I was like a little kid that Sunday morning, all antsy, waiting for one o’clock. NOW I was going to GET somewhere. It takes me perhaps five minutes to get over to the Brett Homestead from here and I was headed for my car at 25 to. I MADE myself stop.

I STILL got there about 10 to 1, walked around the back of the house and saw a woman sitting on one of the two, small back porches. She greeted me with a smile, I assumed she would be Laura the incoming Regent. She was all dressed in black, which seemed odd for this early-warm, sunny day at the end of April. Her hair was short and black, her face very full and round and she wore a simple pendant around her neck. She almost looked like a modern-day nun. She introduced herself, but her name escaped me immediately. She explained that she SAW that this was an historical site and wondered about the garden she saw in the back.

I looked out over the garden that I was only looking OVER for the second time and pronounced:

“It’s not HER garden, I can FEEL that.”

Although she agreed, she seemed to know nothing at all about the house, the family or certainly about Madam Brett at all. That’s all *I* needed to hear. I realized by her dress that she certainly wasn’t here for the Knotweed Obliteration Project (nor was anyone else yet), so I LAUNCHED into my STORY of how I was finding out so much about this astonishing woman. She hung on my every word, going wide-eyed every time I’d speak in CAPITAL LETTERS the way I do. She kept exclaiming “You’re the answer to a PRAYER!” (what an odd thing to say).

Eventually we were joined by another woman who turned out to be Laura and when this woman in  black exclaimed that I’d been entertaining her with such a vivid HISTORY of the house I felt, for the first time, like an intruder. I immediately introduced myself, figuring Laura would have heard from Diane that I was the one who wanted to PLAY Madam Brett and she softened some.

Laura offered how the small porch where we were sitting used to be the FRONT of the house (and the other PorchWoman and I agreed wholeheartedly that this FELT like the front of the house). One of the descendents, upon realizing that the town was being built over THERE changed THAT to the front of the house. Interesting.

Again this woman in black introduced herself to Laura and AGAIN her name slid right out of my head. By now some of the Knotweed Obliteration Squad had appeared and I announced to Laura that due to vast amounts of poison ivy in the woods I had volunteered to get into THIS garden and she was perfectly pleased. I walked out to begin, and the very next time I looked up the woman dressed in black from the porch was gone. No goodbye, no “It was so nice to meet you”, no coming to look at the garden, just GONE.

My first chore in this garden was to extract last year’s dried and fainted-over-the-support-hoops foliage from this spring’s new and tender peony growth. It was like a cross between surgery and pick-up sticks. Tedious stuff, but satisfying when it was done. Everything looked all brand new and ready for blooming. More tedium came from trying to judge the onion grass from the grape hyacinths, both were EVERYWHERE.

I have to say, I was amazed at my own energy. Laura eventually called us in to take a break and only then did I realize that HOURS had gone by and I’d barely blinked.

Another woman came by to talk to me after she spoke with the caretaker boy. I had HEARD that our caretaker here might be ATTACHED to someone in the organization, and the closeness of their conversation led me to believe that THIS might be the connection. I came to be introduced to Evelyn, the head of Housekeeping, who lives very nearby. She spoke rather sadly of how the funding for this garden’s care has just dried up and how they TRIED to clean out one of the other beds….we looked out over the garden which was just a sadly neglected-looking mess.

I told Evelyn what I was hoping to do by way of portraying Madam Brett and she was just delighted. I BEGGED her to TELL me what became of Rivery and she squinted and tapped herself upon the head, saying she KNEW once, but had forgotten. She shook her head and thought it might have been an illness, and infection of some sort. Then she went RIGHT on to rather explain to me that they didn’t have antibiotics back then and they were probably lucky not to have lost the entire family to it! Anyway, she certainly seemed pleased to have me in the garden and when Laura saw us talking, she came right out and took some photos of us working in the garden. I asked Laura at that point if there were ANY pictures of Catharyna at all. She said no. Nothing. No drawings, no paintings, absolutely nothing. Just one painting of a great-granddaughter. I laughed and said that we’ll just have to ASSUME that she looks JUST like me! Laura laughed and said that now, as least they have MY photo!

I spoke some more to Evelyn, told her about the Brett headstones I saw in fishkill. She said they know where Roger is buried, but (and she got a truly pained look on her face) they just can’t GET to cleaning up his grave and it’s SUCH a mess. (sounds like a field trip to me!) Of COURSE I should go clean up Roger’s grave…..SHE would have.

Our break had us going into what Laura calls The Ladies’ Kitchen with it’s wonderful LOW ceilings and huge ceiling beams. We all drank instant iced tea and there was some activity around a tin of cookies. Tea and cookies, this IS the DAR, after all. The next room over, utterly closed off except for doors with windows in them was HER kitchen. I caught my breath again. The fireplace was SO huge you could nearly walk into it. The room, of course, was set up like a museum, with large wooden shoes set carefully on the floor. There is a sweet spinning wheel off to the side. Laura pointed out that the original floor was brick and we don’t know when they changed it to wood. She called this the ‘working’ kitchen and noted that the Bretts DID have slaves. Immediately my head goes in a dozen directions, seeing black women in those white colonial caps cooking at this fireplace – perhaps Madam Brett never cooked at all. Perhaps she had a slave-woman with her on the sloop who helped to birth the baby. That’s pretty possible.

Laura is more intent on getting application/genealogy worksheets into my hands for me to apply for membership. Another younger woman is sure one of her aunts was a member, which I believe makes her eligible as well, so Laura gets another worksheet for her. She asks us both if we want to come upstairs with her. Now we see how the house has truly become a hybrid museum. Each room displays some ‘collection’ from a different era. The bedroom we pass with the costumed dress form in the corner and the sweet blue and white bed with arched canopy is the Slocum room. This family never lived here at all, just donated everything in the room from Craig House, the psychiatric center elsewhere in Dutchess that is closed now.

As Laura can see that I am enjoying the sweeping stairway we come down, she advises that THAT was changed too. She gives us the name of WHICH descendent re-built the stair way, WHICH one added the oddly ornate moldings to the ceilings….each family was intent on modernizing the house as they took possession. I asked which part would be the most ORIGINAL and she said the KITCHEN was always built first.

After the break, I’m back out in the garden for a few more hours, knowing I MUST come back during the week, I’m barely making a dent here.

By 4pm Laura is ready to pull in the troops, but the Knotweed Gang out in the woods must be able to see light at the end of the tunnel and wants to FINISH (as if you can ever use the word FINISH in the same sentence with KNOTWEED). Evelyn and I had that discussion too, when she was saying some other women were talking about just getting the garden DONE. Evelyn and I sighed and joined forces in the concept that a garden is never, EVER “done”. That was probably a really good place to join forces with Evelyn, if it comes to my becoming the caretaker. I’m glad she understands that.

The longer I worked in those gardens, the more I saw the huge need for some consistency. Too many hands have been making too many decisions and it shows. I may be releasing the poor peonies from last year’s foliage, but who will deadhead all those tulips? I wailed back all the Out Of Control Montauk daisies, but who will pinch them all summer so they’re not flopping all over again by next fall? Already I’m noticing that if we don’t get some rain SOON, SOMEBODY is going to have to get out here with a hose before things start suffering. I know from my days as an estate gardener, THAT takes someone who checks EVERY DAY. Someone willing to water FIRST and THEN go start their day. I sure hope I can pull this off.

I leave that Sunday a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to get AT any of the archives. But as Laura is ready to leave, I tell her I’ll come back during the week and just make sure the garden is at least PRESENTABLE for the first tour on Sunday. She’s very grateful for that.

Already I notice how much less exposed this back/front yard feels from the very first time I saw it, now that the trees are leafing out…..

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