Happy Mother’s Day to ...
Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel salutes the mom of a local sports figure.
Marjorie’s voice was known all over the neighborhood in the Robert Taylor Homes Project on Chicago’s South Side.
When dusk arrived and the outside lights came on, Marjorie’s voice was sure to follow, echoing with alliteration all four of her boys’ names. Separated by just four years from oldest to youngest, the boys would be out playing, often some kind of ball, but the games for them ended at sundown. That’s when Marjorie would appear on the porch, that voice ringing like a bell, and the entire neighborhood would know the boys’ time was up.
The rest of the troubled projects would keep hopping after dark, often with the elements that destroy lives, but the boys could only get as far as that porch after darkness fell.
Their father was around some, but not living with them. It was up to Marjorie to keep them straight. Keep them out of the snares of Robert Taylor.
The high-rise housing project was built in 1962, hard by the Dan Ryan Expressway, along State Street between Pershing Road and 54th Street.
At one time, Robert Taylor was America’s largest public housing development. It included 28 16-story buildings, with a total of 4,415 apartments. It stretched for two miles.
Robert Taylor was planned for 11,000 residents. But at one point, 27,000 people lived in those 28 buildings.
Like the famous Cabrini-Green projects on which “Good Times” was based, Robert Taylor was besieged by violence, drugs and poverty. At times, only 5 percent of Robert Taylor residents were employed. Forty percent of the homes were single-parent, female-headed households.
Not an idyllic place to grow up. But good raising isn’t restricted by environment.
“A lot of stuff happened once those lights came on,” said son No. 3. “Shootings, drugs, gangs and stuff like that. Stuff you try to avoid, that was hard to avoid, because you were surrounded.
“She took care of us all. She had a hard task. That was a rough area. But she was pretty strict. She looked out for us.”
Marjorie worked as a teacher’s assistant at nearby DuSable High School, where the boys attended. Money was tight. Marjorie made do.
“You didn’t know what you didn’t know,” said her son. “She made do. She made us feel like we had a lot. That’s a powerful tool, to not let your family know what you don’t have.”
Marjorie stretched the food as best she could and made it all taste scrumptious. Chicken wings, red beans and rice, cornbread, black-eyed peas. All these decades later, her son still reels off his favorites without having to think.
Every week, Marjorie would march the boys to St. Mary’s Baptist Church, in time for Sunday school, right through the playgrounds of Robert Taylor. After church and before dark, that would be their domain. But everything had its own time.
“She kept tabs on us,” said the son. “She didn’t let us out of her sight, that much. She knew what was going on. She wasn’t going to allow us to get caught up in stuff.”
When son No. 3 went off to college, in faraway Texas, he got homesick quickly. In virtual shock, he called Marjorie, wanting to come home. “Nope,” she said. “Can’t come back here. This is not the place. You got a scholarship, gotta stick it out. Gotta make it work.” Make it work he did. Marjorie grew up in Anderson, Kentucky, but came to Chicago in her late teen years, got married, had the boys, split up with her husband and went about the business of making that voice synonymous with sunset in the Robert Taylor projects.
Those high-rises are long ago, but Marjorie, 89 years young, still lives in the south side, only in a much nicer neighborhood, in a house on State Street.
Marjorie is quiet, like that third son. Stays within herself. Doesn’t talk a lot, except maybe on the phone with friends. Goes to church, goes to the grocery store, reads the newspaper every day just like her son and sits by the fire, watching ballgames, from the Thunder to the Cubs.
And so on this fine Sunday morning, a tip of the cap to the woman who stood on the porch of the projects and called to come home Moses, Marvin, Maurice and Mack. Happy Mother’s Day to Marjorie Cheeks.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok. com/berrytramel.