LUNCH WITH HELEN KELLER

LUNCH WITH HELEN KELLER

From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Lunch with Helen Keller

My husband and I loved our house in Italy. It sat high on a cliff above Portofino with an extraordinary view of the blue harbor below, and its white beach was surrounded by cypresses. There was, however, a serpent in our paradise: the path up the cliff. The municipal authorities refused to grant us permission to build a proper road in lieu of the mule track. The only vehicle that could climb the narrow path and negotiate the hairpin turns, the steep incline and the potholes, was an old American Army jeep we had bought in Genoa. It possessed neither springs nor brakes. When you wanted to stop, you had to go into reverse and back up against something. But it was indestructible, and you could rely on it in all weathers.

One day in the summer of 1950, our neighbor, Contessa Margot Besozzi, who of necessity also owned a jeep, called to say that her cousin had arrived in town with a companion and that her own jeep had conked out. Would I mind going to fetch the two old ladies in ours? They were at the Hotel Splendido.

“Whom should I ask for at the hotel?” I asked.

“Miss Helen Keller.”

“Who?”

“Miss Helen Keller, K-e-l-l . . . “

“Margot, you don’t mean Helen Keller?

“Of course,” she said. “She’s my cousin. Didn’t you know?”

I ran into the garage, jumped into the jeep and raced down the mountain.

I had been twelve years old when my father gave me the book about Helen Keller written by Anne Sullivan, the remarkable woman whom fate had chosen to be the teacher of the blind and deaf child. Anne Sullivan had turned the rebellious, brutish little child into a civilized member of society by teaching her to speak. I still remembered vividly her description of the first few months of physical battlewith the child, until the gloriousmoment when she held Helen’s left hand under a running water tap and the blind, deaf and up until then mute little girl made history by stammering out an intelligible word: “Wa-ter.”

Over the years I had read about Helen Keller in the newspapers. I knew that Anne Sullivan was no longer with her and that a new companion now accompanied her everywhere. But the few minutes it took me to drive down the hill were not nearly enough to get used to the idea that I was going to meet in person this mythical figure from my early youth.

I backed the jeep up against a bougainvillaea-covered wall and presented myself at the hotel. A tall, buxom, vigorous-looking woman rose from a chair on the hotel terrace to greet me: Polly Thomson, Helen Keller’s companion. A second figure rose slowly from the chair beside her and held out her hand. Helen Keller, then in her seventies, was a slight, white-haired woman with wide-open blue eyes and a shy smile.

“How do you do?” she said slowly and a little gutturally.

I took her hand, which she was holding too high because she didn’t know how tall I was. She was bound to make this mistake with people she was meeting for the first time, but she never made it twice. Later, when we said good-bye, she put her hand firmly into mine at exactly the right level.

The luggage was loaded into the back of the jeep, and I helped the jolly Miss Thomson to sit beside it. The hotel porter lifted Helen Keller’s fragile body and set it down on the front seat next to me. Only then did it dawn on me that this was going to be a risky undertaking. The jeep was open; there was nothing you could hold onto properly. How was I to keep the blind and deaf woman from falling out of the rickety old thing when we took a curve, which had to be done at a fast clip because of the angle and the jeep’s general condition? I turned to her and said, “Miss Keller, I must prepare you—we’re going up a very steep hill. Can you hold tight to this piece of metal on the windshield?”

But she continued to look expectantly straight ahead. Behind me, Miss Thomson said patiently, “She can’t hear you, dear, nor see you. I know it’s hard to get used to it at first.”

I was so embarrassed that I stammered like an idiot, trying to explain the problem ahead of us. All the while, Miss Keller never turned her head or seemed puzzled by the delay. She sat motionless, a slight smile on her face, patiently waiting. Miss Thomson knelt across the luggage and reached for her hand. Rapidly she moved Helen’s fingers up, down and sideways, telling her in blind-deaf language what I had just said.

“I don’t mind,” said Helen, laughing. “I’ll hold tight.”

I took courage, got hold of her hands, and placed them on the piece of metal in front of her. “Okay,” she cried gaily, and I switched on the ignition. The jeep started with a jump and Miss Thomson fell off her seat on top of the luggage. I couldn’t stop and help her up because of the steep hill, the dangerous curve ahead and the absence of brakes. We roared upward, my eyes glued to the narrow path, and Miss Thomson helpless as a beetle on its back.

I’d had plenty of passengers in the jeep, and they’d all complained about the lack of springs. No wonder, with all those boulders and potholes, not to mention the hairpin turns through the olive trees,which only partially obscured the precipitous drop that had unnerved quite a few of our guests. Helen was the first passenger who was oblivious to the danger; she was enchanted by the violent jumps and only laughed when she was thrown against my shoulder. Helen actually began to sing. “This is fun,” shewarbled happily, bouncing up and down. “Lovely!” she cried.

We tore past our house at breakneck speed—out of the corner of my eye I saw our gardener, Giuseppe, crossing himself—and continued onward and upward. I had no idea how Miss Thomson was doing, for the jeep’s fearful roar had long ago drowned out her anguished protests. But I knew that Helen was still next to me. Her thin white hair had come undone and fluttered about her face, and she was enjoying the crazy ride like a child riding up and down on a wooden horse on a merry-go-round.

At last we rounded the last curve between two giant fig trees, and I could see Margot and her husband waiting for us at their entrance gate. Helen was lifted out of the jeep and hugged; the luggage was unloaded, and Miss Thomson upended and dusted off.

I was invited to lunch.While the two old ladieswere being shown to their rooms to freshen up, Margot told me about her cousin and her life. Helen was famous the world over, and in every civilized country, the great and the renowned were eager to meet her and do something for her. Heads of state, scholars and artists vied to receive her, and she had traveled all over the world to satisfy her burning curiosity.

“But don’t forget,” said Margot, “all she really notices is a change of smell. Whether she’s here or in New York or in India, she sits in a black, silent hole.”

Arm in arm, casually, as if they just happened to be fond of each other, the two old ladies walked through the garden toward the terrace, where we were waiting for them.

“That must be wisteria,” said Helen, “and masses of it, too. I recognize the scent.”

I went to pick a large bunch of the blossoms, which surrounded the terrace, and laid it in her lap. “I knew it!” she cried happily, touching them.

Of course, Helen’s diction was not quite normal. She spoke haltingly, like someone who has had a stroke, and her consonants were slow and labored. She turned to me, looking directly at me because she had sensed where I was sitting. “You know, we’re on the way to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David. I’m so thrilled; I’ve always wanted to see it.”

Mystified, I looked at Miss Thomson, who nodded.

“It’s true,” she said. “The Italian government has had a scaffolding erected around the statue so that Helen can climb up and touch it. That’s what she calls ‘seeing.’ We often go to the theater in New York, and I tell her what’s going on onstage and describe the actors. Sometimes we go backstage, too, so that she can ‘see’ the sets and the actors. Then she goes home, feeling that she’s really witnessed the performance.”

All the time we were talking, Helen sat and waited. Now and then, when our conversation went on too long, I saw her thin fingers take her friend’s hand inquiringly, never impatiently.

Luncheon was served on the terrace. Helen was led to her chair, and I watched her “see” her place setting. Quick as lightning, her hands moved over the objects on the table—plate, glass, silverware—memorizing where they were. Never once during the meal did she grope about; she reached out casually and firmly like the rest of us.

After lunch, we stayed on the shady terrace, surrounded by trailing clusters of wisteria like a thick mauve curtain, the sun below us glittering on the sea. Helen sat in the usual way, head raised slightly as though listening to something, her sightless blue eyes wide open. Her face, although an old lady’s face, had something of a schoolgirl’s innocence. Whatever suffering must have tormented her—and might still torment her, for all I knew— her face showed no trace of it. It was an isolated face, a saintly face.

I asked her, through her friend, what else she wanted to see in Italy. Then she slowly mapped out her Italian journey— all the places she wanted to visit and the people she would meet. Incredibly, she spoke French quite well and could make herself understood in German and Italian. Sculpture was, naturally, her favorite form of art, because she could touch it and experience it firsthand.

“There’s still so much I’d like to see,” she said, “so much to learn. And death is just around the corner. Not that that worries me. On the contrary.”

“Do you believe in life after death?” I asked.

“Most certainly,” she said emphatically. “It is no more than passing from one room into another.”

We sat in silence.

Suddenly, Helen spoke again. Slowly and very distinctly she said, “But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room, I shall be able to see.”

Lilli Palmer

More stories from our partners