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Letters to Helen Keller|
I should have expected nothing less. Where better to deliver the “Why can’t you be more like Helen Keller” message than in your childhood home? I should have steeled myself against it, but the resentment I feel about the message is so old and deep, it’s like a knee-jerk reflex. And on this occasion, I turned my resentment on the woman pointing out the carpet that poor little you never saw. I said, “But she could touch it.”
“What?” the guide said. “She what?”
“She could touch it,” I said. “She had the sense of touch. One of the pleasures of a nice carpet is texture. She could feel it. She could walk on it barefoot. She had an imagination. Someone could describe it to her, and she could imagine it.”
I was talking like a crank. There’s a certain vibration that comes into a person’s voice when they’re going off the deep end, and I had it. I could feel the guide eyeing me askance. Was this how I was going to be? I was spoiling her spiel. I could feel the rest of the tour group—a van load of Baptists from Tennessee—looking away.
In any case, I quieted down and we moved on. I felt the guide was leery of me. As she pointed out the pump organ in the parlor, she paused briefly. I sensed she was supposed to say something about how you never heard its beautiful music, but since she had a crank in the crowd today, she dropped the line.
As we surveyed each room from the doorway, our guide was at pains to tell us which pieces of furniture actually belonged to your family, which were of the period, and which were merely reproductions. I’ve been on enough such house tours to know authenticity is always an issue. I wished she would let me walk around the rooms and touch something. This was not the most blind-friendly museum I’ve ever visited. At Louis Braille’s house in France, they let you put your hands on anything that’s not in a case. But perhaps fewer blind people visit your house.
As if to confirm this, our guide spent a lot of time talking about the photographs on the walls of the central hallway. Although I have some residual vision, I don’t see photographs well. Nick told me what I was looking at and read me the labels. There was one of you at about age seven, around the time Anne Sullivan, your teacher, came into your life. The guide said, “Wasn’t she a lovely child?” Then she shook her head. To be accurate, I don’t know if she shook her head or not. But her tone was that of someone shaking her head at the waste of it all. As if it would be less tragic if you had been homely.
I swallowed the urge to make this comment aloud. I am so used to this attitude, it hardly even registers anymore. “What a pretty girl,” people say. “Too bad she’s blind.” Apparently, beauty is wasted on us because we can’t see the reflection in the mirror, can’t see men’s heads turn when we enter a room. In this picture, you’re wearing a dress with a lot of ruffles, and your hair is an elaborate arrangement of ringlets. Do you look pretty? Nick told me that there’s a certain set to your lower lip, which makes it sound like your expression must be at odds with the prettiness of your dress and hair. He said you look posed and a bit uncertain about it. What could a photograph mean to you at that age? Later, you got the hang of it. In other photographs around the place, you’re always wearing a big smile and have your eyes aimed directly at the lens.
Next to this photo, there was one of Anne Sullivan—“Teacher,” as you always called her—taken at about the same time. The guide said, “Wasn’t she pretty?” with that same “such a pity” tone. Only the pity in her case is not that she was blind or deaf or anything else. The pity in her case is that she sacrificed her life to be your companion and helpmate, when she was pretty enough to get herself a man and have a normal life. Again, I could have argued otherwise. But I didn’t.