Helen does not remember much of the first few months after her illness, but she knows that she mostly sat on her mother’s lap or clung to her dress as her mother went about her day. Helen felt every object in the house, and had some sense of what things were. She could also use “crude signs” to communicate her desires; she would shake her head for “no” and nod it for “yes,” pull someone towards her for “come” and push them for “go.” Helen’s mother was very attentive toward her, and helped her to understand a good deal of things. Her mother was “all that was bright and good in [Helen’s] long night.”
As Helen reflects on the period following her illness, it does not seem to be a time marked by total sadness and isolation—instead, she was constantly surrounded by the company of her family, especially her mother, who worked with her tirelessly to try and help little Helen find a way to communicate. Helen’s mother helped her through a difficult time by showing her love, patience, and compassion.
Though Helen was impaired, she still understood a lot of what was happening around her. She could fold and put away clean clothes, and knew by what her mother and aunt were wearing whether they were going out or staying in. She could hear vibrations in the floorboards and doorways, and would ready herself for guests by putting on her mother’s powder and oils. She had an awareness that other people were different from her, and did not use signs to communicate but rather talked with their mouths. When Helen achieved no results in verbal communication, she often became very angry, and would throw fits and tantrums.
Helen participated more in her family and in day-to-day life than one might expect of a child who had been struck with such a devastating disability—Helen excitedly greeted her parents’ visitors and expressed curiosity about communication and the way her family did things. Helen found herself deeply frustrated, though, because despite her attempts to connect with the world around her, she was still profoundly unable to express herself.
Helen’s constant companions were her dog Belle and a girl named Martha Washington, the daughter of the Keller family’s cook. Martha understood all of Helen’s signs, and more than that often did whatever Helen told her to do. Helen enjoyed having dominion over another person, and loved getting her way. The two of them spent a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking and making ice-cream, and occasionally would hunt for bird’s eggs in the grass or help milk the cows in the mornings and evenings.
Even in the face of sadness and frustration, Helen found ways to make friendships and explore the world. Her feisty attitude remained strong as ever as she embarked on an imbalanced but seemingly joyful friendship with one of her parents’ servant’s children, and with Martha she continued to explore the world around the house and the nature and animals there.
Helen found herself getting into mischief like any other child; she and Martha cut one another’s hair, much to their parents’ dismay, and once, trying to dry out one of her aprons by the hearth, Helen briefly caught fire and her nurse had to throw a blanket over her to put the fire out. Helen found out what keys were, and what they were for, and once locked her mother in the pantry for three hours. Later, when Helen’s teacher Miss Sullivan came to stay, she would repeat this clever trick, forcing Miss Sullivan to be lowered out her bedroom window on a ladder.
As Helen grew older, she remained as intrepid and mischief-loving as ever. Her disability threatened to put her in danger once or twice, but despite this, Helen was able to get up to tricks and hijinks, mystifying and even frustrating those around her.
When Helen was about five, their family moved from the little vine-covered house to a new, larger home, and Helen’s father would often sit reading newspapers. Helen was always very curious to understand what her father was doing, but it wasn’t until years later that she would discover that he was a newspaper editor. Her father was “loving and indulgent,” and deeply devoted to his family. He loved hunting, gardening, and storytelling, and after Helen acquired language her father would tell her wonderful, fanciful stories. Helen wishes to speak of her mother, but finds that her mother is so dear to her that it “seems indelicate to speak of her.”
Helen’s relationship with her parents remained as tender and loving as ever, and though she could not communicate with them very well, she delighted in their presence and has deeply fond memories of her childhood with them. Once Miss Sullivan arrived, her relationship to her parents would blossom even more. This shows how Miss Sullivan’s love and support made it possible for Helen to forge new connections and strengthen existing ones.
As for Helen’s little sister, Mildred, who came into the world when Helen was a few years old, Helen regarded her sister at first as an “intruder.” She was jealous of her sister, and of how often the baby got to sit in her mother’s lap. At the time of Mildred’s birth, Helen had a “much-abused” doll named Nancy, whom Helen liked to place in a little cradle. One afternoon, Helen found Mildred sleeping in the cradle, and attempted to overturn it; her mother caught her just in time, and Mildred was unharmed. After Helen was “restored to [her] human heritage” through the acquisition of language, she and Mildred grew close, though often the two of them had trouble communicating with one another.
Helen’s feistiness and combativeness extended to her defenseless infant sister, whom Helen did not fully understand and saw largely as a nuisance. Helen had her own way of doing things in spite of her disabilities, and Helen did not care for anyone who threatened her routine or sense of stability. She feels it important to note that later on, after Miss Sullivan made it possible for her to communicate with the outside world, she would come to regard her sister very dearly.