A LOVELY STORY ABOUT HELEN KELLER
This is an excerpt from A Place of Knowing by Emma Lou Thayne (Emma Lou also wrote Hymn # 129, Where Can I Turn for Peace ...)
Many years into my adulthood, when asked by a Jewish poet friend why I stay in my Mormonism, I explained it with a story, the details recounted by my mother. It is my mother’s story transposed into an allegory about my believing.
When I was a little girl, my father took me to hear Helen Keller in the Tabernacle. I must have been about eight or nine and I’d read about Helen Keller in school, and my mother had told me her story.
I remember sitting in the balcony at the back of that huge domed building that was supposed to have the best acoustics in the world. Helen—everybody called her that—walked in from behind a curtain under the choir seats with her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Helen spoke at the pulpit—without a microphone—but we could hear perfectly, her guttural, slow, heavily pronounced speech. She spoke about her life and her beliefs. Her eyes were closed and when it came time for questions from the audience, she put her fingers on her teacher’s lips and then repeated for us what the question had been. She answered questions about being deaf and blind and learning to read and to type and, of course, to talk. Hearing that voice making words was like hearing words for the first time, as if language had only come into being—into my being at least—that moment.
Someone asked her, “Do you feel colors?” I’ll never forget her answer, the exact sound of it—“Sometimes. .. . I feel . . . blue.” Her voice went up slightly at the end, which meant she was smiling. The audience didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
After quite a lot of questions, she said, “I would . . .. like to ask. . . a favor of you.” Of course, the audience was all alert. “Is your Mormon prophet here?” she asked. There was a flurry of getting up from the front row, and President Grant walked up the stairs to the stand. She reached out her hand and he took it. All I could think was, “Oh, I wish I were taking pictures of that.”“I . . . would like . . . ,” she said, “to hear your organ . . . play . . . your famous song—about your pioneers. I . . . would like . . . to remember hearing it here.” All the time she was speaking she was holding his hand he had given her to shake. I liked them together, very much.
I remember thinking, “I am only a little girl (probably others know) but how in the world will she hear the organ?” But she turned toward President Grant and he motioned to Alexander Schreiner, the Tabernacle organist who was sitting near the loft. At the same time, President Grant led her up a few steps to the back of the enormous organ—with its five manuals and eight thousand pipes. We were all spellbound. He placed her hand on the grained oak of the console, and she stood all alone facing us in her long, black velvet dress with her right arm extended, leaning slightly forward and touching the organ, with her head bowed.
Brother Schreiner played “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” each verse a different arrangement, the organ pealing and throbbing—the bass pedals like foghorns—as only he could make happen. Helen Keller stood there—hearing through her hand and sobbing.
Probably a lot more than just me—probably lots of us in the audience were mouthing the words to ourselves—“Gird up your loins; fresh courage take. / Our God will never us forsake; / And soon we’ll have this tale to tell— / All is well! / All is well!” I could see my great-grandparents, converts from England, Wales, France, and Denmark, in that circle of their covered wagons, singing over their fires in the cold nights crossing the plains. Three of them had babies die; my great-grandmother was buried in Wyoming. “And should we die before our journey’s through, / Happy day! / All is well! / We then are free from toil and sorrow, too; / With the just we shall dwell! / But if our lives are spared again / To see the Saints their rest obtain, / Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell— / All is well! / All is well!”
So then—that tabernacle, that singing, my ancestors welling in me, my father beside me, that magnificent woman, all combined with the organ and the man who played it and the man who had led her to it—whatever passed between the organ and her passed on to me.
I believed. I believed it all—the seeing without seeing, the hearing without hearing, the going by feel toward something holy, something that could make her cry, something that could move me, alter me, something as unexplainable as a vision or a mystic connection, something entering the pulse of a little girl, something that no matter what would never go away. What it had to do with Joseph Smith or his vision or his gospel I never would really understand—all I know to this day is that I believe.