My cousin Mary Bullard Rousseau was 99 when she died on October 22. It was nine days before Halloween so I'll bet one of the things Mary regretted most was not playing the wicked witch just one more time to the delight of local children who’d come trick-or-treating every year to the scary-looking, 35-room Gothic “Cottage” on Mill Plain Road where five generations of my Sturges kinfolk have lived since 1840.
When friends who were worried about her health would complain about the toll these Halloween performances might be taking now that she was getting up in years, Mary would dismiss their concerns by joking that playing the witch was getting easier all the time since “I have to wear less makeup!”
That was Mary. While newspaper articles about her charity, generosity and community service invariably described Mary as the “matriarch” of the famous Jonathan Sturges House in Fairfield, Connecticut, matriarch seems far too formidable a word to describe someone as fun-loving and whimsical as Mary Rousseau.
Mary liked to ride around the grounds of the Cottage in a golf cart she christened the “Bully Buggy!” In their tribute to their mother, Mary’s four daughters called her a master of games and puns and someone with whom an invitation to play Scrabble or Bridge "was highly prized fun.”
I can personally attest to that. One of my proudest moments was the time I almost beat Mary at Scrabble. Mary kept her competitive fires close to the vest. But I could tell by that distinctive “twinkle” in her expression that Mary was secretly delighted when my use of “N-E-X-U-S” on a triple-word score fell a few points shy of victory.
I also remember a game Mary introduced us to when I was just a youngster where contestants straddled a broomstick suspended between two chairs and then tried to knock off shoes from the back rests with a cane without at the same time ending up on the NFL’s concussion protocol.
My cousin Deanne spoke for all of us who knew Mary when she wrote:
I have very fond memories of when I was a kid
of Fairfield and Mary and all the things that she did.
She was carefree and zany, our fun-loving cousin
who made summers such fun when she kept things a-buzzin.
She has made the Cottage a haven, a wonderful place
where everyone’s welcomed by her smiling face.
She always thinks up something clever to do
That makes you feel special because she’s thinking of you.
When I first came east 35 years ago as a penniless reporter seeking fame and fortune as a big-city scribe, Mary was my only relative within a 250-mile radius. During those lonely early years in Boston, I spent many happy Thanksgivings and Easters with Mary at the Cottage enjoying her generosity, companionship and infectious laughter.
Mary soon learned, however, that my talents were far more literary than mechanical. Tasked one Thanksgiving with lighting the ancient coal-fed furnace that warmed the original portion of the house, the only thing I managed to ignite was me!
Inevitably, Mary’s life became intimately intertwined with the Cottage, which was built by my great-great-grandfather, Jonathan Sturges, a prominent New York City merchant, civic leader and patron of the arts.
As a reformer, Sturges battled Tammany Hall and the “Boss” Tweed Ring. As a civic leader, he was a co-founder of the Union League Club, which raised funds to help Abraham Lincoln put down the rebellion. An acquaintance of such luminaries as Samuel F.B. Morse, Thomas Cole, Robert Weir and William Cullen Bryant, Sturges became a prominent patron of that school of artists which came to be known as the Hudson River painters.
In 1861, Sturges’ daughter, Amelia, married the 23- year-old John Pierpoint Morgan years before “J.P.” became a powerful banker. Sick at the time of their wedding, Amelia was Morgan’s wife for just four months before succumbing to consumption (tuberculosis) while the newlyweds were convalescing in France.
The Cottage that Sturges built in Fairfield as a summer home for his growing family in 1840 is one of the earliest and best preserved examples of a Gothic Revival cottage in the country. It had the first indoor bathroom (or “water closet”) in Connecticut and in 1994 was designated by the National Park Service as a National Landmark of the United States.
Like Mary herself, the Cottage was full of surprises. One summer I helped Mary clear out one of the closets in an upper attic bedroom she was trying to reclaim from the accumulated clutter of time.
Among the lost treasure we found were stacks of bundled newspapers – from the 1880s! There were also black arm bands that Mary was sure had been worn at the passing funeral procession of an American president – a Republican one, of course, since no self-respecting member of the Sturges family would ever acknowledge a Democrat!
Most moving of all was a small metallic sphere the size of a palm that when unscrewed revealed two small candles and cones to fit them in. The objects had been issued to the American doughboys on their way to fight in World War I so they could write home to their families to let them know they were safe when the shooting stopped as day turned to dark.
Mary first moved into the Cottage in 1938 when she attended the Art Students League in New York City, where she specialized in the child and dog portraitures she was famous for throughout her long life.
Fifty years later, Mary rescued the Cottage from developers (and family feuds) when she bought the house and then replaced its decaying chimneys and gingerbread trim along with other improvements to return the house to its former grandeur.
While the name on the deed may have been hers, Mary never thought of the Cottage as her own private residence. Instead, she preserved it to be (in the words of my grandmother, Mary Sturges) “a symbol of a way of life, of family standards and love for each other.”
Granny Frier hated houses “so full of antiques, good and bad, that you feel you are in a mausoleum.” And so she appreciated that under Mary’s care the Cottage had “the feel of the past yet the vitality of the present.” Whenever she visited the Cottage, my grandmother said she left with “new memories just as dear to me as older ones.”
Granny wasn’t the only one who felt that way because Mary loved to share the Cottage and the history of its occupants with everyone, whether they were Sturges relatives or mere strangers who’d heard about the house and were anxious to see it for themselves.
A “stickler for ceremony with a twinkle,” as her daughters put it, Mary opened the Cottage to the annual neighborhood Christmas Open House, to charity events, to family gatherings, to tour groups and – of course – to her Halloween Trick-or-Treat witches brew.
Mary, said her daughters, had a deep love for her family (both immediate and extended), a reverence for her forbearers and a life-long devotion to the Sturges ancestral home that linked the historical past of our ancestors with the hopeful prospects of future generations.
Given how Mary loved history it is fitting she saw so much of it. And so, if anyone deserves to wear the motto on the Sturges family crest it is she: esse quam videri -- “To be rather than to seem.”