Cathi Bruneau’s Irish roots come through clearly in her melodic laugh, her cerulean blue eyes and her beautiful, ready smile.
She and her husband Chris own The Grainery, Chatham’s health food store and yummy sandwich shop. Chris’s wit, their shared sense of humor and abundant laughter have kept their marriage flourishing for 31 years. They are wonderfully comfortable and kind with each other.
They met in New York City in 1983 when Cathi, a recent graduate of FIT, was working at designer Betsy Johnson’s Tribeca loft and Chris was working for cabinetmaker Tony Dalo in a loft in the same building. The building had an old drive-it-yourself type elevator and the cabinetmakers would continually leave it at their floor, so Cathi would have to climb the two flights of stairs to retrieve it…which may be why a certain cabinetmaker kept the elevator on his floor. It was love from the beginning, even after 19-year-old Cathi learned Chris was an old guy; they met shortly before his 30th birthday. They were married in 1984, and they have three pretty amazing kids, Kelly who is 28, Noelle who is 27, and Robert who is 12.
Cathi has a lightness, an easygoingness, about her that might lead a person to underestimate her. A certain school district in Delaware County made that mistake when Cathi realized they weren’t going to do the right thing for her oldest daughter, Kelly, who has Aspergers Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Cathi basically memorized every word of the Laws and Regulations Related to Special Education and Students with Disabilities, and she won a special investigation from the New York State Education Department.
She believes that, as with doctors, teachers should also have the fixed maxim: First do no harm. “You can’t fit a child into a timeline. Let them go on their own timelines.”
“It was providence, serendipity,” that brought the Bruneaus to Chatham, said Cathi, and she will be eternally grateful to the teachers and students of Chatham Middle School, then principal Gordon Fitting, and most especially one-on-one teacher Lori Wills, for the kindness, attention and respect shown for Kelly’s special needs. A super-customized program for her was fairly negotiated at Chatham, and she was allowed to stay and thrive there until she was 21.
When Kelly was about 18 years old, a friend of Cathi’s had a stroke and experienced a great recovery with hyperbaric oxygen therapy. She recommended the treatment to Cathi for Kelly. Cathi and Chris looked into it, and decided to use Kelly’s college fund to get her the treatment, with accompanying neuro-feedback therapy. At the same time Cathi enrolled Kelly in an intensive remedial reading program. The leap Kelly made was remarkable. Within 18 months, Kelly went from a kindergarten reading level to a fourth grade reading level.
There are heart-filling stories. Like how Noelle, just 18 months younger than Kelly, would help her sister get dressed in the morning, which can be pretty traumatic for an Asperger child, by using Kelly’s beloved Ken doll to hold up Kelly’s shorts, for example, and having Ken say, “Hey, Kelly, let’s wear these today!” And there’s the monkey puppet, who would also show up, still shows up, to help Kelly through difficult transitions in the day. And they sing, they all sing; Kelly loves music, and she responds to their persuading songs. She loves dressing up, especially in tutus, and they would dress up as Anamaniacs, a favorite show of hers, and sing.
Cathi chaired the CABA (Chatham Area Business Alliance) Events Committee that organized this year’s Chatham SummerFest in July. She worked with Marie Claude Giroux, who hosted a Big Head workshop, an idea suggested by Cathi last year, and Marie Claude’s expertise produced a really fun, absolutely delightful parade. There was a three-person dragon breathing yellow smoke, a pig in a tutu, a big blue critter atop a colorfully be-ribboned classic pickup truck; Kelly, Noelle and others pulled ‘floats’ which were decorated red wagons; and everyone marched to the beat of the phenomenal drumming of 12-year-old Robert Bruneau, who was leading the parade in the back of a white pickup truck playing his full set of drums! It was lively, so original, and great fun.
I admire that Cathi has taken motherhood to a new height of artistry. And there’s more. At some point, Kelly learned she liked to draw. Her drawings are cartoons that she seemingly uses to work out the pull between right and wrong, or right and inappropriate, as Cathi says. She has a series of Sidekick drawings that are whimsical and compellingly detailed. She has had two shows of her work at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, most recently in the spring. Artists Melissa Sarris and Eric Wolf helped facilitate these shows with Joyce Goldstein. And Cathi and Kelly took it from there.
Kelly is very social and likes human contact. I found her so sweet and lovable when I first met her that I hugged her good-bye, and then thought ‘uh-oh, was that okay?’ but she responded happily, and to my delight, told me she likes me. She has since honored me with a gift of a print of her Litterbug Sidekick. Cathi said the people who are problematic to Kelly are the ones who hound her, who need her to respond when they want her to respond, who don’t want to live within her timeline — kind of what I do to my 14-year-old son when he is too quiet. He doesn’t like it either. I think I get it now.
Here is an extraordinary thing about Kelly’s artistic talent; she can reproduce her characters in any medium. She can create them in drawings, in clay, and even with a router saw and they will look exactly the same. And she can draw the front of a character on the front of a tee shirt and the back of the character on the back of the tee shirt perfectly proportionate. Check out Kelly’s Society 6 page to see more of her work.
Cathi and Chris have given Kelly the space and the love and the tools to explore her artistry, in her own way, in her own time. Cathi says, “She has her whole life, it’s still a potential.”