduced himself as Byron Krieger, also from Detroit, and in New York for the week. After a bit of small talk, Byron casually mentioned that he was an athlete — a fencer — training for his second Olympics. I was impressed. Then he asked, “Would you be interested in having lunch with me?”

I smiled, thinking about the Carmelite application still sitting on my desk. “Sure.”

We arranged to meet at the theater after my morning rehearsal. “How will I recognize you?” I asked.

“I’ll be wearing a blue suit. Just look for my fencing pin on the lapel.”

I didn’t tell him I was nearsighted.

I stepped out of the theater the next morning wondering if Father Francis would approve of a blind date.

And then I saw him. We moved toward each other like magnets. My heart was pounding. Byron was tall and trim and exceptionally handsome, with dark hair and blue eyes.

He looked surprised as he approached me. “You’re . . . so young!”

I guess Mr. Friedberg forgot to tell Byron that I was still a teenager. I was afraid to ask Byron’s age.

He took me to lunch at the Penthouse Club overlooking Central Park. I could barely appreciate the spectacular view as I couldn’t take my eyes off Byron. The minutes turned to hours, and our conversation flowed. Later, we strolled down Fifth Avenue.

He called me the next day. Would I help him shop for a wedding gift for a friend of his? Between the china and linens at Bloomingdale’s, Byron’s hand found mine.

The next night, we sat in box seats for the show Damn Yankees. By the third act, Byron’s arm slid around me. I could barely breathe.

The next day, I watched him practice at the Fencers Club. Byron, decked out in a white uniform and brandishing his foil, charged down the strip toward his opponent. The strength and grace in his movements captivated me. My knight in white armor! I was in love.

Saturday night was our last evening together before he left for the Olympics in Melbourne. We danced the tango in a candlelit restaurant. After dinner, I knew it was time to ask the questions I’d been afraid to ask, and Byron seemed to avoid. I learned that he had been briefly married, was a non-religious Jew, and thirty-six years old. Three strikes.

I tried pushing this new knowledge out of my mind as Byron took me on a late-night horse and carriage ride around Central Park. He turned my face toward his and kissed me for the first time.

The next day, Byron left for Australia, and I ran to St. Vincent’s. I cried to Father Francis, “What am I supposed to do?”

“Wait for Byron to come back. Then get to know him better.”

“But he’s Jewish!”

Father Francis grinned. “So was Jesus.”

“And he’s seventeen years older than me!”

“So, get him a wheelchair.”

I stared at Father. “And he’s divorced.”

“We’ll cross that bridge . . .”

I saw tears in Father’s eyes. What was he trying to tell me? St. Francis, please lead me to those I seek and to those who are seeking me.

Father Francis remained my lifelong friend until his death a few years ago. And I married Byron and we both became observant Jews.

We had fifty-seven wonderful years together until Byron passed away at age ninety-five. Our union resulted in six children, sixteen grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren — twenty-five human reminders that the synchronicity of finding the prayer card and walking into the priory changed my life forever.

~Jocelyn Ruth Krieger

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