Sunday, September 20, 2009

NORTH ALABAMA NOTES


On Thursday morning, a heavy rain fell in North Alabama, and we toured Ivy Green, the Helen Keller home in Tuscumbia during a downpour. Ivy Green’s Virginia style cottage seemed to have been an overcrowded home when Helen Keller was born. It housed the Captain and Mrs. Keller, Mr. Keller’s parents, Helen’s sister and brother…and, later, Anne Sullivan, Helen’s miraculous teacher. I was overwhelmed by the sight of the black wellpump where Anne Sullivan first spelled out the word “water” in the palm of blind and deaf Helen as the cold water flowed over her hand. I bought a small watercolor of the pump to hang in my study and remind me of “miracle.”

In Helen Keller’s autobiography, she writes: “They took away what should have been my eyes (But I remembered Milton’s Paradise). They took away what should have been my ears, (Beethoven came and wiped away my tears). They took away what should have been my tongue, (But I had talked with God when I was young). He would not let them take away my soul – Possessing that, I still possess the whole.”

Director Sue Pilkilton, is a native of Tuscumbia who, as a teen-ager, was challenged to visit the Keller site and write about it as a tenth grade assignment for an extra 100 points. She fell in love with the home and the story of Helen Keller. After graduation from high school she went to work for the museum home and has remained there, ultimately becoming the director of the home and gardens. With grants and support from the City of Tuscumbia, she has created one of the South’s most attractive historic sites. I came away from Ivy Green thinking how much my eyes have allowed me to see in my lifetime – all those wonderful images and perceptions, colors and shapes…all the wonderful voices and music I’ve been able to hear. And Helen had only her fingertips and an indefatigable spirit to bring her the sights and sounds of the universe.

A thunderstorm raged outside as we went through the TVA Museum of Art in Tuscumbia, a site that featured an exhibit of “The Era, Art, and Legacy of the WPA” as shown in silk screen posters, lithographs, woodcuts, dioramas, and cloth dolls. Also, photographs documented the work done by CCC’s on walkways and trails in Alabama. “Just like my father” (also deceased), I said to Vickie, my travel companion. “I came all the way to Alabama to see Dorothy’s primitive camp, and he’s again competing with her for attention with his WPA, CCC history, complete with thunder and lightning.” My father worked with both programs during Roosevelt’s New Deal, and every time I view some of this program’s handiwork, I remember how his work with the two programs inspired in him a love of rock and concrete… and how, with his oversight, my brother and I mixed volumes of concrete by hand to make benches, tables, and walks for the yard in Franklinton, Louisiana. In addition to the items displayed in the museum, the assistant director told us that several buildings on the University of Alabama campus were constructed by the WPA; in fact, the President’s Home, built in 1939, is a monument to WPA efforts.

After lunch, we found a two-story bookstore called “Coldwater Books” in downtown Tuscumbia. The wood-paneled walls and tall tin ceilings created the ambience of a large library–unusual in a small southern town. I left a card listing my book titles for the manager to consider as the assistant manager said they promoted area writers from Tennessee (well, I reside at Sewanee a large part of the year)and Alabama. In the afternoon, after the deluge of the morning, I sat at my window on the fifth floor of the hotel watching the sun emerge and wondering if the weather would hold and allow me to reach the floor of the Dismals Canyon the following day. At that point in the pilgrimage, the Canyon’s name had certainly predicted the dismal weather!
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