It begins at an Earth Day fair in 2001. I strike up a conversation with a woman about bluebirds. My mention of being a gardener has her showing me the garden, and the showing of the garden brings an invitation to come join the garden ladies on Tuesday. Hardly a very likely scenario to begin piecing together a woman from three hundred years ago sufficiently to speak as her.

It is, perhaps, because I’m oddly in the bleachers of my own life at the moment, being unemployed and somewhat homeless from yet ANOTHER round of Lyme Disease, that I can say yes, I can come help in the garden on Tuesday at 9:30 in the morning. And I do, and I have a grand time of it too.

While there, I speak at some length to a woman who coordinates all the volunteers. Our conversation is ended by the arrival of another potential volunteer which sends us both out to my car at precisely the time another woman appears out in the woods photographing the wildflowers.

My speaking to this woman about the wildflowers gets me yet another invitation to volunteer at the Madam Brett Homestead for a woods-cleaning project…..and so begins the tale.

It is because this woman speaks of the caretaker, (who takes care of very little) that she has my attention now. Of course I have the Madam Brett house confused with another historical house I pass all the time, but no matter, eventually I am engrossed in cyberhomework, plotting my sneak attack on the caretaker’s position, as I am semi-desperately looking for a place to live, being in a kind friend’s basement at the moment.

Once I realize that I have my Historical Homes crossed, I set out to FIND this Madam  Brett Homestead with GREAT hopes that it will by my new home.

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It is oddly positioned just off the center of the city of Beacon. It is equally oddly exposed on all four sides and seems to be sadly lacking in any fencing or screening or ANYthing to close it off from twenty-first century Beacon. I am not pleased. I wouldn’t want to live here after all. I talk to a workman digging a trench for a spotlight on the flagpole and find out he is NOT our phantom caretaker (who is not on the property at the moment) so I feel pretty free to look around. First I case out the woods where we are to be waging war on Japanese Knotweed to allow what wildflowers there are some room to flourish. I see more poison ivy than makes me comfortable.

From there I begin to inspect the alleged ‘Restored Dutch Gardens’ and am pretty shocked that no one has even cut down last year’s peony foliage. Poor garden. Right there, I decide to volunteer my services HERE in this garden. Let the other folks whack Knotweed and get poison ivy.

Back home, I do some more hunting on the internet, and while most of the sites are indeed about this pristinely restored HOUSE, rescued from a wrecking ball and future supermarket by the local DAR, I am just beginning to get the very first glimpses of this woman, this Madam (hold the ‘e’) Brett who was so unlike the other women of her time.

I’m starting rather blindly here, not seeing nice, clean born/died dates and so I’m still a trifle foggy as to whether she WAS part of the Revolutionary War or not. I try to skirt around by putting different things in the search engines and begin coming up with the TIMES…..the early 1700’s.

Much the way I stumbled upon women in this 21st century with whom to strike up conversations, I stumble reproductions of bible pages that are looking less like history lessons and more like family trees. I can feel myself wanting to fill in the blanks

It seems she married Roger Brett right after her father died and left her a massive piece of land here in Dutchess County. That made sense because of the other sites that pointed out that women just WEREN’T to own land on their own (later I discover that her father died when she was only 4). Seems she had three sons – Francis, Robert and this last name looks like Rivesy. Hmmm, neat name.

Perhaps it was just the cosmic brilliance of finding sites about her and then about the house, and back and forth, but before TOO much longer I am thinking about how grand it would be to PLAY her. There are tours of the house the first Sunday of each month. Wouldn’t it be something to greet the guests and speak to them in the first person.  And the next site gives me just another thread that makes her the tiniest bit more real.

Astonishingly, after her husband dies, she doesn’t re-marry, but goes on to raise her three sons alone and becomes QUITE the businesswoman. Truly astonishing for the time. I wonder if her husband is killed in the war, I still don’t have all my dates straight.

Then I find a note that STRIKES ME. Lt Roger Brett DROWNS in the Hudson River in a storm, knocked off his sloop by the boom. She was widowed by the Mighty Hudson. God, what a story. But it only increases my frustration at how little I can FIND about her. I’m becoming hungry for the rest of the pieces.

Finally, another thread – Her youngest son, Rivesy, dies at the age of 17. But that’s all there is. Nothing will tell me HOW he died. How did she ever stand it, losing her husband and then her youngest? And this woman carried on in spite of what could only be incomprehensible heartbreak. I am approaching awe here. Oh yes, I definitely want to portray her.

I decide to approach Jonathan Kruk, Our Hudson Valley Master Storyteller, to get his feelings on my playing this character. He emails me back that it’s a splendid idea and it would be a pleasure for him to help. He says he has SOME info on her, but the woman who is Regent for the DAR has ALL the information.

With the doing of the cyberhomework, I have her email and I PITCH the idea to her, tossing in the interesting little tidbit of my new-found eligibility for the DAR myself.  Only recently did my older sister discover that our great-great-great-etc-etc grandaddy down the Brumbaugh line, Hermanus Emanuel Brumbaugh, was indeed on a Revolutionary War document (I must have laughed over that for a week. Me, a Daughter of the American Revolution – what a howl)

My email to this Regent is answered quickly and enthusiastically, with her noting that she’s always WISHED someone would do this. But it came with two warnings. One was that all docent work is volunteer, AND that all docent work is done by MEMBERS. Oh my. That means if I want to DO this, I have to officially JOIN the DAR. Best I stop the laughing and start filling out forms.

It doesn’t take me long to scan the past few days for the record number of coincidences that have brought me to where I am at the moment. Of course I’ll join, and I will DO this.

Although I haven’t actually been on stage in many years, I do teach and lecture regularly, but that’s different. I can feel actress-me beginning to rub her hands together. I  begin to imagine not just a presentation as part of the tour, but a being her in a way that leaves those folks feeling like they’d truly MET her. Slowly I  begin to see her sitting with them and telling her story in the first person – really telling them how it felt to lose her husband to the River, what life was like so long ago, and truly sharing the deep, deep sadness of losing her beautiful boy at only 17. And then she would go on, with some adjustment of costume that signifies her passing over, to tell of what came after her passing., As though she had indeed kept watch over this house in which seven generations of her family had lived. And perhaps she would bid the visitors goodbye and just go back out to the garden, leaving them to wonder….

Now I am starved for information. I want to know EVERYthing about her. I march myself right to the Fishkill library, and the librarian gets me three local history books that may not  be taken from the library. I sit with a pad and pen and begin wading through all the STUFF about which land was sold to whom, looking for something REAL.

Already I am making my way through vaguely familiar names. I know the names of everyone in her immediate family and recognize the names of her son, Robert’s children.

I am now beginning to pull up dates and put them together. there’s her death year, 1764, so she certainly didn’t make it to 1776 to see independence. I’m finding that her father died in 1691 at the age of 56 (he remained unmarried until the age of 34 which was quite a feat at the time) but while Catharyna inherited his land that year, she was only 4 years old and it wasn’t until she married Roger Brett that the land became theirs. Roger was noted to be QUITE a bit her senior, and I’m already wondering if it was some relief when the River swallowed him up.

Page after page I’m cruising through, checking every reference in the index, most of which merely mention her name. I write down the number 16 and circle it. She was only 16 when she married Roger. I still don’t know how much older he was, but it seems he was a NYCity merchant.

So I’m scribbling and going back and checking dates when suddenly I get CHILLS……The youngest son’s name was actually RIVERY and he was so named for having been born ON THE RIVER! Catharyna Brett was on a sloop going from New York City to what is now Beacon when she gave birth. Just CHILLS. The River birthed her child and took her husband. It’s just too amazing. But nowhere can I find how Rivery died.

The biggest book that I’m just pouring through is having a GRAND time, in its (c) 1909 way, of belaboring all the land deals and I guess that IS what is best documented. I’m scanning down and they’re talking about an original document still in the possession of one of Madam Brett’s descendents that shows the 20 some odd people with whom she joined to create the Frankfort Storehouse  at the Lower Landing north of Denning’s Point which effectively began River Freighting in this country. I turn the page and there are all the signatures. There is HER signature. That’s as close as I’ve been able to get to her. And yes, she spells Catharyna with the Y. Then I notice her signature is there among 20 men. She must have really been something. Her hand is solid and strong and as big as any of the signatures of the men.  Dated 1743, hers is the last signature on the left of the third section.

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Again I get a chill upon seeing that she is buried beneath the pulpit right at the Old Dutch Church right down the street from where I’m sitting in Fishskill. I must go there. Perhaps I can find Rivery’s headstone.

Knowing that the best parts of all this have come from opening my mouth, I tell the head librarian what I’m doing as I give back the books. Bingo. She’s utterly delighted about the project and tells me I MUST come back on Thursday between 5 & 8pm…Fishkill’s Village Historian works at the library then, and she knows EVERYTHING.

It’s Saturday.

Thursday is a hundred years from now.

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