Mary Peek, an Alabama sharecropper’s daughter who spent most or her working life as a domestic worker for a Columbus family, died of congestive heart failure Thursday at age 87 in a Columbus nursing home.
Those basic components of her life normally wouldn’t warrant much notice beyond her immediate family and friends.
Yet today, Mary Peek, aka “Ma Peek,” is grieved and remembered throughout the city and beyond.
She may have lived her life without status or station, but left a lasting impression by living out a simple truth: It’s not what you do for a living, but what you’re living to do that matters most.
“She lived every ounce of her life,” said Arleen Peek-Weatherby, one of Mary’s five children. “I don’t know if it was because of her upbringing or if it was just something that God put in her spirit. She just loved everybody she met. She would smile and say, ‘Hey, baby’ or ‘Hey, darling. Are you having a good day?’ And at that moment, you realized you were having a good day. Her spirit, it was just infectious.”
Peek grew up in Ethelsville, Alabama, the fourth of 14 children.
“My mom never liked going to work in the fields, so at the age of 9, my grandfather told her if she would cook three meals a day, she wouldn’t have to go to the fields,” Arleen said. “So, from the age of 9, she cooked every meal for the whole family, plus whoever else was around.”
After attending Stillman College, Mary Peek moved to Columbus in the early 1950s, finding work – primarily as the cook – in the home of Pratt and Francis Thomas, developing and refining her remarkable culinary skills. She stayed in the household for more than 50 years.
Over that time, she became something of a legend, cooking every meal for her employers and her own growing family, and often for her church (10th Street Missionary Baptist Church). Eventually, she expanded that work to a small catering business.
“My mother could take anything and make a grand meal of it,” Arleen said. “As a little girl, my granddaddy killed a possum one day. My mom cooked it up with sweet potatoes and put it on the table with its head still on. I don’t know how they could even look at it, but it was great.”
Memories of her cooking
Everyone who knew Mary, it seems, has a special memory of her cooking.
“Chocolate chip cookies,” said Jon Wells, the grandson of Pratt and Francis Thomas, for whom Mary became almost a second mother. “We got chocolate cookies and a lecture and the cookies were worth the lecture.”
“Her cheese rolls were amazing and so was her fried chicken,” said Nancy Carpenter, who often solicited Mary’s help for large gatherings Fellowship of Christian Athletes at her home (Carpenter’s husband, Carol, was the FCA director). “She would come over to help, but she would just about run you out of the kitchen. She could do it faster and do it quicker and she wasn’t shy about putting you in her place.”
“I’ll always remember her corn pudding and she made the best cakes ever,” said Michele Hoskins, who met Mary when visiting Arleen when Arleen and her family were living in Phoenix area. “There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. She made the best chicken salad and the prettiest fried chicken you ever saw. I didn’t call it cooking. It was cuisine. It was that good.”
It was another cooking story that cemented a 30-year relationship for Patricia Dunn. Like Hoskins, Dunn meet “Ma Peek” during one of her visits to Arizona.
“We had met Arleen at church in Arizona where (Arleen’s) husband was the pastor,” Dunn said. “Around 1989 or 1990, the church had a Pastor’s Celebration and a lot of their family came in for that. Arleen asked if me and my husband if we would let her mom stay at our house so she would be more comfortable. That was a real honor for us and we were nervous about it.”
Mary arrived in Arizona on a Wednesday evening. They noticed that Mary brought her luggage and an ice chest, but they didn’t give it much thought.
The Dunns left for work the next morning with Mary still in bed.
“We got home and, oh my goodness, she had laid out a meal fit for a king and a queen, and the kitchen was spotless. It was like a Thanksgiving feast,” Dunn recalled. “I said, ‘Ma Peek, where did you get all those wonderful food?’ She traveled all the way across the country and made us this fabulous meal, all out of an ice chest. We were stunned. We were supposed to be taking care of her, but she turned it all around. She took care of us. She was just an amazing woman with a heart of gold.”
Faith in word, faith in action
If Ma Peek was known for her food, she was equally known for her faith.
“She was just a godly woman,” Carpenter said. “You hear all the time about people sharing their faith, but nobody did it more than Mary. She would come over the help in the kitchen with those FCA events. One minute she would be in the kitchen. You look up and she’s with the kids ministering to them. When evangelists came, she’d be out there preaching to the preachers.”
Hers was a loving, serving faith, but a firm faith as well.
“She was a strong Christian, no doubt at that,” said Wells. “She lived her faith by word and example. She did what was right and expected you to do what was right, too. She’d tell you something, and it wasn’t a suggestion and there wasn’t any discussion. It was just the answer.”
Ma Peek was Vivian Smith Mabry’s Sunday school teacher.
“I grew up watching and learning from her,” Mabry said. “She was loving and supportive and always an inspiration. She always had positive things to say to the young girls. She was always saying, ‘Stand up straight’ and ‘Speak clearly.’ It was all about respect with her. She demanded it. She got it, too.”
Joyce Orr got to know Mary through Arleen, when Orr and Arleen were working at Franklin Academy.
“She was matter of fact,” Orr said. “If you were not acting like a young lady or young man, she knew what to tell you and she told you. If you didn’t like it, that was your problem.”
‘Shake it off’
Although firm in her faith and unequivocal in her admonishments, Ma Peek was hardly austere.
She was full of life, fun and surprises, too.
It wasn’t that she was spared the hardships of life – she lost her husband, Curtis, in a 1974 house fire and a son, Ronnie Washington, in 2008. She never made much money, either.
But she was determined to enjoy life no matter what difficulties she encountered along the way, Arleen said.
“She could take a penny and somehow manage to go anywhere she wanted to go,” Arleen said.
In her early 60s, Mary joined a couple of friends on her first cruise. When she returned, she was eager to share the details of her trip with Arleen, including a trip to a nude beach.
“I said, ‘Mom, you didn’t!'” Arleen recalled. “She smiled and laughed and said, ‘Yes, I did. I’m living my life.'”
Mabry remembers Mary would sometimes break into an impromptu dance.
“If she ever got in that mood, it could be on the church grounds, on the sidewalk, wherever she was,” Mabry said. “It would embarrass Arleen about to death, but Ma Peek, she didn’t care.
“If there was something going on and you needed prayer about it, she would listen and pray with you,” she added. “That was the serious Ma Peek. She would give you that word from God. Then she would say, ‘OK. Let’s shake it off now.’ And the next thing you know, you’re dancing.”
For Arleen, “shake it off” became a part of her mother’s lasting legacy.
“When problems came her way, she’d say, ‘I’m just going to shake, shake, shake it off!’ That was her motto and that’s what I put on her headstone,” Arleen said. “That was her.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.