“My daddy built this general store when he was twenty-three,” Mary says. “Folks used’a visit by mule and wagon.”
I’m sitting in Hudson’s Grocery, sipping tea from a jelly jar, eating fried catfish and collards. There are buck-heads on the wall. Black-and-white family photos. Mounted large-mouth bass. A few customers in cowboy hats. I have tartar sauce on my shirt.
I’m feeling pretty good.
Miss Jackie waltzes out of the kitchen. She’s wearing a dusty apron. She’s tall. Bone-skinny. Skin like molasses. She doesn’t talk much.
“I enjoyed your cooking,” I tell her.
“Mmm hmm,” says Miss Jackie.
This one-room joint is located in the speck-of-a-town, Century, Florida—within spitting-distance of the Alabama line. In this city, folks pronounce “fire” as “far.” A place where middle-school girls can drop eight-point bucks faster than most forty-year-old men.
Mary and her best friend, Jackie, run this meat-and-three.
Today, I visited after church. I waited in a long line with Baptists, Methodists, and Holy Rollers who wore neckties and pearls.
“Sometimes we serve so many, we run outta food,” says Mary.
“Mmm hmm,” Miss Jackie explains.
A few years ago, Mary reopened this dusty store as something more than a market. She calls it, Mama Ruth’s, and she sells everything from antiques to catfish.
“I love what we do,” says Mary. “We’re kind of an all-around country store.”
“Mmm hmm,” Jackie points out.
This tight-knit community supports Mary Hudson enough to eat her out of house and home. It’s been that way from the day she first opened. Her business took off. People couldn’t get enough of Miss Jackie’s made-from-scratch cooking.
Then Mary got diagnosed with advanced leukemia.
Doctors told her to get her affairs in order. And fast.
Mary closed shop. She left for Dallas to undergo treatment. It was agonizing. It drained her. She felt alone. She missed home.
“I thought, ‘God, why’s this happening to me?'” she says.
Mary’s Dallas mailbox began to fill up. Letters, poems, good-luck charms, food, knit shawls, care packages. Each day, her mailman brought a new load.
Mary might’ve left town, but town never left her.
The letters read something like: “Dear Mary, we prayed for you at First Baptist this morning. We pray every single day.”
Another letter—from a five-year-old: “Dear Miss Mary, I believe God will heal you…”
Mary wipes her face. “This town, they just.. They’re so…”
Doctors scheduled her for a bone marrow transplant. But during preliminaries, something happened. Nobody could explain it.
One physician told her she was a miracle. Another man of science admitted he didn’t know what made her cancer go away.
“When you’re younger,” says Mary. “Sometimes, you just wanna get away from your little hometown. But this community, this restaurant, they saved my life.”
“Mmm hmm,” Miss Jackie says. “That’s love right there.”
Well spoken, Miss Jackie.