Elizabeth Emerson’s great-great grandparents, Joseph Edgar (Ed) and Ida Chamberlin were close friends of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, having met the pair in 1888 when they first came to Boston to attend Perkins. Ed Chamberlin was an important literary figure at the time, writing a popular daily column for The Boston Transcript and serving as an editor and staff writer for The Youth’s Companion, a nationally distributed family magazine. He and his family lived in Wrentham, outside of Boston, where their home called Red Farm was a gathering place for literary and artistic figures of the day. The friendship between Helen, Annie Sullivan, and Ed lasted more than 40 years. A former grant writer, Elizabeth Emerson is currently working on a book called Letters from Red Farm about the Chamberlin-Keller friendship and conducting research with the Perkins School Archives. Emerson is represented by Susan Schulman Literary Agency.
Helen Keller faced each day with “a singular optimism,” according to my great-great grandfather, Joseph Edgar Chamberlin. To Helen, Chamberlin and his wife were Uncle Ed and Aunt Ida. They frequently provided “a home away from home” for Helen and her teacher Annie Sullivan, as the pair spent many weekends and holidays between 1888 and 1901 at Red Farm, the Chamberlins’ home in the Boston suburb of Wrentham. Helen and Annie even lived at Red Farm for a year after Helen’s departure from the Cambridge School in 1897.
Though Chamberlin was a popular New England journalist, he did not write often about his personal experiences with Helen. But when he did, it was with eloquence and sensitivity. According to Chamberlin, in an article he wrote for Sunday Magazine in 1906, Helen’s “cheerfulness and energy were prodigious.” He wrote: “She is no sooner up in the morning than her fingers, her nostrils, and her perception of vibrations begin to open to the world of sense. He noted that each morning “she seeks the veranda, her every day place of promenade, or if someone will conduct her (she never ventures off the veranda alone), the lawn or the field. She touches things, inhales, tosses her head to feel the wind the better in her hair or upon her face, all with as keen a sense of enjoyment as that of any seeing person who revels in a beloved landscape.”
Without the sense of hearing, he wrote that Helen had developed “a way of feeling for sounds.” She spoke to him of “feeling the faint noise of a fly’s wings.” She said at another time: “I felt a soft sound approaching (on the veranda), and I knew the baby was coming.” On the porch one morning—the house was a mile from the railroad, a lake lying between—she said: “The 8 o’clock train is going through.” How does she know? “I smell the smoke.” He smelled it then himself, but had not noticed it before. He believed “it is not that the senses which Helen possesses are keener than ours—it is simply that having no others, she gives these closer heed.”
Chamberlin believed that Helen’s happiest moments each day were spent speaking with others. As sentences “shape themselves” for her, he wrote that “she has a little trick of making quick starts of pleased surprise.”
Her “greatest, wildest pleasure” was swimming. He mused: “Is it because the water, coming so close to her, infolding her all about, shutting out the things that other people see, dulling the things they hear, pressing upon her sense of touch just as it does upon the sense of all other people, gives her a feeling of possession of the material world from which she is debarred in the open air, and in the hollow houses that are strange and only half-known to her? I do not know that this had ever been her conscious thought, but perhaps she feels it, nonetheless.”
Though Helen awoke each day to challenges that were incomprehensible to seeing and hearing people, Chamberlin closed the article with a gentle summation: He wrote that “Helen’s life has its vexations, its griefs, and its hard passages, but these leave no residuum of bitterness or ill-nature, for some reason that is hard to fathom. Before she had language, as a child of six or seven, she was cross and violent. She obtained her needs by kicking and striking. She was decidedly impatient if her wishes were not gratified at once. With the dawning of speech, her violent spirit entirely departed. It was if another soul had come into her body.”
What a pleasure it must have been to spend time with her.
Chamberlin, J.E. “A Day with Helen Keller: Joseph Edgar Chamberlin in the Sunday Magazine,” Colorado Springs Gazette, 19 June, 1906, p. 4.
Emerson, Elizabeth. “A day with Helen Keller: Her happiest moments.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. July 17, 2018.