I would like to pay homage to two Southern ladies in Birmingham, Alabama,
who taught me in my childhood and whose influences still nourish me
artistically and intellectually. Â Mrs. Elizabeth McDonald, or â€œMiss Don,â€
gave children art lessons after school in a former servantâ€™s home that she
rented as a studio in the back of a big house on Birminghamâ€™s South Side.
The only heat in winter came from a coal fire. She dug up clay from a
riverbank that we used to make bowls, ashtrays, busts, and sculptures. Her
two-room apartment nearby was hung floor to ceiling with paintings,
prints, and drawings.
Her tales of bohemian life in Greenwich Village in the 1920s enthralled
me. Â It seemed that all the artists knew each other and were always
throwing costume parties. A lot of creative energy went into making
marvelous costumes. Â I think I somehow pictured that life in New York City
would be one party after another full of creative people in fantastic
costumes. It didnâ€™t exactly turn out that way for me, but here I am years
later, still living a transplanted Southern life.
When I knew Miss Don, she was a widow, and her life was circumscribed by a
few blocks. She didnâ€™t drive, and she depended upon her gentleman friend,
Mr. Bentley, for transportation. They ate dinner together every single
night at Bogueâ€™s Restaurant. Yet, even though her physical life was
restricted, she had a true free spirit that nothing could confine.
Miss F. Virginia Praytor (the â€œFâ€ stood for Frances, but she never used
it) was a firebrand of a lady with flaming red hair pulled back in a bun.
She was elderly when I knew her, and though she appeared frail,
fine-boned, thin, and hunched over, her fierceness was never in question.
She was a Democrat in the New Deal mold, and she remained liberal and
progressive all her life at a time when she constituted a very brave
minority in one of the most reactionary cities in America where bigots
firmly held the political reins.
Miss Praytor Â never married; she lived with her younger sister, Miss Anna
Praytorâ€”two maiden intellectual ladies. In Southern and Jane Austen
fashion, they were known as Miss Praytor and Miss Anna. They lived in a
little house in Crestline Village with a garden and a greenhouse in the
backyard. Miss Praytor taught Latin at Phillips High School, and Miss Anna
taught English. Together they owned and ran Smith and Hardwick Bookstore
in downtown Birmingham, a serious bookstore that was a mecca of the cityâ€™s
intellectual life. Â My first impression of Miss Anna was as a shadow of
her older sister: brown hair instead of flaming red; smaller and milder.
Her subject, English, also seemed milder than her sisterâ€™s Latin.
When I was nine years old, I began studying Latin with Miss Praytor on
Sunday afternoons. I was in fourth grade, but I was woefully ignorant of
even the rudiments of grammar. Before Miss Praytor could teach me Latin,
she had to teach me what a verb was. Because of Miss Praytor, I acquired a
knowledge of grammar that enabled me to teach it when I needed to earn
money (a mixed blessing) andâ€”more importantlyâ€”has stood me in good stead
throughout my life as a writer. And not only grammarâ€”Miss Praytor opened
me up to a love of words, roots, meanings, and derivations. I quit when I
was twelve and was too embarrassed to tell my junior high school friends
that I spent my Sunday afternoons with an old lady studying Latin, and so
I regret that I never mastered Latin. Yet what I learned made my
subsequent studies of French, Spanish, Italian, and even German easier.
Miss Praytor had a bust of Julius Caesar in the foyer of her house. She
had a Roman rectitude about her. She often fed me cake after the lessons,
and sometimes she gave me a tour of her greenhouse. Every week, when my
grandparents came to pick me up, we saluted each other in farewell, Vale!
By the time I got married, Miss Praytor had passed away, but Miss Anna
continued to run the bookstore, and for my wedding gift, she gave me a
copy of Websterâ€™s Third New International Dictionary, which is the most
important book I own as a writer.