A Day With Helen Keller

Black and white portraits of two women and J.E. Chamberlin on top of a typewritten letter signed by Helen Keller
January 8, 2018

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. Introduced to them by Mr. Michael Anagnos, Director of the Perkins Institution, 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; 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.

Helen Keller’s name is known around the world. In particular, she is famous for the optimism and tenacity with which she overcame deafness and blindness at a time when few resources existed to assist her.

Archives such as those of the Perkins School for the Blind provide us with a wealth of information about Helen during her years there, but I also have personal family history that adds to our knowledge of her, for she spent a great deal of time between 1888 and 1901 with my family, the Chamberlins, at their home called Red Farm, in the Boston suburb of Wrentham.

To Helen, my great-great grandparents were “Uncle Ed” and “Aunt Ida." The Chamberlin family frequently served as a “home away from home” for Helen while she attended Perkins and other schools in Boston.

The friendship began during Helen’s first winter in Boston. She experienced the thrill of her first snowfall and tobogganing at the Chamberlins’. Years later, in July 1897, Helen was visiting again and wrote to her mother in Alabama: "Teacher and I came to Wrentham last Saturday and received a loving welcome, as we always do. Mrs. Chamberlin's loving, motherly ways remind me of you, and make me feel myself a part of this sweet, friendly home life, which I find so seldom these days." Helen added that she had celebrated her seventeenth birthday with the Chamberlins, where “at the dinner table they surprised me with an angel cake, which was lighted prettily with seventeen candles." [1]

At Red Farm, Helen enjoyed a vigorous life of canoeing, swimming, hiking, and other outdoor activities. She described time there as a “solace” and a pleasure “to turn from the harassments of learning to the frolicsome company of that household. What a joy it was to…go with three lovely children on real excursions by the shore of the lake and into the dusky woods!”[2]

As a result of all that exercise, Helen had a robust appetite and loved mealtimes. In a magazine article written for Sunday Magazine in 1906, Ed Chamberlin wrote of Helen: “No one comes in [a] blither mood to the table than Helen Keller. Her little helplessnesses there may trouble her inwardly; but she good-naturedly puts them aside as things not worthy of any show of attention from herself or others… She thinks of the table as a place where everybody is having a good time, and seeks to join in this good time at once."

Helen was always seated next to someone, her teacher or some other friend, who “communicated with her in the sign language for the deaf made upon her hand, and who acted as her ears for what was said.” She depended on this neighbor to indicate when others were speaking and waited “with a smile of sweet patience until others are silent.” Ed noted that, “sometimes in merry companies, it is a long time before Helen gets the right of way; and when she speaks, what she says is generally worth listening to, and generally starts the table off on another tack with its suggestion.”

Chamberlin observed that, “it is an odd thing that no one’s talk is less introspective, less egotistic, less of the talker, than Helen Keller’s. She is plainly thinking herself into the people around her. What they have been saying and doing, what they are going to do, what their ideas are about this, that or the other thing. This is her ordinary theme. She is fond of relating a story, or repeating a witticism or clever thought that she has read. And he noted that he had “never heard a person who is as invariably pleased by other people’s jokes as Helen Keller.” [3]

The Chamberlins’ relationship with her provides us with special insight into what Helen Keller was like as a person: in the context of their home we see vivid, personal examples of her energy, optimism, humor, unselfishness, and gratitude – and she comes alive for us even so many years later.

 

[1] Helen Keller to Kate Adams Keller, 7/9/1897, American Foundation for the Blind Archives

[2] Helen Keller. “Joseph Edgar Chamberlin”, The American Magazine, Vol. 73, p. 421-422. Retrieved at https://books.google.com/books/TheAmericanMagazine

[3] Chamberlin, J.E. “A Day with Helen Keller: Joseph Edgar Chamberlin in the Sunday Magazine,” Colorado Springs Gazette, 19 June, 1906, p. 4.