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Keller Johnson-Thompson

Ask Keller - October 2007

October 2007

Are you curious about some aspect of Helen Keller's life, and haven't been able to find the answer to your question? Ask Keller Johnson-Thompson, Helen's great-grandniece. This monthly column features real questions from readers like you.

I was curious if Helen Keller was ever able to meet the deaf-blind woman, Laura Bridgman whom Helen's mother, Kate Keller, had read about in Charles Dickens' American Notes?

One of the last visits that Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan made before leaving the Perkins School for the Blind for a summer of the seashore at Cape Cod in 1888 was a visit to another resident at the Perkins School for the Blind. The resident was Laura Bridgman, a 59-year-old deaf and blind woman who had lived at the school most of her adult life. Ms. Bridgman was a very thin woman who wore dark-rimmed glasses. She was sitting beside a window crocheting lace. As Ms. Bridgman sat in her chair, she seemed cranky, withdrawn, and even a little frightening.

As soon as Annie and Helen approached, Ms. Bridgman seemed to recognize Annie's hand and seemed glad to see her. As the eight-year-old Helen decided to inspect Ms. Bridgman's lacework, Laura pulled it out of her reach and told Helen that her hands were not clean. What Helen really wanted to do was to feel Laura Bridgman's face to see what she looked like, but as she put out her hands, Laura shied away. Ms. Bridgman complained to Anne Sullivan that she had not taught Helen to be very gentle. She then turned to Helen and emphasized her disapproval by finger spelling to Helen that she must not be too forward when calling on a lady.

For Laura Bridgman, much had changed since she was a famous little deaf and blind girl. She used to be the center of attention from writers like Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, who celebrated mute women as "speechless heroes." Although those times had come and gone, Laura had learned many things. Even though she never learned to speak aloud, as Helen would, she did learn to thread a needle with her tongue. She created beautiful lacework and crocheting which were sold to visitors with her autograph.

Helen's meeting with Laura Bridgman ended nearly as badly as it had begun. As Helen tried to kiss Bridgman goodbye she tripped over her feet instead. Helen was glad to get away from such a strange creature. Later Helen would describe Laura Bridgman as "a statue she had once felt in a garden; a motionless shape that had cold hands like flowers that had grown in the shade." (The Story of My Life, page 44.)

Eight-year-old Helen Keller could not have known that it was Laura Bridgman, so strange and distant, who had helped pave the way for her own path to fame.

When did Helen Keller retire from public life and how long after that did she die?

Helen Keller officially retired from public life in 1961 at the age of 80. During her last years, her medical expenses, household help, finances, and home repairs were taken care of through the management of the Board of Trustees for the American Foundation for the Blind, the organization to which Helen Keller dedicated over 44 years of her life.

Helen Keller died at the age of 87 on June 1, 1968, at her home "Arcan Ridge" in Westport, Connecticut, a few days after a heart attack. Helen Keller never feared death; she longed to live in heaven with her Lord and Savior. Winnie Corbally, her dear friend and companion, who sat beside her bed during her last moments, stated that Helen Keller drifted off in her sleep. She died gently.

One of Helen Keller's last requests was to be cremated and to have a Swedenborgian minister perform her funeral service for her in Connecticut. However, an elaborate ceremony took place for her at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 1968. U.S. Senator Lister Hill, a friend of Helen Keller's brother, Phillips Brooks Keller read Helen Keller's eulogy. A special section of pews had been set aside for the blind with Seeing Eye dogs—something that would have pleased Helen, who always liked any kind of dog. A translator stood in the front of the church transforming every spoken word into sign language, the form of communication that deaf people of Helen Keller's generation had been forbidden to use. Helen Keller would have undoubtedly enjoyed the sightless fifty-member choir from the Perkins School for the Blind whose voices soared and echoed through the cathedral accompanied by organ music that rumbled across the floor.

Helen Keller's final resting place would be in the bottom of the National Cathedral in a place called St. Joseph's Chapel. Her ashes would be interred between those of her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, and her later companion and friend, Miss Polly Thomson.

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