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Croton Mammy

Croton Mammy





By Anne Bernays


TESS, my wife Sally’s mother, came to live with us in our demure Miami Beach house about three years ago, before the freaking pandemic screwed up everybody’s lives. I’m sure you know that the perfect anagram for mother-in-law is “Hitler Woman.” But that’s not Tess and Me. She’s more like my mother than my own mother was and she actually told me the other day that I had a wicked sense of humor. Tess was a big deal in the fifties and sixties; she wrote material, believe it or not, for both “The Twilight Zone” and jokes for Phyllis Diller. The best thing about her is that she knows how not to be boring.

We converted our garage into an apartment for Tess. But she spends most of her time in our kitchen.  Every morning she gets up before seven and comes in to load Mr. Coffee with special Italian espresso she orders from New York. “It’s the least I can do for you two.” A long time ago she divorced Sally’s father—whom she refers to as “Frogman” after 16 over-emotional years.

Tess is sui generis—and knows it and sometimes takes advantage of this by reciting off-color limericks and making questionable remarks about people she identifies as her friends, who if they heard her, would make them never want to see her again.  Free spirit? Maybe.

Tess falls into the “compromised” category because of a heart-attack she had about ten years ago. But other than her unreliable heart, Tess is remarkably fit for a person her age.

On the Saturday morning of her eighty-fifth birthday Tess was slicing onions for the lunch party we had planned when I walked into the kitchen and heard her tell Sally, “You know, the funny thing about mushrooms is that I’m not sure whether I like them or not.”

“That’s not funny about mushrooms, Mom, it’s funny about you,” Sally said, a dig surely not lost on Tess. Every so often mother and daughter get on each other’s nerves.

Our two sons, Jerry and Peter and Jerry’s girlfriend had come home for the party. And Tess had invited an  old school friend named Martha. Tess and Martha had lost touch until recently, when Martha moved from the Midwest back to Miami Beach. A recent widow she was —in Tess’s words—“a basket case” and “lonely.” We were so close at school….”  But something hurtful happened between them that Tess wouldn’t be specific about. A boy, probably.

The kids had to get themselves tested for the virus before they showed up. Pete told his grandma Tess that he’d had to wait in line more than two hours for the test and if it weren’t for her, he probably wouldn’t have come home.

Just before lunch Sally changed from jeans into black pants and a blue silky blouse that looked spectacular. While we waited for Tess’s friend to arrive, sipping criminally expensive sherry, Tess patted the couch next to her and motioned for Jerry’s girlfriend, Ashley, to come and sit next to her. “So you went to Tulane,” Tess said. “Good for you. You must be smart. Are your parents still married to each other?” Ashley blinked. “Are you an only child? “Ashley nodded. “Why do you think that is? Didn’t they want more children? Or maybe they couldn’t have any more? Do you know if they tried to find a surrogate? She actually paused for a moment. “Oh, and by the way, if you were wondering, men think about sex every fifteen seconds.”

“Mom, please.”

“Ashley doesn’t mind, do you, dear? And oh, yes, one more thing: don’t waste your time trying to figure out the meaning of life. There isn’t any.”

The doorbell sounded and I went to open the front door. “You must be Martha,” I said to the woman standing on the top step, cradling a slim paper cone of orange and yellow flowers. She leaned lightly on a cane that had some sort of silver bird on top. She thrust the flowers at me as she smiled and sort of bent at the knees as if she were curtseying. “Doctor Cooper? Ted? The handsome shrink,” she said.

“Not a shrink, Martha, I’m just a lowly psychologist.”

“I don’t need this silly thing,” she said, pulling the mask away from her head and stuffing it in her coat pocket.


SHE didn’t look like a basket case to me. Just the opposite. For someone past eighty, she was stunning. Her hair wasn’t gray, but silver, and cut in a sort of cap-like do. Her face was almost symmetrical and her make-up so subtle it was hard to tell whether or not she was wearing any at all.

I led the way into the living room, where the others turned to look at her. She was wearing black pants, a grayish top and a long subtly decorated scarf which she had draped around her neck a couple of times. Drama queen?

“You have a lovely home,” Martha said.  I offered her a glass of sherry and off-loaded the flowers by asking Pete to find a vase for them.

“Sherry? How did you know? Sherry’s my drink of choice.”

Meanwhile, Ashley had escaped from Tess, leaving a place vacant for Martha, who sat down.

Sally and I went out to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on the meal. “Mom’s in one of her moods,” Sally said. “Fasten your seat belts. I hope she’s not going to get started on the Holocaust.”  I nodded, a little nervous because I knew what Tess was capable of. “It’s her birthday, pet, cut her a little slack why don’t you?” Sally gave me a “stay out of it” look that I had no trouble interpreting. Earlier, Sally and I had agreed to not bring up the subject of our president and if anyone else did we would try to pivot the conversation as fast as possible.

Meal-wise, everything, was ready for take-off. Tess had made her own contribution: a platter of half sour pickles shipped from Zabar’s.

Sally prefers Prosecco to Champagne—which is fine with me. Most people can’t tell the difference anyway. By the time I got around to opening the second bottle, tongues had been loosened, especially Tess’. Without a prompt Tess said, “Why do they insist that raw nature makes you happier than cities? If you ask me, a little nature goes a long way. Bugs and other things that bite through your skin. You should have known my father. He hated the country, he would never go there if he didn’t absolutely have to. And of course, people were not very good at making him do anything he didn’t want to do.”

Martha said, “Tess, I never knew that about you.” Tess raised her glass. “You mean,” Martha added “that you’d rather be in South Beach than the Everglades?”

“That depends on what I’m there for,” Tess said. “I can’t imagine going to the Everglades to buy a pair of Nikes.”

“By the way, what are you supposed to say when people ask you if you’re spiritual? “

This remark was followed by silence all around. Martha pointed at her empty glass. I went over with the bottle and filled it.

“Have you ever noticed,” Tess said to no one in particular, “that the world consists of “yes” people and “no” people?  For the rest of my life, I want to be around only “yes” people. “No” people are terribly depressing—as well as boring. No this, no that, we can’t, we won’t, it’s too risky and yadda, yadda, yadda.”

Pete asked her how soon after meeting someone could she tell whether that person was a “yes” or a “no.” He probably didn’t give a hoot, but enjoyed hearing her talk.

Tess replied, “Well the trouble is sometimes you don’t find out which they are ‘til it’s too late.”

Ashley bent towards Jerry and said something to him in a very soft voice.

“And another thing,” Tess continued, “I would like to see one of the most egregious lies ever fed to young people stopped entirely.”

“Would anyone like more salad?” Sally said.

“What’s the lie, Grandma?” Pete asked.

“Telling young people that they can accomplish whatever they want if they have enough determination. So that means, let’s say a baby is born with one leg shorter than the other. And all she wants is to be a dancer. Multiple well-meaning fools tell her that she can dance on Broadway if she really wants to, if she really tries hard enough. It’s not only a lie, but it’s a wicked lie. Can a child with an I.Q. of 90 get into Harvard? Why on earth try to persuade people they can do anything if they just put their mind to it? You might as well be asking a chimpanzee to write a sequel to the Bible.” Tess smiled.  “Are we truly all equal? Come on, one of you.”

“Mom,” Sally said. “This is a dining room, not a lecture hall.”

“Ok,” Tess said. “I’ll be quiet.”

But she marched right on. “When Bob and I were on our honeymoon we met a man named Harrison Brown, who was an advocate for population control.” He had, she said, persuaded her and Bob that overpopulation was the greatest threat to the future of the planet. “No one, except a few eggheads, talked about climate change back then. Brown was right. There are too many effing people on the planet. Not enough food, not enough room, not enough fresh water.  China had the right idea.”

Sally said, “You can’t mean that.”

“Of course I mean it. Why would I say it if I didn’t mean it?”

I glanced at Ashley, who looked as if she were watching “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

Tess trotted happily on. “I’m going to ask everybody a question and I would appreciate an honest answer. Say my parents weren’t Jewish but Catholic. Would I automatically believe that Jesus was the son of God? No really, I want you all to think about this.”

Pete said, “But I thought you were an atheist, Grandma.”

“I am, Peter, but that has nothing to do with my question.”

“How odd of God to choose the Jews. Not odd at all,” I finished up, “Goyim annoy him.” It just popped out; I swear.

Tess smirked at me. Martha started to giggle, and then upset her glass. White wine dribbled slowly over Sally’s grandmother’s brocade tablecloth. “Oops,” Martha said. “I guess I shouldn’t have had that last glass of bubbly.”

“Please don’t tell any more jokes like that,” Sally said.

“Oh come on,” I said. “This is 2020.”

“Ashley isn’t Jewish,” Sally said.  “That’s over the top, Ted. Honestly.”

“Well.” I said, “Then I apologize to Ashley.”

We were heading downhill fast. Nothing terrible had happened, but the mood had shifted. Tess seemed, for a moment, to have nothing to say. Sarah was definitely on edge and pissed at me, Jerry was also pissed at me for making his girlfriend squirm. Pete remained his usual calm, appraising self. As for Martha, she surprised us all by saying, “Dear people, I have something to confess.” She swallowed audibly. “I didn’t have time to get tested for this nasty virus thing. I hope you’ll forgive me.” She trailed off and looked around. Ten angry eyes aimed themselves at Martha.

As a host you’re supposed to make your guests feel good. But I could find nothing to say to Martha that didn’t contain at least one blasphemous word. In my professional role I would probably have tagged Martha as passive-aggressive, but right then I wasn’t at my job. To make myself feel better I told myself was that the chances Martha was harboring the virus were remote. She was just plain pathetic.

“You might have told us before you arrived,” I said.

“Oh yes, I know I’m so sorry I should have told you. Tess, dear, will you forgive me?”

Tess nodded. I couldn’t be sure if she realized that she might have invited an exterminator to her birthday party.

Ashley asked where the bathroom was and left the table.  I tried to catch Sally’s eye, but she got up and started to clear the table. This is where I generally join her, having learned the hard way that men are capable of carrying used dishes from one room to another. In the kitchen I said, “This is really serious.”

Sally said “What a bitch. Fuck it, Ted, what’s the point?”

I asked what point she meant. “The point of everything,” she said.  “I don’t know if I can deal with all this now.”

The last word of her sentence hung there, as if to indicate that the present was hurling itself into a future in which all of us would be eradicated by disease, desuetude, calamity, despair.

“You shouldn’t have said that Goyim thing,” she said. “What’s the matter with you?”

We scowled at each other, but managed to behave ourselves.

When we got back into the dining room Tess was saying, “When I was young the telephone was attached to the wall by a long black cord. I’ll bet Ashley doesn’t know what a rotary dial is.” She looked around. “Where’s Ashley, she was sitting right there a minute ago?”

“Here I am,” Ashley said, coming back into the room and sliding onto her chair.

“Who’s ready for desert?” Sally said.

Tess made a fuss over the ice cream cake, “This is exactly what I wanted. Thank you, good people.”

“No cake for me, thank you,” Ashley said. “I’m sorry but I’m lactose intolerant.”

“When I was young,” Tess said, “no one ever talked about their peculiar diets. If you couldn’t eat a certain food, you just didn’t eat it. You kept it to yourself.”

“Mom, please.”

It took me a moment or two to realize that the doorbell had rung.  I went out to open the door and was just in time to see a young man walking towards a pick-up parked in front of our house. He waved at me and pointed at my feet. A plant about three feet high and looking like a bunch of writhing, burning red feathers, sat  in a pot inside a wicket basket. A note was stuck in its soil; pulling it out, I read “Greetings. I am a croton mammy. I need a lot of sunlight and very little water. So keep me near a window and water me once a week and I’ll be around for a good long time.” Then the letters on the note began to bleed. I looked up at a clear blue sky. How could it be raining? And I realized that the drops now spreading had come from me and that they were my tears. I was crying over the absurd beauty of the croton mammy, a name so weird that I thought it must contain the souls of the dead.  I wobbled slightly and took a deep breath and stared at the card until I realized Sally had come out of the house to find out why I hadn’t returned. I pointed to the plant. “It doesn’t say who sent it,” I said.

“I did,” Sally said. “It was my way of thanking you for putting up with my mother. You like?”

“I do, “I said. “I love it. And I wish my mother was still alive.”

“You look like you’ve been crying, have you been crying?”

“I guess so,” I said. “Sorry.”

Sally leaned against me. “Why?”

“Damned if I know.”

It’s okay I said to myself, life goes on in spite of everything and this fucking plague that threatens to last forever. And how can we be sure it’s going to end? And if it does end won’t the planet heat up so that we all sizzle to death? And here’s this blazing plant that will make a woman happy for maybe a year or two.

I don’t usually let my emotions take over like this. I chalked it up to too much alcohol in the middle of the day. Sally reached for my hand.

By this time, everyone had gone back to the living room. Looking at my watch, I realized it was past Tess’s nap time.

Tess, looking straight at her old friend said, ”Well, time for my nap.”

Martha told Tess that she was “stricken” by her lapse and again asked us to forgive her for not getting tested. “I’m just a forgetful old lady,” she said. It was obvious she wanted us to tell her it was okay, but no one did.

Martha hustled herself out of the house. On the way out I heard her say, “Expensive plant.”

Tess went to her bedroom to lie down. I envied the way she could sleep on command. Of course, the fact that her super-ego was shot made it easier for her to simply close her eyes and drift off in the middle of the day. So few worries.

Pete and Jerry and even Ashley cleaned up, loading the dishwasher, storing the leftovers in plastic tubs, and even sweeping the kitchen floor. Then they left the house to meet friends.

“Do you think we ought to water the plant?” Sally asked.

She touched the soil. “It’s pretty dry,” she said. “I think so. I’d love to keep it in our living room. Do you think Mom will be OK with that?”


FOUR DAYS LATER, as I was sitting down to watch MSNBC unload its daily quota of bad news, my phone rang.  It was a woman who identified herself as Martha Steinberg’s daughter, Barbara. “I believe my mother was at your home a few days ago, for a birthday party? She wanted me to let you know that she’s come down with Covid 19. She’s at Mount Sinai. They think they may have to put her on a ventilator.” I could tell by the tightness in her voice that she was having a hard time keeping it together. I asked her if she knew how her mother had got the dread disease. “I think she had a cocktail party a few days ago,” she said.

I didn’t give a shit about Martha. I hung up.

“Holy crap,” I shouted “Fucking woman!” I yelled this so loudly that Sally heard me from upstairs in the alcove where her desk is.

She called down “Are you okay?”

I asked her to come down. “Or should I come up?”

But by this time she was already standing beside me.

“What are you yelling about,” she said, ”I’m trying to work.”

“That narcissistic bitch, Martha whatever her name is, who was here last Saturday? She’s got the virus. She’s in the hospital.”

“I knew it, I knew it,” Sally said. I doubted that this was true, but it didn’t matter one way or the other, did it?

“Does Mom know?”

“Not yet.”

“We’re not going to tell her.” Sally said. “What would be the point? Why worry her if we don’t have to?”

We must have played our parts well, for until the following morning relative calm had settled over the house and over Sally and me.

But at around seven the following morning, when I came down to the kitchen, Tess was there. As usual, the coffee machine was doing its thing. Tess was sitting, still in her bathrobe, one elbow on the table and her chin cupped in her hand. Before I had a chance to say anything, Sally joined us and said, “Your friend Martha? What sort of person is she?”

“Well, we haven’t seen each other since school except a couple of times in New York. We email each other every so often, but honestly, I can’t tell you very much about her. We were great friends at school. And she lived one block from us. “

“She’s not like your other friends.” Sally said. “Not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

“Yes pet, her conversation’s stupefying. Ah, but she’s so beautiful. Always was, she had hundreds of boyfriends. She got engaged at eighteen and then broke it off the day before the wedding. He was a nogoodnick, none of us liked him. You know I’m a sucker for beauty. I rarely see past it until it’s too late. It got me in a hell of a mess a couple of times.” She paused and sighed deeply and coughed.

“Sally, would you mind pouring the coffee? I’m feeling a little hot and shaky.”


Editor’s Note:  Anne Bernays is a novelist (including Professor Romeo and Growing Up Rich) and co-author, with her husband, Justin Kaplan, of Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York. Her articles, book reviews and essays have appeared in such major publications as the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and The Nation. A long-time teacher of writing, Bernays taught at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for over 30 years.  In Miami, Bernays has presented at the Miami Book Fair and at Books & Books.