Photography by Dustin Chambers | Story by Max Blau
At the top of Atlanta’s Sunset Avenue, the street once home to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you’ll find the home of U.S. Army veteran Chiliquila Ogletree. English Avenue, her neighborhood as a child, seemed full of unprecedented possibility. But the forces of poverty, crime, and drugs slowly eroded the hopes she had for her four children. Over the past two years, Ogletree allowed journalists Max Blau and Dustin Chambers into her home, where she is raising six grandchildren aged 10 and under. This is the story of her second act of parenthood.
Chiliquila takes a photo of her grandchildren and her daughter Erica as they celebrate Chris’ third birthday.
Everything had to be perfect on Christmas Day. Chiliquila Ogletree spent the morning in her kitchen, making sure the baked turkey and collards filled the plates to their edges.
The presents splayed out from under a Christmas tree draped in white lights and topped with a powder-blue Santa hat. She had a knack for setting up the holidays just right — except for one thing she could not control: her grandchildren. All bets were off once they took hold of the pile of presents.
There’d be no white Christmas. It was sunny and in the low 70s. But that proved to be a blessing, because the gaggle of her grandchildren could run wild in the front yard of her nearly century-old house in English Avenue, a historically black neighborhood a few minutes west of the skyscrapers and stadiums in the heart of downtown Atlanta. Out on Chiliquila’s front porch, her grandchildren mushed pure colors of Play-Doh tubs into a single psychedelic clump and stuffed blank stationery with a “Star Wars” theme into a new Dr. Seuss backpack. One of the boys, seemingly practicing for a stuntman part in one of the next Marvel movies, drove his electric jeep down the front steps of the house. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. The adults paused their conversations once the wheels met the cracked concrete and the toy toppled over into the dirt. After a few seconds, though, the boy shook it off and ran for the next toy in sight like nothing ever happened.
The afternoon arrived before Chiliquila could sit down next to her husband, Burt, who’d already cracked a beer. Clad in her orange tank top and tall, worn Timberland work boots, she collapsed into a white plastic patio chair, her usual spot, and soaked in the sights of her smiling grandchildren. There are six of them: Ricco, 9, the quiet thinker who loves Minecraft; Kani, 6, the silly and sensitive soul; and Heaven, 5, the star student unafraid of strangers. Then, there was Shaquita, 5, the dancing queen with an infectious smile; Eric, 2, the maker of mischief; and Chris, also 2, the wild child everyone calls “Bam Bam.” They ate her homemade meals. They slept under her roof. They all understood Chiliquila was in charge.
Heaven, Chiliquila’s granddaughter, rides her pink tricycle across the patio of the Ogletree house on Christmas Day. Chiliquila (center) sits outside on the front patio with her husband, Burt.
The veteran couldn’t shake the Army out her daily rhythms, even after nearly two decades. Since she left the service, severe injuries to her neck and back have prevented her from holding a steady job. But her injuries didn’t stop her from cleaning, cooking, grabbing groceries, shopping for presents, and the countless other responsibilities that go with being the head of a household of 10. The love she poured into each Christmas couldn’t be measured in pounds of bird cooked, or yards of wrapping paper used. A better measure: her budgeting strategy, her disciplined plan to “pinch the penny to pinch the penny to pinch the penny” so they could blow it out big at least one day a year. Blowing out big moments — holidays, birthdays, graduations — took on greater importance in a neighborhood where the good died far too young or went to prison all too often.
As her fraying patio screens flapped in the breeze, Chiliquila took a drag from her Newport cigarette, letting half an inch of ash grow before she flicked it. She looked past her grandchildren to the street beyond her crooked front gate. As a teenage boy with long cornrows pedaled west on his bicycle, a driver blaring trap music from a white, decked-out convertible headed in the other direction. English Avenue was surrounded by many of Atlanta’s most valuable resources. To the east was The Coca-Cola Company’s headquarters. Georgia Tech’s campus sat to the north. Bellwood Quarry, site of what will someday be Atlanta’s largest park, was a short drive west. And to the south was the Atlanta University Center, a cluster of historically black colleges and universities including Morehouse and Spelman, and a pair of football stadiums. There was the Georgia Dome, set to be demolished after only 25 years, and its replacement, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.5 billion facility later referred to as an “American Cathedral.”
Three of Chiliquila’s grandchildren hang on their front gate and look out over Sunset Avenue, the street where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in the final years of his life.
Over the years, both stadiums pulled English Avenue into the pages of local newspapers — reminders that Atlanta had one of the highest gaps between rich and poor in the nation. Chiliquila wasn’t blind to the realities that faced her neighborhood, where the median household made less than $16,000 a year – and where residents of a tightly knit community often made choices between dealing drugs or making deals with investors buying homes for cash. Something always needed improvement at her house — holes in the drywall, carpet worn down to the backing, no running water. But in a life of a million little wars, Christmas was a ceasefire, a celebration of what the Ogletrees had, which was each other.
Like nearly two-thirds of English Avenue's residents, Chiliquila balanced the spinning plates of poverty — feeding the whole family on a fixed income, caring for her sick husband and aging mother, and staying compliant with all the agencies they relied upon to survive. Christmas, though, was a time to enjoy the fruits of her labor: the grandchildren. On Christmas, there’d be none of the usual worrying about whether the mailman would drop off the checks, or if the little ones would ask about the blue lights flashed atop the squad cars. The only worry, sitting in her patio chair, was watching Ricco and Kani fire foam darts from their plastic guns at each other. They ducked and covered and laughed, like the game they thought it was.
“No, we don’t point guns!” Chiliquila shouted from her seat.
The 51-year-old’s concern was understandable: Most of the grandchildren had never met their Uncle Carlous, who was serving time on felony gun charges. Her parenting — a skillful combination of the sweet and stern — came as the result of having already raised four children. Over the past five years, she’d found herself the guardian of four, with two other grandchildren living under her roof. In her grandchildren, she saw the best of her four children — as well as the hardships they faced, as she second-guessed whether she could’ve done more the first time around.
But her grandchildren promised Chiliquila another shot. Maybe she could guide Ricco and Kani to college dorms instead of trap houses. Maybe her past lessons would help Heaven and ’Quita harness all their Black Girl Magic. Or maybe her constant presence would someday help Eric and Chris raise wild toddlers of their own.
(Top) Heaven (left) and ’Quita brush and braid the hair of their dolls. (Bottom) Ricco runs wild through the front yard with Chris hanging on his back.
If Chiliquila walked out her front gate down Sunset Avenue, she would not only see the story of Atlanta’s west side, but also the tale of the entire city. She’d pass lots where the city’s most revered figures — people like Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, and Julian Bond, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center — once lived, as well as blighted blocks dotted with boarded-up buildings. She’d pass homes owned by black families for generations and dwellings owned by white investors who rented back to the community under the anonymity of shell companies. And Chiliquila would eventually pass 234 Sunset Avenue, the three-bedroom, red-brick house where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved the year she was born.
Some days Chiliquila had to look harder than others to find a reason to love the only place she’s ever called home. But she knew it was always there. The light of God always shined down on English Avenue, she said. Her belief is why she stayed. She did it all in hopes her grandchildren might someday see their community become, as Dr. King aspired, beloved.
“God gave me a second chance,” she once said. “I’m trying to do the things I didn’t do before. Sometimes I get up in the morning and can’t walk, but I’ve got to do it, anyway.”
Chiliquila usually loved homecomings. No matter how much she enjoyed her house on Christmas and the faces of family sitting on her porch, Chiliquila couldn’t stop thinking about who was missing that Christmas. It was the first December without her youngest daughter, Christina, and the first of many holidays to come where her absence would be felt. No matter how many plates Chiliquila filled.
Chiliquila sits in her trusted chair on the front porch of her home in English Avenue.
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, as the light shined through the tall, stained-glass windows of the Refuge Ministries Temple, Chiliquila sat in the front row, learning how to say goodbye to Christina, who had died suddenly six days earlier. To Chiliquila’s left was her sister, Trinise, who had selected a poem for the funeral pamphlet, encouraging everyone to “remember all the HAPPY times.” Christina’s father, Eric, and his wife sat to the right of Chiliquila. Hopeful words left a preacher’s tongue and landed in her ear, reminding her not to tell her 25-year-old daughter goodbye, but to say, See you later. After the echoes of amen floated toward the pulpit, Chiliquila stood up, her daughters Peatra and Erica by her side, and faced the four dozen people who were paying their respects. Chiliquila read the Prayer of St. Francis.
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace,
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to
comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
After the service ended, Erica let go of a bundle of shiny black balloons in the parking lot. They watched in silence as each rose into Atlanta’s azure sky. Once Christina’s casket was loaded into the hearse, they drove to the Forest Hills Memorial Gardens cemetery, just beyond the flight paths of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Chiliquila, whose pink floral blouse matched the roses atop the coffin, walked as gracefully as she could through the hillside toward her seat. As her fingers ran along the runs in her black stockings, Chiliquila looked out from beneath the brim of her black-bowed hat toward the rows of graves. The village that raised Christina now carried Chiliquila’s pain like pallbearers lifting a heavy casket. Her family was there, surrounded by elders in their Sunday best, as were friends of Christina, each wearing “R.I.P.” T-shirts with a photo of her posing in a LeBron James jersey. Though they couldn’t stop Chiliquila’s heartache, she felt comfort in knowing that guardian angels were watching over the Ogletrees.
Before they laid Christina to rest, Chiliquila closed her eyes and clung to the darkness behind her eyelids. To open her eyes for too long would remind her of what might’ve happened. In recent years, narcotics officers had arrested Christina twice on drug charges. More recently, Chiliquila cussed out some boys who sold dope near the three-bedroom house on Jett Street where she was raised and her mother, Elaine, still lived. On the previous Sunday, as the early evening sun hung low, paramedics found Christina dead outside the house on Jett. Chiliquila didn’t know for sure why Christina had died, nor could she bring herself to ask the medical examiner whether the cause of death was a drug overdose. She’d find out someday why Christina died. Not today, though, Lord. Maybe next week.
Friends and family attend the burial service for Chiliquila’s youngest daughter, Christina, who died suddenly the week beforehand.
Mothers shouldn’t have to bury their daughters. On top of her grief, there were the funeral logistics and subsequent bills. And Elaine, now 70, was about to make the five-block move from her home on Jett Street, where she’d lived since right after World War II, to the house where Chiliquila and her husband Burt stayed. They decided to call it an “extended stay” — which might mean six months or six years. One way or the other, Chiliquila would soon have 10 people living in a 984-square-foot house — about the average size of an Atlanta apartment — that lacked running water.
English Avenue, in many ways, was like a magnet. Her mom, Elaine, and grandma, Doris, never left the neighborhood once they settled there. And Chiliquila’s three daughters never went away for long, if at all. They either got caught up in the thriving drug or sex trades that replaced many of the thriving black-owned businesses from the days of Dr. King. None of her children got farther from home for an extended length of time than her son, Carlous, who was finishing a decade-long sentence in a Savannah, Georgia, prison.
Over time, Chiliquila had seen neighbors leave English Avenue. Some were evicted. Others moved up and out of English Avenue. The combination of those forces had resulted in roughly two of every five homes becoming abandoned. You could notice the difference most on Sundays when former residents returned to the churches of their childhood to praise God for a few hours before they returned to their new lives. To the contrary, the Ogletree house had grown more crowded — and Christina’s death had brought them even closer.
Eric stands behind Elaine, Chiliquila’s mother, on the porch.
After the burial, they piled in their cars, flipped off the hazard lights, and rode to Trinise’s house on Atlanta’s west side. The adults lined up at the buffet to load their plates with baked chicken, peas, and mashed potatoes — and if there was any left, some Church’s fried chicken. They picked at the food. The grandchildren sipped Sprite from their Styrofoam cups, zigging and zagging past their parents’ legs, just out of Chiliquila’s reach. She wanted nothing more than for them to be children who did not have to grow up too soon.
Eventually, Chiliquila stepped outside away from the rest of the family for a moment of privacy. She sat out front on the brick steps, their cracks filled with overgrown weeds, and slumped slightly for a moment of privacy. She looked into her cell phone, full of photos of Christina, her two other daughters, and her grandchildren. No home-going had ever left her feeling so empty. And no home-going had ever reminded her more of what she still had.
Eric licks his lips as he fixates on Ricco’s plate of food.
There were too many plates spinning on MLK Day. Burt had just arrived home from the hospital after a scary seizure. Soon, Chiliquila needed to go to court to make her case for disability following a horrible fall in which she fractured one of her vertebrae. The fall, which happened several years earlier, had left her with limited feeling below her neck. The stress of tomorrow — and the bills that lay ahead — made it easy to forget the masses out on Auburn Avenue in remembrance of Dr. King.
The 5 o’clock news blared from the cracked, big-screen TV. Everyone at the Ogletree house could hear Channel 2’s Justin Farmer reading back Donald Trump’s attacks against Atlanta, calling its blocks “crime-infested,” alluding to the dilapidated houses filled with families like the Ogletrees. No one here paid much attention to the president-elect. The chaos of 10 people in a two-bedroom house made it easy to forget the news in Washington.
“People judge the look of a house by its cover,” Chiliquila said and shrugged.
Chiliquila watches a news report on President-elect Donald Trump after he bashed Atlanta during a spat with Congressman John Lewis.
One of Chiliquila’s earliest memories of living in English Avenue was the clattering hooves of the mules that pulled Dr. King’s caisson to his public funeral service at Morehouse College. Chiliquila was a toddler, a few years younger than King’s daughter, Bernice, raised at a time when Atlanta’s west side felt like a place of promise for girls like them. Chiliquila had opportunities to go to school, to dream, and to leave Atlanta on multiple occasions. The first time, in January 1977, her seventh-grade class traveled to Washington, where Jimmy Carter told the world in his inaugural address, “To be true to ourselves, we must be true to others.”
The second time came six years later after Chiliquila, then 17, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. Clark Atlanta University, one of the HBCUs that was part of the Atlanta University Center, just south of her home, had offered her an academic scholarship. When it fell through, for reasons still unknown to Chiliquila, she joined the Army, hoping it might help her pay for college someday. The Army sent her to Colorado for basic training, where she earned her M16 sharpshooter badge and trained to become an ammo specialist. Two years into her service, the private went into labor while stationed in Colorado. She left the hospital with not one, but two, babies: Carlous and Peatra.
The kids stayed with Elaine while Chiliquila finished a tour of duty in Germany. In December 1986, she left the Army, one rank shy of sergeant, and returned to a west side in the midst of rapid change. Her first year back, officials began proposing a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons — the now demolished Georgia Dome — that had the potential to displace residents in one of two black neighborhoods near English Avenue: Vine City, where Dr. King lived, or the tiny community of Lightning. Students raised protest signs, which contained messages like "Don't Take Away Our Future." One pastor, skeptical of pledges to help west-side neighborhoods, referred to the entire process as “hustling in reverse." In the end, Lightning lost. The Georgia Dome displaced scores of families who lived on the western edge of downtown Atlanta, a short walk from Chiliquila’s childhood home on Jett Street.
Chiliquila, who had worked every type of job from deli clerk to delivery driver, briefly worked as a ticket taker after the Georgia Dome opened. But pledges from officials that the stadium would revitalize the neighborhood fell short like a running back on fourth-and-goal. Front lawns became weekend parking lots for the stadium instead of places for children to play. Police and politicians didn’t seem to care genuinely about her community — unless it was a football Sunday.
For a stretch of the early ’90s, Chiliquila collected food stamps during a frustrating period of unemployment. By that time, crack cocaine had already devastated low-income communities like English Avenue and Vine City. Her husband at the time started smoking and pressured her to try crack. After resisting her husband, she reluctantly smoked the drug. Crack, subsequently, consumed her world for a full year.
“That first time, man, that was the end of it,” she remembered. “I couldn’t stop.”
After a yearlong treatment program at St. Jude’s Recovery Center, Chiliquila re-enlisted in the Army. This time, she became a “cable dog,” part of a team that installed telecommunications when the military set up new outposts. During her second Army stint, her hometown, thrust onto the world stage by the triumph and tragedy of the Centennial Olympics, continued to change in dramatic ways. But the city’s development boom skipped English Avenue, which fell further into the despair of blight, drugs, and prostitution. “The Bluff” emerged as a nickname for a neighborhood that became so well known for its open-air drug market that cars with Tennessee and Alabama plates would be spotted there. “Snow on tha Bluff,” a 2012 docudrama about a local dealer, noted the acronym was short for Better Leave You Fucking Fool. Over time, longtime residents found the nickname — and the local media’s use of it — disparaging. They still loved their community in spite of its troubles.
“People say the Bluff — why can’t you say English Avenue?” Elaine once asked as she sat with Chiliquila in their living room. “You’ve got drugs in black and white neighborhoods.”
When Chiliquila left the army in the late ‘90s, English Avenue still seemed like a place where “neighbors took care of the neighborhood.” BellSouth, looking for trained telecommunications workers, hired her. The job provided steady income for the better part of a decade. But then she got caught in a massive round of layoffs. She tried to go to college, briefly enrolling at American InterContinental University, where she hoped to study criminal justice alongside Erica, the second oldest of her three daughters.
Not long after, Chiliquila ran into Burt Ogletree, a longtime friend who was a few years younger than her. He’d had a crush on her since he was a kid. They started dating. One night in 2008, Chiliquila stayed over at Burt’s house on North Avenue, where he lived with his Grandpa Willie. And she never left. The house had no phone and no gas line for heat. So she helped get both installed. The couple lived there with Willie, who owned the house, and his girlfriend. Chiliquila effectively became his caretaker: Whenever he would tap his cane against the wall, she would be there to help, until he passed away near Thanksgiving of 2011.
Chiliquila prepares vegetables for dinner in the front hallway.
The year before Willie died, Chiliquila’s oldest daughter, Peatra, 26, gave birth to Heaven. The hospital notified the Georgia Department of Child and Family Services that drugs were detected in Heaven’s system. Chiliquila volunteered to be Heaven’s guardian so she would remain close to the family. In the process, Elaine transferred custody of Ricco, Peatra’s older son, to Chiliquila. When she first let Willie know about Heaven and Ricco, hoping he’d let them stay at his house, he simply replied: Whatever you love, I love.
The birth of Heaven, in essence, began Chiliquila’s second act of parenthood. She was 45. Her youngest daughter, Christina, had turned 18 only three years before. Soon, Chiliquila would also become the guardian of ’Quita and Eric, the children of Erica’s partner. And Erica, too, would move in with her two children, Kani and Chris, initially to help Chiliquila after her fall. From 2011 to 2014, seven new faces moved into the Ogletree house — bringing the number of people living in the two-bedroom home to nine.
As much as Chiliquila felt blessed to have a house full of kids again, guardianship came with its burdens. Some, like her spinal cord accident, were physical. Others were mental: She rarely got a full night’s sleep after tending to the grandchildren’s needs. Now and then, when her mind drifted, she’d think about her Army hitch in the ’90s. She was stationed in Arizona at Fort Huachuca — a base once home to the “Buffalo Soldiers,” a short drive from the U.S.-Mexico border. The neighboring town, Sierra Vista, was the only other place she’d ever dreamed of living. Out there, out in the desert, there was nothing but quiet. Nothing but peace.
Summer snuck past like a note under a desk. There was the celebration of Heaven’s and ’Quita’s kindergarten graduation, and the Fourth of July block party where Ricco lit fireworks too close to his hands for Chiliquila’s comfort. Chiliquila would be relieved to have the kids back at school. Then, she learned classes at Centennial Academy were starting again three days earlier, on a Monday instead of Thursday. She needed everything ready tomorrow.
Ricco plays with fireworks during a Fourth of July block party.
Chiliquila was low on time and money. The court hearing for her disability payments had recently gone her way after months of waiting, but the first disability checks wouldn’t come for another few months. Her next round of government checks wouldn’t begin to arrive until tomorrow, the first of the month. That wouldn’t help for the first day of school. So, she decided to get shirts from ROSS that looked close enough to the official school uniforms. Doing so would, in effect, stretch her budget.
She stepped outside and took a deep breath before pulling a drag from her Newport. Her back hurt, but thanks to her pain meds, she could lean over to fuss with Elaine’s oxygen tank. Soon, Tiron, her baby-faced nephew with a barrel chest, pulled up to the curb in his maroon Buick with his girlfriend and their baby. They steered past the cops and the churchgoers driving into the old neighborhood. Tiron dropped off Chiliquila at a convenience store to cash a cashier’s check — her last $100 before the next government check arrived. Then, they drove up Hollowell Parkway, turned left past the old Bankhead Highway Bridge, and headed north toward a strip mall near I-85. ROSS was closed. TJ Maxx was open. But no uniforms were in sight.
WalMart, it was. Most days, she had a motorized scooter to ride through the store. Today, she felt good, energized to be out of the house, and bee-lined on foot past the pencil sharpeners for the children’s section. The search started for gray shorts. She sorted through the lower racks, looking for size 4s and 5s. The tag said $9.68. Too pricey. She bent over further, in spite of her back, to rifle through more hangers.
“I need a 6 or a 7…”
Tiron walked over with a handful of pants with adjustable waists for sizes 4-8.
“I can’t do a 5,” she replied, partially acknowledging his help. “You see how thick Heaven is getting? Five too small. She’s a 6 or a 7. A 5 can’t do.”
Chiliquila and her nephew, Tiron, search for the right school uniforms at WalMart the day before school starts for her grandchildren.
The dutiful nephew headed off in search of a 7. Meanwhile, Chiliquila wandered to find white polo shirts. Before she even found that shirt rack, Tiron had found pants in sizes 5, 6, and 7. He held the petite pants to his waist — a futile attempt to provide scale against a body the size of a college football player’s — before she held it against her body. The pants worked for ’Quita but not Heaven. A skirt worked for Heaven but not ’Quita. Chiliquila’s patience thinned.
“They’ve got to be on point,” she insisted.
It took a while — but she finally arrived at a decision: Boys get shorts. Girls get pants.
“This is just going to have to work,” she said. On the way out, she treated Tiron to a pouch of warm cookies oozing with chocolate chips that melted onto his fingertips. The lemon pepper rotisserie chicken wafted in the warming tray. But at $7, it wasn’t going to happen today. Uniforms came first.
Her cart glided into the self-checkout aisle. Tiron scanned — white polo for $4.47; a black belt for $7.58; gray shorts for $9.68; gray pants for $5.97 — while she slid a $50 plus some smaller bills into the machine.
As she nibbled on one of Tiron’s cookies, her mind wandered again toward tomorrow. It would surely bring a new set of challenges. But for today, at least, she made it all work.
Left to right: Kani, ’Quita, and Heaven dress up for their kindergarten graduation.
Twilight colors faded over the red and black army of Falcons fans filing into the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which was finally open, after years of meetings, months of construction, and the displacement of two historic black churches. Chiliquila, rocking a bold dress that featured Rihanna’s face, was too busy to notice her street had become a cut-through for suburban football fans trying to avoid the traffic on Northside Drive. Instead, she stirred a pot’s worth of ground beef and prepared the veggies for taco night. Before Falcons players took the field for their home opener, the grandkids each grabbed a stuffed shell before heading back into the bedroom where they all slept.
Chiliquila struggled to keep her eyes open. The school year, already one month in, hadn’t gone as smoothly as she liked. Even after spending money on uniforms so her grandchildren blended in, they were getting mocked by their Centennial Academy classmates on the bus ride home for “staying in a ‘bando’” — short for, as hip-hop artists called it, an abandoned home. Ricco, the oldest, played it down, saying, “I don’t care how the house looks.” But Chiliquila refused to stand for it. She’d since cobbled together $3,500 — tapping into her modest rainy-day funds — to renovate a porch long overdue for repairs.
“I used to be a nervous Nancy,” Chiliquila said. “But I can’t change what’s going to happen. We don’t know when the money comes. We make do.”
Chiliquila helps ’Quita and Ricco with their homework after school.
The hardest part about replacing the porch wasn’t the letting go of the money or finding a reliable carpenter. It was stopping thieves from stealing materials. She took turns with Elaine and Burt, staying up at night to make sure no one stole the wood from the front yard. Simultaneously, she decided if they were going to pay for a dumpster to sit outside, she might as well clear the junk that had slowly consumed the living room, which doubled as her mother’s quarters. Elaine had enough space for her chair — where tonight she watched the Falcons, whenever the signal didn’t cut out — but not much else.
Without a functional porch, Chiliquila parked her chair in the narrow front hallway just out of sight of Erica and the grandchildren. She lit a couple of cigarettes only to doze off with the ash falling on her dress. A few feet away in the bedroom, Erica sat at the foot of her mattress, smoking and sipping her Bud Ice, a slight source of relaxation in a room with six energetic kids. The boys wrestled over three cell phones to play games. ’Quita danced like the big stars in the viral YouTube videos. And Heaven, writing out words she had learned on a legal pad of paper, ran out to show Chiliquila. Heaven jolted Chiliquila from a tired daze, hugged her, and ran out of sight to practice her writing.
’Quita falls asleep on the bed next to her biological mother, Tab, Erica’s partner at the time. Chiliquila is the guardian of two of her children.
By the middle of the month, Chiliquila had received two welcomed messages: one from the government, officially approving her disability claim, and the other from her son, who was about to be released from prison. Even the workers had almost finished repairs on the porch. But just as everything started to line up, the fuse box shorted, leaving much of the house dark until they came up with another $3,000 to fix it.
Instead of a blowout party, they celebrated Elaine’s 72nd birthday by watching the Winter Olympics and making ham sandwiches with ingredients Erica picked up after her shift at the Varsity, Atlanta’s 90-year-old fast-food behemoth in Midtown. Aside from Burt, who’d just had another seizure, everyone else hung out in the front bedroom, trying not to get on each other’s nerves. Ricco dutifully worked his way through math problems. Erica brushed ’Quita’s hair. And all the adults tried to convince Heaven, who had just turned 7, to take her cold medicine.
Erica, Chiliquila’s daughter, gets the kids’ hair washed and ready for school the next day.
“Throw it back, Heaven!” Erica yelled. “Let it hit your throat.”
“It tastes like boo-boo!” Heaven said, wincing.
“Ain’t that grape flavored?” Chiliquila chimed in with a concerned tone.
“It’s still disgusting,” Erica said, siding with Heaven.
“Crybaby!” Ricco shouted.
“Are you going to let him call you crybaby?” Chiliquila joked in the hope Heaven would swallow the medicine.
The glow of snowboarder Shaun White’s televised halfpipe run lit up the room, thanks to a heavy-duty extension cord that ran across the house to another room with working electricity. The house had seen better days, Chiliquila knew. She felt longtime residents hadn’t received enough of the help promised during the deal to build Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After all, Falcons owner Arthur Blank had pledged to invest in Atlanta’s west side, she’d heard. As part of a more than $30 million effort, the Blank Family Foundation had trained several hundred residents to get better jobs; built a community center for at-risk teens; and connected residents to health resources. Outreach workers, offering services funded by the Blank Family Foundation, had stopped by the Ogletree house on several occasions. One even delivered an application for a home repair program to help with repairs. Chiliquila said she filled out the form. The Foundation can point to several houses in the neighborhood that have been repaired under the program. But a spokesperson said it had no record of an application from Chiliquila. Rather than wait for confusion to clear up and risk further bullying to her grandchildren, Chiliquila paid for the repairs herself.
Heaven, unable to pout her way out of taking medicine, tried again to throw back the plastic cup the size of a thimble. But she stopped halfway through, unable to get it all down. She wailed at the medicine's taste and ran toward Chiliquila. She opened her arms wide, grabbed Heaven, and gave her grandbaby a giant hug until the tears ran dry. In case that wasn’t enough, Chiliquila scratched Heaven by running her long, sparkling nails down her legs — the way she always liked it.
’Quita watches a YouTube video on Chiliquila’s phone.
Chiliquila cleared her calendar for March 12. That Monday, Carlous had recently said, would be the day he’d come home from prison. She knew he’d need time to adjust to life on the outside those first few days. Carlous insisted, too, that he needed to put the pieces of his life back together himself. Chiliquila felt pride seeing her son mature like that. However, she wouldn’t be deterred from offering help — or offering to make pork chops and buttermilk pie. His favorites.
On Sunday morning, as Atlanta United soccer fans started to tailgate outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Carlous called. She couldn’t wait to hug him. Hearing his voice, though, was a wonderful consolation.
“What time you getting here Monday?” Chiliquila asked.
“Nine o’clock,” he replied.
“I’ll see you then,” she said.
Carlous had a heart of gold, she’d often say, but he had made one big mistake on the night of March 11, 2008. A few minutes after 11 o’clock, Carlous pointed a Ruger 9mm pistol at three people who’d just left Ecco, a fancy Midtown restaurant, and told them to “give me all you got,” according to an Atlanta Police report. A wallet and a pair of purses ultimately led to felony charges with a potential sentence that could keep him locked up until he was old and gray. He pleaded guilty to three robbery charges. In return, a Fulton County judge sentenced Carlous to 10 years in prison. Carlous' run-in with the criminal system was, in part, why Chiliquila discouraged the grandchildren from playing with toy guns.
Now in his 30s, Carlous wore a trimmed goatee and had inked his body with intricate tattoos. He served much of his sentence at Hays State Prison — a notorious corrections facility in north Georgia — where he kept a low profile, playing an occasional game of chess and practicing his drawings. He sketched some of his tattoo designs, including one on his side depicting skin peeling back to reveal three ribs. Each rib a name on it: his grandma, his aunt, and his mom. During his final stint in Savannah, he’d wake up promptly at 4 a.m. to make it on time to his work detail at a WalMart warehouse. Talking over the phone, Chiliquila felt proud of the man Carlous had become, staying away from trouble on the inside, with no write-ups or anything of the sort. Chiliquila liked as many of his Facebook posts as she could, both his shirtless selfies and motivational messages.
Chiliquila wanted everything to be perfect. Around 10 o’clock Sunday morning, she was cleaning the kitchen, trying to get through all her chores before Monday. As she ran through her daily tasks, she heard one of the grandchildren say, “Hey, Uncle Carlous!” Uncle Carlous? she thought. The kids must be on FaceTime. Then Chiliquila looked up and, to her great surprise, Carlous was standing in his white cap, sunglasses, and blue jeans — actually home. Tears poured down her face at the sight of her son. She couldn’t believe it. Carlous wrapped his arms around Chiliquila. She didn’t want to let go.
Of Chiliquila’s many acts of love, she took the most pride in the precision of her morning routine. Her mission was to get Ricco, Kani, ’Quita, and Heaven showered, dressed, and groomed before the school bus arrived at 7:10 a.m. On this rainy Monday morning, Chiliquila began a carefully coordinated dance once her alarm went off at 5 o’clock. She headed to the kitchen to pour bottled water into a large pot. As the water warmed on the stove, she laid out their school uniforms, underwear, socks, and shoes in the front hallway.
In the front room, she found the mattress covered with five of the grandchildren, all fast asleep. Heaven, draped in an Army blanket, slept on the floor, using Uncle Carlous’ bicep for a pillow. Chiliquila turned on a desk lamp. The light disturbed no one at first. Then ’Quita yawned, looked up at the morning news, and sat up straight in a morning haze.
“C’mon ’Quita,” Chiliquila said. “Time to brush your teeth.”
Heaven puts on her white school uniform – the one Chiliquila bought at WalMart – a few minutes after 6 a.m. on a recent Monday morning.
A few minutes before 6, ’Quita moved her green brush around her mouth, reaching back to her molars. “Spit!” Chiliquila said. By then, she had poured the water out of the pot into a plastic tub, the kind most families used for storage. In a house without running water, Chiliquila had engineered a daily bathing system. First, ’Quita bathed in a tub full of soap and water, getting help from Chiliquila, who washed the parts of her back she couldn’t reach. As ’Quita finished, Chiliquila filled another plastic tub full of water and soap so her next grandchild would bathe in a clean tub. (She had only two tubs; she would clean whichever tub was idle for the next grandbaby in line.) Once ’Quita was clean, Chiliquila handed her a towel, along with her folded school uniform.
“Heaven?” Chiliquila called.
There was silence at first. She saw Heaven still snuggling next to Carlous.
“Come on, please?” Chiliquila pleaded.
“Heaven!” Chiliquila called.
“Get up, girl!” said Carlous who, awakened by his mother, nudged his niece.
Heaven sleeps on the floor and uses Uncle Carlous’ bicep as a pillow. Until a week before, Carlous and Heaven had only ever spoken by phone due to his prison sentence.
Within a half hour, the four kids had all bathed. Ricco, Heaven, and ’Quita had buttoned up their white and gray Centennial Academy uniforms – the ones Chiliquila had bought at WalMart last summer. Kani wore his camouflage pants and shirt after earning a day out of uniform for his good behavior at school. Chiliquila made sure they all had their deodorant applied, medicine swallowed, and homework in their backpacks before they got to play a few minutes of video games.
The hardest part came last: getting Heaven and ’Quita to sit long enough to do their hair. ’Quita sat on a stool facing away from Chiliquila. Then, Chiliquila spread Edge Control all over ’Quita’s hair, before brushing her hair back firmly enough to make ’Quita wince in discomfort. Chiliquila grabbed a couple of rubber bands from ’Quita to make a ponytail. The last step: Decorate her hair by placing white decorative balls around the ponytail, along with matching clips in the shape of flowers. Heaven got the same firm but tender hair care. Instead of white flowers, hers were blue.
“It’s 7!” Kani yelled, letting Chiliquila know there were 10 minutes to go.
“7!” Ricco repeated.
“Thank you!” Chiliquila said.
’Quita hands Chiliquila a hair tie minutes before the bus pulls up outside their house.
By 7:03 a.m., with the final flowers in the girls’ hair, Chiliquila had pulled off her mission. She snagged a cigarette from the pack of Newports on the couch. Turning to her son, she marveled at how much Ricco looked like Carlous at the age of 10. The world had changed so much in a decade’s time. Stadiums grew taller, cars turned electric, and phones got smarter since Carlous had last seen his nephew — who back then fit in his arms like a football. Carlous, fearing his nephews might miss all the changes to come, vowed to keep them off the path to prison.
“I refuse to see them go the way I went,” he said.
At 7:11 a.m., one minute behind schedule, the brakes of the school bus squealed outside the Ogletree house. Ricco darted toward the door, followed by ’Quita, Kani, and Heaven.
“Everyone got their book bags?” Chiliquila asked.
“Yes!” the four shouted back from the other side of the front gate.
Heaven runs out to the bus for another day of first grade at Centennial Academy.
They crossed the street, climbed aboard the bus, and pulled their faces to the window. Kani waved to Chiliquila up on the porch. She waved back. In the spring of 2018, 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, the moral arc of the universe didn’t always look like it would bend toward justice in her lifetime. Perhaps it would for her grandchildren. As the bus pulled away, Chiliquila kept waving until Kani couldn’t see her anymore. Her smile widened. A slight sigh of relief followed.
“I did it,” she said.
In the final minutes of twilight, she found a brief moment of peace, a moment of redemption, a moment where she felt capable of conquering whatever challenges today would bring. The rain had stopped falling. Chirps pierced the quiet. Before she walked back inside, to face today’s challenges, she looked out once more over Sunset Avenue. The glow of the streetlight reflected off the wet pavement. It was a reminder that, in the darkest of hours, the light still shined down on English Avenue.