A Pilgrimage to Helen Keller's Birthplace, Part 1
by AFB Staff
Guest Blogger Helen Selsdon, AFB Archivist
I am an English woman who has lived for over twenty years in New York City. Eight of these years have been spent working as the Archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind, where I have organized the over 80,000 items contained in the Helen Keller Archives. I have come to live and breathe Helen and her teacher Annie Sullivan.
A few weeks ago I visited Helen Keller's birth place in Tuscumbia, Alabama. It was easily one of the most memorable trips I have ever taken. Period. This trip was a long-awaited pilgrimage; however, all the expectations I had of visiting her home and the South were nothing compared to the sensations that hit me and the thoughts that the trip prompted.
AFB CEO and President Carl Augusto and I arrived late on a Monday evening at Huntsville Airport, Alabama. I was immediately struck by the sweet Alabama air and the beautiful, lush landscape. We were greeted by a warm, southern welcome from Mike McMackin, the Helen Keller Birthplace Foundation President, an enthusiastic proponent of all things Helen and a man who knows everyone.
Mike took us to our hotel, where my room looked out onto a wide, sultry and quietly flowing Tennessee River. Great music was everywhere, and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where so many R&B artists have recorded, was two miles away. At 11 pm we went downstairs for a bite to eat and to listen to a young female singer with a lovely voice singing and accompanying herself on guitar. Mike has known her since childhood. I am very grateful to Mike who took it upon himself to be my personal tour guide, ensuring that I saw places that feature in Helen's story and that I would otherwise never have seen.
Arriving late Monday night, I was chomping at the bit on Tuesday morning to get to the Keller home, Ivy Green. I have to admit that when we arrived, in my excitement I jumped out the car, abandoning my boss in my dash to the pump. It's a big old 19th century pump and it's fabulously tactile with its curved, massive handle (and yes, I did give it a hug!).
Because AFB owns so many archival documents—photographs and letters about Helen—I was not surprised by the layout of the Keller home, nor its size. The pump is just a few yards in the back of the 1820 Virginia Cottage style house. It's a modest white clapboard home—not a huge plantation house—which surprises many. It feels larger on the inside than the outside; it's bright and airy, with windows, doors, and wooden floor boards that are all wide and typical of that period. It's full of gorgeous artifacts, 85 percent of which are original furnishings. The artifacts put you squarely in the 19th century, such as a "sugar chest," something I'd never seen before, which is a beautiful wooden piece of furniture (reminiscent of a dining room sideboard) that has pride of place, reflecting sugar's standing as a precious commodity.
Of all the rooms that I saw, I was most struck with Helen and Annie's bedroom. Although it was a lovely, good-sized room, I had not expected the ceiling to be so low—a result of being just below the roof. The room slants down on two sides and the light was rather dim. I kept trying to imagine Helen sitting at the small, beautiful wooden desk, which has a braille book displayed on it, earnestly studying. Her small, low bed is a few feet away and on the other side of this room is Annie's larger bed.
The main Keller house is one of the three buildings on the land that were inhabited. The three buildings form a closely arranged triangle, with the pump in the middle. The other two buildings are the cook's quarter and a small cottage house. The cook's quarter is divided in two, with the kitchen area on one side and the cook's bedroom on the other. Unlike the other buildings, the wooden walls of this building have not been renovated or replaced and its original structure is reflected in the discolored and slanted wooden planks and windows. I couldn't help but wonder over the fabulous food that Helen and Annie described in their letters and I was filled with awe that so small and inhospitable a kitchen produced such delicious meals.
As you face this building, to the right of this structure is the cottage house where the young Keller couple originally lived and where Helen was born and where Annie took Helen in an effort to "get through" to her pupil without the distraction of her parents. This pretty house with its large bay window and the cook's house look onto beautifully maintained flower beds.
When I was asked what I liked the most, I replied with what struck me the most—the smells around me. This is the result of the house being surrounded by beautiful 150-year-old boxwood trees as well as mimosa and magnolia trees. When Helen was a child, the property was over 640 acres, and reached down to the Tennessee River. I instantly understood why and how Annie decided to teach Helen outdoors. The natural vegetation, sights and smells must have been the perfect classroom—the sheer pleasure of the smells and touch sensations that were available to her provided a brilliant opportunity for learning, setting the stage for a lifelong love of both learning and nature.
[End of Part 1: In the next installment, Helen Selsdon discusses her impressions of Keller's early life and upbringing in the South.]
Re: A Pilgrimage to Helen Keller's Birthplace, Part 1Posted by enuviague on 5/23/2011 at 2:24 AM
At 11 pm we went downstairs for a bite to eat and to listen to a young female singer with a lovely voice singing and accompanying herself on guitar.
Re: A Pilgrimage to Helen Keller's Birthplace, Part 1Posted by gina nielsen on 12/25/2011 at 4:22 AM
I need helpqq
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