by Douglas Young
Mimosa Mitchell was an 85-year-old “pillar of the community” and matriarch of one of the most prominent families in Petunia Springs. Indeed, for generations the Mitchells had been a significant presence among the town’s politicians, doctors, bankers, and accountants. Mimosa’s late husband had long enjoyed the largest medical practice in all of Deas County. When he died five years ago, folks remarked how his funeral was likely the best attended in Petunia Springs history.
Mrs. Mitchell was a major local figure in her own right, having taught English at Roswell Ripley High School for 50 years before her husband finally prevailed upon her to retire. She had been the most senior (by far), well known, and feared teacher at the school, legendary for her uncompromising commitment to instill in her students good writing skills and a love of literature. Easily the most demanding instructor in the English department (if not the entire school), primarily due to her zeal to correct every grammatical, punctuation, and spelling error, her classes were studiously avoided by slackers. However, having taught so many of the student body’s parents (and several grandparents) who revered her absolute devotion to helping all her pupils, a large share of her students’ mothers and fathers had made them take her.
Retirement failed to slow down Mimosa very much. Instead, she enjoyed getting to put all the more time into the projects she loved: being a Sunday School teacher, president of her neighborhood homeowners association as well as the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and grandmother and great-grandmother. A large lady with a strong voice and stronger opinions, everyone knew when Mrs. Mitchell was present. Her many friends and admirers extolled her as the personification of an outstanding Christian lady who always put the “p” in “proper.” Her detractors sighed she put the “d” in “domineering” and were grateful she was not a man.
Heavily immersed in the affairs of all her family members, Mimosa devotedly helped her daughter-in-law fight cancer and then mothered her grieving son all the more after his wife’s death. Always happiest when in charge, she had been thoroughly fulfilled looking after her deeply bereaved son in the months following his wife’s passing, even insisting on moving in with him for a while.
A year into widowhood, Delano began to go out with a few ladies. As a handsome, affluent accountant from perhaps Petunia Springs’ most famous family, not one lady he asked out declined his invitation. While accepting the Bible’s admonition that “It is not good that the man should be alone,” his mother still sighed as her son began dating and became less emotionally dependent on her.
But it was Delano’s growing commitment to his girlfriend of now two years, Zillah Prager, that increasingly alarmed Mimosa. Zillah had moved to Petunia Springs a couple of years before and was the popular Ripley High art teacher. Her students adored her for being so warm, ebullient, witty, and full of chutzpah. Each day students looked forward to seeing what loud, elaborate scarf she would wear, and she was the school’s first art instructor to include several forms of modern art in her curriculum. Most controversially, she was also the first to display in her classroom nude paintings by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, and Pablo Picasso.
This last act brought her to Mimosa Mitchell’s attention, prompting her to call the new principal, Barnard Bee, to voice her opposition to “children being exposed to such indecency.” But Mimosa was no longer at the school, the principal stood by Miss Prager and, to Mrs. Mitchell’s deep disappointment, she was unable to find other teachers willing to support her publicly in the matter. When she considered trying to organize opposition through her church and the UDC, her son and other members of the family implored her not to, voicing concerns about the impact such a crusade could have on her health.
To allay his mother’s fear that “inappropriate conduct” could be encouraged by depictions of nudity in art classes, Delano made an unannounced visit to the new art teacher’s classroom one day after school in his role as an elected school board member. To his relief, of the many dozens of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other works of art displayed, only a few were nude and they struck him as quite tastefully artistic without exuding any hint of pornography.
To Mr. Mitchell’s delight, the art teacher not only welcomed the school board member, but gave him an enthusiastic tour of her room. He quickly became awed by this tall, very attractive lady of 38 whose cheerfulness and humor stood in such colorful contrast to his much more restrained persona. Delano was so taken with the brunette beauty that he soon found it difficult to focus on her detailed explanations of various art works since he was busy studying how best to ask her out. At the end of the tour, to his joy, she stunned him by asking him out first, something no woman had ever done.
They not only went out but soon became a local item. Folks were endlessly amused that the conservative accountant son of Dr. Josiah and Mimosa Mitchell was courting “that Yankee art teacher,” all the more so since Miss Mimosa had tried to stop her display of nude art. Just over a year into widowhood, Delano suddenly felt liberated by the prettiest, most affectionate, and least shy lady he had ever dated. Folks who knew him were charmed by how much happier the heretofore sad widower had become. His children were likewise elated that Daddy had not only returned to his former self but even appeared more content than they could ever recall.
The one person distinctly unelated by the blossoming romance was Delano’s mother. Though Mimosa not only accepted that her son would date again and even thought it best for him to remarry as soon as possible for his own health, she expected him to find “a fine Christian lady” for the role of the new Mrs. Mitchell, and Miss Prager was Jewish. Mimosa lamented to more than a few friends and relatives that it was “unfortunate enough” that Zillah was “not just a Yankee, but a New York Yankee.” Yet, as out of her comfort zone as that was, Mimosa could likely have still somehow stomached the match, especially if confident there would be no children introducing Yankee blood into the family.
But the prospect of her one son marrying a Jewish lady, and a childless one still within child-bearing years, constituted a family crisis in Mimosa’s mind. What if they married, had children, and reared them as Jews? Despite Zillah not showing any particular religious zeal, and the nearest synagogue being several counties away, Mimosa was beside herself at the specter of any “cosmopolitanism” infecting her devout Christian family. Adding to her distress was that all her relatives supported Delano’s growing bond with Zillah. When her two daughters not only approved of their brother’s girlfriend, but were thrilled at the news he would ask her to marry him, Mimosa determined the time for decisive action was at hand.
Though none of Delano’s siblings, children, or any other relatives would join her, Mimosa went ahead and had a frank meeting with her 55-year-old son, laying out all her well-rehearsed concerns about any Mitchell-Prager wedding. Delano was not surprised. Though he loved and revered his mother dearly, he knew her well enough to anticipate her reaction to any impending marriage with Zillah. Despite her always being polite with his girlfriend, it was obvious his mother nursed grave doubts about the advisability of their union. So he listened patiently to her long list of reservations. When it was finally his turn to speak, he simply expressed his appreciation for her concerns for him and thanked her for loving him enough to voice them candidly. But he “very respectfully” disagreed and still planned to ask for Miss Prager’s hand in marriage.
That development prompted Mimosa to contemplate playing her last card in a final, desperate effort to dissuade her son from what she firmly believed would prove to be an ill-fated marriage with potentially disastrous consequences for the family’s long-term future. After considerable hesitation, she called the office of long-time family attorney Johnston Pettigrew to request he pay her a call at Mitchell Manor.
Johnston and Delano had been friends since meeting in Mrs. Emmyetta Sawyer’s kindergarten Sunday School class. Mimosa taught Johnston high school English and her husband Josiah had treated him, his father, and Johnston’s sons. Dr. Mitchell turned over all the family’s legal matters to Johnston when their previous attorney retired. So Mrs. Mitchell had known Mr. Pettigrew and his family well for many decades.
Johnston Pettigrew, Jr. was a 55-year-old attorney and thirty-year veteran of his father’s law firm. Like most successful small town lawyers, he had to be adept at all kinds of law to make a good living. Gray-haired, slow-moving, and slightly overweight, he was partial to seersucker suits and was seen by many locals as Petunia Springs’ finest attorney. Universally well regarded, he had been repeatedly asked by the county’s Democratic and Republican Party chapters to run for public office, but always respectfully declined, preferring the predictable rhythms of the courtroom to the controversy and fish bowl existence of an elected public official.
When Mimosa Mitchell called his law office, she asked if her attorney could please make a house call instead of her having to come downtown.
“Oh, are you feeling poorly, Mrs. Mitchell?” came the concerned reply of Arletha Thornberry, the young black secretary and former student of Mimosa. “I sure hope you’re not trying to take a cold. Lord knows a whole lot of folks have come down with something lately. Maybe it’s the pollen.”
“No, dear, but this is a small town and I don’t wish to give any excuse for tongues to wag.”
“Oh. Yes, ma’am. Well, can I tell Mr. Pettigrew the nature of the meeting?”
“Please tell him it’s an urgent legal matter and strictly confidential.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Arletha answered in almost a whisper. “It’ll be just between y’all.”
“Thank you, darling.”
Because Mr. Pettigrew had known the Mitchells his entire life and was fond of them, he readily agreed to see Mimosa at home. It was the secretive nature of the meeting that provoked some curiosity about his old English teacher. He figured her advanced age might be the real culprit behind her reluctance to drive to the office, and he tried to recall the last time he saw her behind the wheel of a car.
At the appointed time, Johnston arrived at Mitchell Manor, the large house built in 1878 a few blocks from downtown that Dr. Josiah Mitchell bought and renovated for his wife. The white, three-story Victorian masterpiece featured one of Petunia Springs’ few turrets, painted dark red, along with a large wrap-around porch full of detailed gingerbread touches. The well-manicured front yard aligned precisely with Mimosa Mitchell’s personality. Both were defined by unswervingly straight lines, sharp edges, and with nothing out of place.
He rang the doorbell before relishing the porch’s long line of hanging baskets bursting with pink begonias and red bougainvilleas, below which sat several white wicker rocking chairs and a round table. He smiled recalling the many times he had visited the grand home and sat on this porch when he and Delano were playmates.
Eulonia Sanders, the Mitchells’ long-time housekeeper and part-time cook, opened the door. From overhearing some recent conversations among the Mitchells, the 68-year-old black lady had an idea what her employer’s meeting with the attorney was about, but didn’t dare ask.
“Hello, Mr. Johnston. How de do? Come on in.”
“Well, look at you. If it isn’t Eulonia Sanders, just like when I used to come here as a boy. Why, I haven’t seen you in a long time. And you haven’t aged at all,” he marveled.
“You sho’ know how to tickle an old lady’s pride, Mr. Johnston,” she chuckled. “I be almost 70 now.”
“Well then, as Sir Rod Stewart sings, ‘You wear it well,’ Eulonia. Mighty well.”
“Miss Mimosa, de lawyer’s here.” She laughed and held the door open for him.
“Please escort him to the study, Eulonia,” came the prompt reply.
Entering the library, Johnston noticed many medical books mixed with classics of British and American literature arranged by author, with nary a book out of order. After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Mrs. Mimosa Mitchell sat erect behind the large desk in front of the largest bookshelf and Mr. Pettigrew settled into the high-backed chair opposite her. Mrs. Sanders offered him a glass of her homemade lemonade which he eagerly sipped.
“Mmm. Gracious. That’s powerful good, Miss Eulonia. Yes, ma’am, indeed.”
“I remember how much you liked it when you was a boy and used to visit Mr. Delano,” she grinned.
“You remember well, dear.” He beamed.
“Thank you, Eulonia,” Mimosa stated and her housekeeper left the room, being sure to close the door.
“So how can I be of service, Mrs. Mitchell?” He smiled as he put a large yellow legal pad in his lap and clicked his pen.
“First of all, Johnston, I want to express my appreciation for your coming here today,” she pronounced. “I’m much obliged you did.”
“Glad to accommodate you, Mrs. Mitchell,” he replied as he waved a hand. “You, Doc Mitchell, Delano, and all y’all’s fine family have been so dear to me and mine, y’all’ve been wonderful clients for such a long time, and I certainly understand if you’re no longer comfortable driving—”
“I can drive very well, thank you, and anywhere I want. I’ve been driving 70 years without receiving one ticket. I’ll have you know my driver’s license was renewed last year and, Lord willing, I intend to drive many more years to come.”
“Outstanding. Congratulations, Mrs. Mitchell. I think that’s just fine,” Johnston nodded and smiled. “Now how can I be of help, ma’am?”
“I wish to change the terms of my will,” she declared in a lower voice looking straight at him without blinking.
“Yes, ma’am. Let me find it here since I brought your file,” he said as he reached into his old black leather bag. “Here it is. All right. Now how would you like to change it?” He bent down to quickly skim over the document.
After a pause, Mimosa continued. “Delano is to be removed from all my inheritances.”
Johnston’s smile disappeared as he blinked and stared at the will. He blinked again and slowly raised his head to look at Mrs. Mitchell whose gaze had not left him.
“You want to strike your son’s name from the will? Am I understanding you correctly, ma’am?”
Johnston shifted in his seat and blinked several times before looking at the desk and then the bookshelf closest to the door. With the sun shining through the windows, he thought he saw what might be the shadows of a pair of feet under the door, but quickly turned away and took a good, full swallow of lemonade.
“Now, Mrs. Mitchell, having been an attorney for 30 years and drawn up more wills than I can remember, I must say this strikes me as highly unusual, even unprecedented. Are you sure you really want to do this?”
“I’ve made my decision,” Mimosa declared while raising her head and betraying the slightest evidence of a frown.
After some hesitation, Johnston met her gaze and at last spoke.
Blinking her eyes and now definitely frowning, Mimosa raised her voice.
“And exactly what business is that of yours?”
“Well, Delano and I’ve been friends for ’bout near half a century, and I just have a right hard time believing this is what you’re really fixing to do—”
“Are you my attorney or not?” She asked with nostrils starting to flare.
“Yes’m. I am as long as you want me to be,” he answered slowly while nodding his head.
“Then I suggest you change your client’s will according to your client’s preference.”
“Well,” he stated slowly and sighed.
“Well, what? Are you going to do what I am paying you to do – and I daresay at probably the highest rate in Petunia Springs – or aren’t you?”
“Not without an explanation,” Johnston said as he placed his right hand on the desk and looked at her. This time he did not avert her gaze but held it as her eyes narrowed.
“Since when have attorneys insisted on their clients justifying a change of will?” She asked with her head slightly cocked.
“Well … I guess since you want to cut your own son and my life-long friend and brother Baptist deacon out of it,” he answered and nodded slowly.
There was a long pause as Mrs. Mitchell realized her attorney was not backing down. She started to say something but hesitated, looked out the window, and turned back to Mr. Pettigrew.
“Very well. If you insist on knowing, Delano is about to embark on a course of action I have every reason to believe will imperil not just his future but the well being of the entire family.”
Furrowing his brow and squinting, Johnston looked at her.
“With all due respect, Mrs. Mitchell, exactly what?”
“You actually believe it’s any of your business as to the private affairs of my family?”
“If you want me to cut your only son out of the will … then yes, ma’am. I’m sorry but I’m ’fraid I do.”
Shaking her head, she now leaned forward holding her hands.
“Perhaps you should have gone into the ministry, Johnston. I wasn’t aware lawyers insisted on morally approving their clients’ entirely legal requests.
“Have you discussed this with the family?” He scratched his head.
“Again, as if that is any of your business, counselor.”
“Ma’am, I’m right sorry for any unpleasantness, but I’m just gon’ have to know some more information ’bout this thing before I can proceed in good conscience.”
“A member of the legal profession pronouncing about matters of conscience,” she almost spat.
“I’m real sorry, Mrs. Mitchell. I appreciate how uncomfortable this thing must be for you and I can assure you it’s not pleasant for me either—”
“Yes, ma’am. But for me to go forward on this matter–”
“Very well,” she interrupted while shaking her head with a pronounced sigh. “Can I still presume to enjoy attorney-client privilege?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Oh, absolutely. Yes, ma’am. That goes without question.”
“Well, what a considerable comfort. I was beginning to wonder.” She took a sip of lemonade, paused, and began to speak. “In complete, stubborn, and utterly irrational defiance of my many well-founded concerns, my son insists on marrying a woman completely unsuited for this family. There. Are you now satisfied? Can we finally get to the business at hand and change my will?”
“Oh,” Johnston intoned slowly before leaning back in his chair. “So you’ve got problems with Miss Zillah? That’s what this is all about?”
“No, Miss Prager would pose a massive problem for this entire family and at least one Mitchell is prepared to stand up and meet the problem head on.”
“Now Mrs. Mitchell,” he began with one elbow on the desk and hand raised, “I know Miss Zillah can be a little loud and Yankeefied, but I declare I truly b’lieve she’ll grow on you, and I just can’t figure how you’d ever want to do anything so drastic that would surely hurt your son something terrible and is just liable to tear the whole family apart. Noam, I just can’t b’lieve you’ve really thought this thing all the way through. No, ma’am. It’s my considered opinion that you need to set a spell and think real hard and … maybe pray on this thing before—”
“Johnston Pettigrew, the very idea of you talking to me in such a patronizing manner. You were always a good student and such a well-behaved and well-mannered boy growing up.”
“Well, I thank you, ma’am. I was reared in a good Christian home.”
“Yes, you were. But apparently your long years in the law have dulled your sense of etiquette.”
“With respect, ma’am—”
“Oh, of course,” she stated sarcastically.
After a pause and a sigh, he began again. “Mrs. Mitchell, I’ve seen Delano with Miss Zillah on several occasions over the last couple of years. I even had dinner with ’em at her place to discuss a school board legal matter, and I do declare I b’lieve he’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him. Now absolutely no offense to Miss Marigold. What a fine Christian lady and mother and a dear personal friend and I’m sure a wonderful daughter-in-law she was.”
“She was a beautiful blessing to this whole family, thank you.”
“Amen and God rest her sweet soul. I’ll just say this. Based on every time I’ve seen Delano and Zillah, both of ’em just seem as peachy and proud of the other as can be. My daughter Adora loved her art class and Miss Prager really is a lovely lady. She’s educated, cultured, and just as sweet as she can be. I would kind of like to think she might just be the answer to your prayers for some fine lady to come look after your boy—”
“Now I think you really did miss your calling to go into the clergy. My spiritual life is absolutely none of your affair – or that of any other lawyer. Really, Johnston. I find this most unprofessional and frankly insulting.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Mitchell, I promise I mean you absolutely no disrespect, ma’am. If I could just please say my piece. The fact is I’m just not comfortable proceeding any further down this path and, as your attorney, I strongly caution you against this course of action. Please trust me, ma’am. Now I really am giving you my best legal advice here. When families get into inheritance disputes, the only thing guaranteed is some mighty hurt feelings, and all around too. And I’m just as serious as cancer ’bout this, Mimo – Mrs. Mitchell.”
“And I would like to think that, as a brother in Christ and a veteran deacon at First Baptist, you might have some appreciation for the unfortunate situation I find my family facing. You know very well this is a devout Christian family, Mr. Pettigrew—”
“Thank you, and Miss Prager is not.”
Slowly leaning his head back with his mouth slightly open, he at last spoke, “And she’s a Jew.”
“Well, cheers for your remarkable appreciation of the obvious. I’m glad we finally agree on something. Hallelujah. And now that you know far more that you’re entitled to, are you going to – at last – do what I am paying you for here?”
Gradually leaning forward and placing his pen on the desk, Johnston clasped his hands, took a deep breath, and began to speak. “I’m ’fraid not,” he intoned slowly. “No, ma’am, I b’lieve I’m gon’ to have to recuse myself on this matter, Mrs. Mitchell, on account of I b’lieve it would be highly harmful to the interests of you and your entire family for us to proceed down such a path.”
With eyes narrowed and a loud sigh, Mimosa glared at him.
“Since when has your law firm ever turned down business? A couple years back you had no problem defending a murderer.”
Johnston shifted in his seat and raised his right hand again.
“Well, but with all due respect, ma’am, now I was court-appointed to do so, and a man’s life was at stake.”
“Well, with all due respect, counselor, I’m firmly convinced the well-being of my family is at stake.”
“And I respect that, Mrs. Mitchell.”
“Well, this jury has plenty of reasonable doubt, and if you expect me to pay you for this charming little visit—”
“Noam, now there’s not gon’ be any charge.”
“Well, thank the Good Lord for small favors.”
“But I do strongly suggest that before you go any further with this thing that you please talk about it with Delano and … have you considered broaching this with the Rev. Hasty?” He implored.
“The Rev. Hasty is not the final word on matters religious or family, thank you very much, and I am in no way bound by his counsel any more than I am yours.”
“Then I figure you may have already talked with him and he respectfully has a different view of the matter,” Johnston replied and immediately regretted having done so.
“And I frankly just don’t give a hoot or holler what you figure. Mr. Pettigrew, I believe your business here is done. While you’re getting up to leave would you at least be so kind as to recommend the services of another attorney?”
“Yes’m, though I don’t reckon I know any local ones who’d do what you want either. ’Course, if you insist, I guess I could have my gal call you with a list of some out-of-towners who don’t know y’all—”
“That will be fine. Thank you.”
Carefully putting the pen back in his shirt pocket and inserting the legal pad into his old leather bag, he gradually got up. What he had looked forward to as a delightful return to a beautiful house he had always enjoyed visiting as a boy but had not been inside for many years, as well as a chance to visit with one of Petunia Springs’ last grand dames, had quickly devolved into easily the most dispiriting disappointment of the whole week. Indeed, he noted how much more pleasant it had been visiting the downtown jail that morning to meet the fellow who robbed the local Piggly Wiggly the week before.
Johnston hesitated before turning to leave, feeling compelled to try to end the meeting on a high note. He finally spoke with the faintest trace of a smile.
“You know, Mrs. Mitchell, I really do b’lieve if you could just sit down for a good, home-cooked meal with Miss Zillah, that might make a world of difference. If you could just try some of that lady’s homemade lox and bagels and knishes—”
“Good day, Mr. Pettigrew. Eulonia, please show Mr. Pettigrew to the door.”