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Helen Keller found good friends and sanctuary on Foss Mountain

Keith and Nella Henney offered their home as a summer respite

Helen Keller (left) and Nella Henney have a sign language conversation on the porch of the farm on Foss Mountain. (Courtesy Photo). (click for larger version)
August 12, 2010
The name Helen Keller has become a mixture of folklore and fable in America. It evokes images, reinforced by Hollywood, of a deaf, blind, and mute child, overcoming all the odds to blossom into an intelligent woman, famed for her fortitude and courage. All of this is indeed true.

Behind this unprecedented and remarkable success story looms the miracle worker herself — Anne Sullivan Macy, known to Keller and those closest to her as "Teacher." Their story is depicted in the drama, "Miracle Worker," and has been recounted in many books and articles through the years.

The story of Helen Keller (1880-1968) is indeed larger than life and her fame was earned through her remarkable achievements. When dealing with a woman whose entire life has been chronicled on stage, screen and through literature, it is easier to grasp "the big picture," but not the real moments that make up a daily life.

There is, however, a representative slice of that life we can share even now, and one that is close to home for residents of the Mt. Washington Valley. Through the eyes of one of Helen Keller's dear friends we can catch a glimpse, and a true, though somewhat incomplete picture emerges of a person who remains, many years after her death, an inspiration to all who know her story, anywhere on the globe.

Shut into her world of silence and darkness when only a 19-month-old baby, Helen Keller felt her life did not truly begin until her "soul's birthday," March 3, 1887, when Macy's arrival brought meaning and definition into the world around her. In many respects, Helen was wholly dependent on the few close friends and confidantes she retained through her life.

One of those friends was Nella Braddy Henney, who died in 1973, and one of the private sanctuaries that Helen retreated to on occasion was what was then the Henney home on Foss Mountain in Snowville.

Nella and Keith Henney were both editors at Doubleday and Co. publishers in Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday had published Keller's first book, "The Story of My Life," in 1903. It was now 1923 and F.N. Doubleday assigned Nella Henney the task of working with Keller on updating her story. A relationship formed that was to last for the next 40 years.

For Henney, learning sign language and editing Braille pages into a cohesive book was a task she didn't at first relish. Keller was already a celebrity and Henney's attitude was less than enthusiastic.

"I had known about her since I was a child. How old she must be, I thought. How far she must be from the lively, exciting world which the rest of us are living. I was curious to see her but I hoped whatever I had to do for her would not take long. I wanted to get back in the groove…I give myself zero IQ for this," she wrote in her short story, "With Helen Keller."

Henney's mind was quickly changed when she found the "most beautiful woman I had ever seen, so stately, so alive, so outgoing, so young, so eager."

Over the years, their collaboration saw Keller through more than a dozen books, although as a graduate of Radcliffe, Helen needed less and less editing as the years went by.

Their working relationship grew into a close friendship and that is what eventually brought Keller to Snowville in the late 1930s.

Part of Keller's self-appointed task in life was to bring hope and light into the lives of other blind or handicapped people; a role she played throughout her years and continues to long after her death.

When Macy died in 1936, Keller had already been on an exhaustive road tour, and was planning a trip to Japan to lift the hearts of the blind in that country. She and Macy's successor, Polly Thomson, were apparently in no condition, physically or emotionally, to travel, and at Nella's invitation planned to spend the summer on Foss Mountain.

"They had been living like vagabonds," Nella wrote. "They had sold the house in Forest Hills and had been visiting families and friends. After awhile they would be ready to visit Japan, but first they needed rest. For this we offered our house on Foss Mountain…They stayed six weeks, they meaning Helen, Polly, Herbert and four dogs (a great dane, two Scotland collies and one terrier).

"It was our good fortune to be in a New England community where privacy is understood and respected and we were left to ourselves. In the evening we listened to a long-playing record, Helen's hand on the loudspeaker; Polly by her side, but not touching her. Or we talked about Teacher, who was vividly before us because of Helen's book, or we discussed the news, which lost some of its grimness as it came over the mountains and through the forest, or we gossiped about things that were fun, but didn't matter very much. Helen had brought some of her Braille books and a checkerboard that Herbert had made for her, the kings sunk, then men level…Herbert had also made her solitaire cards and brought his Braille machine which Teacher had given him so that he could copy articles for her," Henney wrote. And so it was that Keith and Nella Henney became hosts to one of the most famous women in America.

The home on Foss Mount-ain was a rustic place in those days, to say the least. The house had only kerosene lamps for light, an open hearth for warmth and a big iron cookstove for meals. Ice came from the basement, cut from Crystal Lake the previous winter and packed in sawdust in a washtub.

In a 1987 interview at his home on Foss Mountain, three years prior to his death, Keith Henney, then 90, said, "I think that Nella was closest to Helen other than Teacher. Helen knew authors and literature so they had a lot in common, and both had a great sense of humor."

The trust between the two women went beyond just the writing of books. "Helen gave Nella power-of-attorney so she could help advise Helen on people whom might want to take advantage. Helen was very dependent on her closest friends to screen some of those who would take advantage. People either wanted to exploit her or explore technically what she could do," he noted.

As Nella Henney wrote in an article years after one of Keller's visits, "Helen's celebrity and her handicaps make her seem a formidable guest to those who do not know her and many of our friends say, 'How brave you are!' But Helen adapts quickly to the layout and routine of another house, and no one is more eager to help with ordinary chores like making beds, capping strawberries, bringing in wood, and drying dishes. She had an adventurous appetite and would eat anything, and once she knew where all the furniture was, she was able to get around alone, guiding herself by a bureau, the stair rail, a heavy chair and the lie of the rugs underfoot," she wrote.

Twice a day, rain or shine, the two friends would go for a walk. "She couldn't see or hear the sounds of the forest, but her sense of smell and touch made up for it," said Henney, who died in 1990.

The daily walks were an enjoyable ritual looked forward to by both women, and it was then that the cares of the "real world" seemed so distant.

"I was surprised to see how sure-footed she was. Helen was intoxicated with scents, and once she had them in her hand, she could name all the wild flowers and mushrooms, too," Nella wrote.

Inscribed in a copy of her book, "Midstream," in the Conway Library's Nella Braddy Henney history room, Keller wrote in her own hand "It is a mistake to think that those who cannot see are unhappy," and she signed it. "With cordial greetings, Helen Keller."

This would seem to be the message that she wanted people to get. But, as the years passed, many of Keller's friends began to die, and Nella's role became that much more important. In later years, when Keller was hospitalized, Nella spent several weeks in residence at the hospital, so Keller would have a friend at hand.

As was evidenced by certain passages in a selection of excerpts published in 1957 under the title, "The Open Door," Keller was aware of the sacrifices people made for her, and though she didn't necessarily like it, she reconciled herself to them. One of those passages shows the other side of the brave woman's ongoing battle with her handicaps, a side that did not often show in public.

"No one knows — no one can know — the bitter denials of limitation better than I do. I am not deceived about my situation. It is not true that I am not sad or rebellious, but I long ago determined not to complain. The mortally wounded must strive to live out their days cheerfully for the sake of others. That is what religion is for — to keep the heart brave to fight out to the end with a smiling face. This may not be a very lofty ambition, but it is a far cry from surrendering to fate. But to get the better of fate even to this extent one must have work and the solace of friendship, and an unwavering faith in God's plan of Good," she wrote.

Those words quite poignantly illustrate that Helen Keller was a realist, who was all too aware of what was lost in her life and was surely not a person taken with her own fame and fortune.

"Helen was very patient with her celebrity status," said Henney. "Teacher didn't want to waste Helen and her time, but Helen understood people's needs to know about her. For my part, she's one of the most, if not the most, interesting person I've ever met, and would have been so even without her handicaps."

Henney also recalled that Keller needed some time to herself, with no one watching over her. To facilitate that goal, he strung a rope which led way into the forest outside the house. "We had a rope going from the back door all along through the woods and fields. Helen liked the feeling of being free and on her own to walk alone sometimes, as long as she had the rope," he said.

Keller's need for rejuvenation and her appreciation of the Henneys' hospitality is reflected in this note she left for Nella just before she departed Eaton in the summer of 1938.

"Dearest Nella, When one's heart is overflowing with sweet emotion, written words do grow cold, but I must try to tell you in soul language before we leave this noon, that your nest of peace is twice blest. It blesses you who put us into it for six weeks joy-gathering and us who have reveled in its enfolding hospitality. How inundated we have been with every kind of beauty every minute on Foss Mountain!"

For the Henneys, Helen Keller was a very real person, not a myth or a movie star; a heroine, maybe, but first a woman of substance and a friend. Their awe took a back seat to the other emotions she evoked.

"Helen was so intimately a part of everything that we forgot the world figure and thought only of the cherished friend, but we never forgot that we were greatly privileged," Nella Henney wrote. "Our senses were more alert, our lives fuller and there was a special radiance around us. It still shines over our hills, a light that is needed everywhere."

Perhaps, if nothing else, Helen Keller's life and legacy is one of finding and sharing that light with a world she could feel, yet never see.

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