The image of a city, its reflection, depends on who is doing the looking. Are the lookers tourists, occasional visitors, regulars, natives, lifelong residents?
As for the heart of a city, if such a domain exists, it is probably a lot of things. But it no doubt includes that city’s people, for they are it and it is them.
On three treks up and down Pio Nono Avenue, I explored Macon’s geographic heart.
Along the way, I encountered plenty of people who make up its soul. One stood out the most.
Anyone who met her, even the most jaded hometown hater, would size her up and want to shake her hand or hug her neck and say, “Ma’am, how do you do?”
She’ll want to swat me with her hat for writing that about her.
She’ll say, “Oooooh, you better have on track shoes going north, south, east and west for putting this stuff in the paper.”
She lives in the house where she was born 87 years ago. It’s near what has since become a patch of dwellings in shambles, ratholes, boarded-up apartments and all manner of overgrown ugliness.
Yet she passes her days sweeping magnolia leaves from her curb, pruning shrubs, raking, planting flowers.
Hers is a drug-eaten neighborhood that straddles Pio Nono and Mercer University Drive in the crosshairs of Unionville’s criminal element. Many of her neighbors have been to prison, one man for 20 years. “They were 20 meaningful years,” he once told her.
She, on the other hand, went to college.
For three decades she taught mathematics at black universities across the South.
She likes the symphony, theater, art. She keeps up with local politics. She reads the paper. Religiously.
Maybe it is no coincidence Constance Parson lives at the corner of Straight Street.
Still, I almost missed her.
‘You’re my child’
Had I not glanced over and spotted Parson in her backyard, or noticed her strange tree of blue bottles, my trips up and down Pio Nono would have missed their mark. In a small way, perhaps, but still.
A little-known woman would have remained unnoticed.
If you have read this far, you understand. The point of these journeys was to seek out the often unseen.
Constance Parson moved back home in 1983 to care for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, who was also born in that house.
Born in 1900, Mae Miller went to college and became a teacher. She was the first principal of Hamilton Elementary School, across Pio Nono from her house, just below Mercer University Drive.
Sometimes former Hamilton pupils, now grown-ups, mistake Parson for her mother. Must be the white hair. Some of the old pupils say that if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Miller, “I wouldn’t be as good as I am today, and I’m still not the best,” Parson said.
In mid-August, on my second visit with Parson, we sat in chairs under a pecan tree. The old metal glider on her porch would’ve been a fine spot, too, but it was stolen a long time ago.
While we talked, Parson recalled her grandparents’ “loving care.”
Her Papa and Grandma McElmurray, there since the 1890s, were truck farmers. They raised beans, peas, corn, melons, okra, squash. They had pigs, turkeys, chickens, ducks, a cow, a horse named Prince and a mule named Dolly -- all in a cramped backyard, less than a third of an acre, on Pio Nono.
Not that there was anywhere else for the livestock. The front yard was Pio Nono and, after the road was widened, Pio Nono was practically the front porch.
Parson recalled a day when she was little. She and her grandmother were out peddling vegetables. They passed through a white neighborhood below Montpelier Avenue. Kids there jeered her fair-skinned grandma.
“She could pass for white,” Parson said. “Papa was black as tar.”
The kids spat insults, ridiculed young Constance and taunted her grandmother: “Why do you have that n----- baby with you?”
“My grandmother taught me, ‘You don’t hear, you don’t see. You are better than the person who is talking about you. You’re my child.’ And she would just keep going,” Parson said.
“Things that get under your skin, put your thumb on your nose and kiss it goodbye.”
Parson taught at Southern University in Louisiana for about five years. She figures she spent 20 more at Miles College in Alabama. She was also an instructor at Fort Valley State.
She was married, briefly, in her 20s. (She didn’t want to talk about that.) She drives a ’92 Mercury Tracer.
Parson has traveled to Europe, Mexico, India, and spent time in Michigan, Colorado, California.
She quit playing bridge. She can’t sit still that long. If she does, “once I try to get up, something is dead.”
‘Kind of losing touch’
Her rock gardens and rock edgings consist of thousands of oval stones from a ditch at her family’s church in Lizella.
When Parson’s mother was ill, a sitter came once a month. Parson used the break to go on rock hunts. Now they line her yard and border gardens of scarlet bishop’s-cap, potato plants, mums, hostas, black-eyed Susans, marigolds.
Crape myrtles grow where a pigpen used to be.
Parson’s blooms and greenery amid the neighborhood decay can be a conversation starter, an open invite to friends and strangers alike.
“In our rush,” she said, “we don’t see people, our neighbors, and we’re kind of losing touch.”
The garden keeps her connected to family as well.
Sometimes Parson unearths rusted horseshoes and plow parts and hangs them on her gate, memories of her Papa.
“Whenever you dig down in there,” she said, “you come across stuff.”
She said the ornaments for her bottle tree, a sawed-up cedar stump with enough branch nubs and trunk left to support beer and wine empties, came compliments of a fellow down the street “where they drink beer morning, noon and night.”
In a blighted neighborhood, her backyard is a sanctuary, a refuge of flowers and a funky tree of deep-blue bottles.
“It makes you feel good,” she said.
“It cheers you up. The little kids that come by, they want to know, ‘What kind of tree is that? And how come you have the bottles there?’ I say, ‘That’s to make everything look pretty.’ ”
‘They always ask me’
She is sure to be in by sundown.
Never know who might be lurking.
Besides, “Jeopardy!” comes on at 7:30.
When she used to attend nighttime events or shows, a neighbor watched out for her. She’d call him on her way home and, only half-joking, say, “Look out the window with a gun in your hand.”
Drugs, she said, are “baaaad.”
She sometimes sees users in addiction’s clutches wander past. A woman with a red fuel can, a prop, used to bang on her door and beg for money to gas up her car.
“You don’t know who to trust and who not to,” Parson said.
Old friends from out of town hardly recognize the place when they come.
Landmarks -- community groceries, funeral parlors, houses -- are no more.
Her friends invariably pose a question.
“They always ask me,” Parson said, “ ‘When are you leaving?’”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.