A young man with a beard enters the Bostwick Food Mart, also known as the Marathon, also previously known as The Citgo, and orders a pack of blunt wraps from the elderly clerk behind the counter.
“How’s your momma?” asks the clerk to the customer.
“She’s doing fine,” he says. “She making cupcakes, so…”
The 74-year-old clerk, Bostwick native, Ann Broach, was born about three miles from where the store stands at the intersection of Fairplay Road and Bostwick Highway, under the glow of the flashing yellow caution light. Broach, whose smile starts with her twinkling eyes and spreads across the counter, has a word for everyone who enters.
A young girl comes in.
“Do you have a restroom?” she asks. Broach tells her it’s outside, around the corner. Walk past the old wooden barrel (it’s got a George Dickle bourbon logo on the side) and you’ll find it.
“I love you sweetheart,” Broach says. “Have a good day and a merry Christmas.”
Broach doesn’t know the girl, has never seen her but that doesn’t matter a whit. She is a child of God, as is the disheveled man arguing about the amount he should receive on a lottery ticket, or the fellow buying a 12-pack of Natural Light beer at 10:30 in the morning.
She has a word for everyone.
This year, she also had an inspiration. Outside of the food mart stands two live Christmas trees. On the right, next to a large cooler holding bags of ice, is a “Remembrance Tree.” To the left of the that tree, standing under a neon “Open” sign and flanked by a second wooden barrel (this one is advertising Larceny bourbon) is an “Honor Tree.”
Both trees are decorated with Christmas lights and both of the live Leyland Cyprus trees are covered with clear plastic ornaments that hold pictures of people who are loved.
On the Remembrance Tree there is a picture of Stacey Malcom, a local resident who died tragically in a house fire. There is a picture of former Bostwick City Council member Troy Dobbs and Steve Kimsey and Broach’s brother D.W. Stone.
“He was a character in town,” she says. “He would give you the shirt of his back if you needed it.”
Near the top of the tree is a photo of Macio Veasley. “Everybody called him the mayor,” Broach says. Veasley spent much of his life sitting on a bench outside the store (the bench is sponsored by Bostwick native and real estate agent Steve Nelson).
Near Veasley’s photo is an ornament holding a black and white picture of Mr. and Mrs. Bo Peppers, a couple who for years ran a community store in this small Morgan County town.
Broach says after she purchased the two trees at $75 each from a Hestertown Road Christmas tree farm, she placed them outside the store and the idea formed. Broach asked customers for photos of folks they wanted to remember or honor and as they came in, she placed the photos in the plastic orbs and hung them on the tree.
On top of the Larceny barrel is a handful of hangers waiting for more ornaments. After Christmas, she says, she’ll strip the tree of the ornaments and give everyone an ornament.
Typically, she says, she normally decorates the inside of the convenience store. This year she had a different idea. “I wanted people to know that there are other people out there thinking about people who have passed.”
The six foot trees that frame the front doors of the store are lit up like beacons during the night when the store is closed and stand as twinkling reminders of the people who have made the town a memorable place. “Nobody bothers them,” says Broach.
Broach arrives at the store every morning at 5 a.m. to begin cooking biscuits and getting coffee ready for a group of men that start pouring in at 6 a.m. when the store officially opens. On warm days the men buy coffee and sit around Nelson’s bench. On other days they congregate around the coffee pot inside the store and discuss weather patterns and rates of fertilizer and religion and politics and barbecue.
Broach’s husband, Ronnie, 78, normally accompanies her at the store. Ronnie doesn’t get paid, she says, but he, too, stands near the pop up kitchen with a hair net and a smile while making hot dogs, burgers and pizza for lunch. Ronnie comes in, he says, “so I can be with her.”
“We don’t like to be apart. Life’s too short. The couple has been married for 74 years and Ronnie says the recipe for success has been simple. “She tells me what to do and I do it.”
Ann Broach suggested that people use the town’s gathering point to honor their friends and relatives. On the Honor Tree there is a picture of a young Earl and Cybil Nunn. The Nunns have been residents of Bostwick for several generations and have raised more generations. Earl recently served as the town’s “Bostwick Cotton Gin Festival Cotton King.”
The ornaments sway in the wind.
Broach says the idea came organically from a woman who likes to speak kindly to customers. The trees, for the past two weeks, have been a focal point of the rhythm of the town. Folks buying gas or lottery tickets or a biscuit stop and peer at the ornaments, searching for friends or loved ones, both alive and dead.
“I know a lot of people say it was a sweet idea,” says Broach. “People don’t do things like this anymore.”
Broach says as a child her family was not always afforded a Christmas tree. “We couldn’t afford it,” she says. Her father always whittled out of wood whatever toys the children received. Christmas was about receiving fresh fruit and candy and togetherness.
And remembering, says Broach. Always about remembering.
“I’m sentimental at Christmas,” she says. “At Christmastime I like to remember people.”
When she started decorating the trees, people from town came to the store to help. “Different ones helped to decorate,” she says.
When the trees come down and the ornaments are given to relatives and friends remembered and honored, Broach says she will take comfort in the sense of place and time the trees have given the town.
“When I see the smile on their face, that’s enough for me,” she says.
“I like to make people happy.”