Marathon lady fostered dozens of children, touched the lives of countless others
Cora Lee Picton, 90, is preparing a feast for Mother’s Day that will be celebrated in the family compound on 41st Street, surrounded by a daughter, Sandy Williams, on one side and a nephew, Melvin Matlock, on the other plus tons of other family members and friends. “Chickens, ribs, I don’t know what all we’re going to have,” she said.
Known to all as Mama T.T., Cora has fostered dozens of children in Marathon, both officially and unofficially. She said she can’t remember how many, maybe 35, and “not all one brand” she said of the mixed races that include African Americans, whites, Dominicans and Cubans. She has one birth child and three adopted children — Sandy, Tonya, Tanya and Shirley — but these days she doesn’t make many distinctions.
“Lots of kids came in and out. I remember that,” she said.
Her home, located in the shadow of the St. Paul AME Church, is known as Picton Hill. It’s a landmark for locals. Marathon Recreation Center’s Anthony Culver has a long-standing relationship with Cora.
“I remember calling her up and asking, ‘Mama T.T., are you going to make the potato pies on Sunday?” he said, laughing. “But anybody that was hungry could come to Picton Hill.”
Those who didn’t know Mama T.T. from the neighborhood, or the church, knew her from her 20-year tenure as a cook at Marathon High School. At the time it was one of the only commercial kitchens. She cooked for the high school students, of course, but also the elementary students and the senior center where food was delivered by van. She set about establishing her authority on the very first day when she banished a big, shirtless boy.
“I told him, ‘Go get your shirt on before you come in here,” Cora said. “If you don’t get control when you first start, you don’t need to worry about getting it later — because you won’t.”
Of course, her big heart and sense of fair play won those same “big” kids over. She always managed to find a way to sneak them a larger portion than was strictly allowed.
During the busy foster years, she relied on the help of her husband James “Pop” Picton. He was charged with watching the pots and maintaining law and order. Cora laughs when she said he found more than one use for the Bible in keeping control.
“They kept us all on the straight and narrow,” Culver said with fondness.
One time, when a bunch of her preteens decided they needed a taste of freedom, they snuck out the window only to be picked up by officers on the Seven Mile Bridge. After receiving the Sheriff’s call, Cora instructed the officers to “keep them.” Another call came through shortly after.
“They told me, ‘Ms. Cora, you got to come down here and quiet ’em. They won’t try to run away again. After that, there was no more trouble,” she said, smiling.
Cora acknowledges it’s different raising kids these days. But her advice to new moms is the same as the heavenly counsel that helped her deal with her own brood.
“Stay on your knees. You have to,” she said.
“I love to dance. I’d go 100 miles to a dance.” — Cora Lee Picton