Miss Don and Miss Praytor by Anne Whitehouse

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.  Mrs. Elizabeth McDonald, or “Miss Don,”
gave children art lessons after school in a former servant’s home that she
rented as a studio in the back of a big house on Birmingham’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.  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.  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 didn’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 didn’t drive, and she depended upon her gentleman friend,
Mr. Bentley, for transportation. They ate dinner together every single
night at Bogue’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 “F” 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  never married; she lived with her younger sister, Miss Anna
Praytor—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 city’s
intellectual life.  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 sister’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) and—more importantly—has stood me in good stead
throughout my life as a writer. And not only grammar—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 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which is the most
important book I own as a writer.

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