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America's Mother Comes Home to Celebrate Her Day

Both the joys and the sorrows of motherhood and grandmotherhood came to the Mount Vernon Estate on Mother's Day 2003. They were brought by America's first first lady herself.

"I believe there is nothing more important than caring for our family," Martha Custis Washington declared from the stage at Mount Vernon's Visitors Center on May 11. She was, of course, speaking through the persona of Mary Wiseman, a re-enactor of national acclaim.

In her role as Martha Washington, character interpreter Wiseman portrayed the nation's first lady as if the year was late in the 1780s. Although the Revolutionary War has claimed the last of her four children, from her marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, she is buoyed by the presence of her grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis.

"I've been interpreting for 28 years in Williamsburg. I've portrayed many characters throughout the years in Williamsburg, including Martha Washington. But my chief love is Mount Vernon, and I'm so happy to bring her home," Wiseman said.

Recently retired from her interpretations in Williamsburg, Wiseman is now touring the nation on a freelance basis to bring American history to life. "It's so important to teach children the joys and tragedies of that era," she emphasized.

SHE FLEW TO California for an educators symposium to emphasize the need to rekindle the knowledge of the basics of Colonial America. "I urged them to bring their students to Mount Vernon to learn American history firsthand," Wiseman said.

Joining her near the conclusion of her Martha soliloquy were her "grandchildren" Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. They were portrayed by Barbara Edmunds, 8, and Andrew Edmunds, 6, of Greenville, Del.

"I really like doing this. It's a lot of fun," Barbara said, just minutes before walking onto the stage. Andrew confessed, "This is my first time, but I'm really excited."

As explained to her audience on Sunday morning, Martha Washington came from Williamsburg, the eldest of eight children. "I was never called by my baptized name, Martha," she proclaimed." Only by my pet name, as most Southern girls were known. Mine was Patsy. I've always been Patsy."

Sitting on stage behind a tea table, dressed in the attire of the era, Martha confessed, "There is nothing more that I love than company. To be a mother and grandmother is my greatest joy."

She explained, "The General always said life is the best classroom, and my mother always told me to go a little easy. Now I'm a grandmama four times over."

Wiseman explained that Martha's great-grandfather was the first rector of Bruton Parish Church, which still stands today in Williamsburg. For 30 years she has sung in the choir of that church, which is only blocks from her home in the restored section of the first total town to be restored in the nation.

BORN IN OHIO, Wiseman has taken on the total persona of the Southern Colonial matriarch. She lives by what she preaches from her stage: "True hospitality makes everyone comfortable, and civility is the true root of hospitality."

In addition to managing the Estate at Mount Vernon while "the General" was away trying to galvanize a nation, Martha traveled to Valley Forge, Pa., where "she was truly an angel of mercy. She took up the cause of the veterans and personally saw to their wounds."

As Martha told her audience, "Above all, we were taught to do our duty. And I believe there is nothing more important than caring for our family. To this day I'm most proud to be known as an old-fashioned Virginia housewife."

As members of the audience filed out of the auditorium, they seemed touched by Martha's message. "It was just great. We are going to practice some of that civility she was talking about," said the Chilton family from the District. They had come to Mount Vernon as a Mother's Day gift.

Rajao Belina from Madagascar, here on business, said, "It was very good. Even though my English is not that good, the message was clear."

After portraying Martha at the Estate's Wine Festival on May 16, Wiseman's next stop as America's First Lady is Valley Forge, and then downtown Philadelphia. One of the ironies of the real Martha's life is that the Custis Plantation, where she lived with her first husband prior to his death, was known as "The White House."