Thanks to my cousin Jim passing the word on, I found out that my great-grandfather met Helen Keller. In front of the Mormon Tabernacle Organ that my son has played–so I know just how much sound that thing can put out in person: you wonder if the windows are all going to fall out when the organist really wants to pull out all the stops (which is where that phrase comes from).
Now, let me tell you a story about Heber J. Grant. Born in 1856. He was completely tone deaf. He was also a strong believer that anything he worked hard enough at, he could achieve, and so at one point in his life, he decided he wanted to learn to sing. I mean really sing: he got a pianist friend to work with him, telling him when he had the note right or not and learning by how it felt in his throat because his ears just had no clue. Memorizing, practicing, because after all, music was an important part of the church services. He got to where he had a repertoire of three hymns that he was assured he was doing well.
And then they announced he was going to sing a solo in church.
The pianist played the intro. He joined in.
The congregation suppressed twitters all around–the oops moment of being caught off guard and reacting in spite of themselves.
He soldiered on, got through it, sat down, and leaned to the pianist, “Didn’t I sing that right?”
“Yes, you did,” she whispered back. “I played the wrong introduction. I’m so sorry!”
Rhythm, pitch–he’d had no idea.
His youngest daughter was my grandmother with perfect pitch.
Sitting in the front row at that Tabernacle building is where, at an annual, long-scheduled Grant family reunion that was held the weekend of Gram’s passing at 96 (I think she let go then so that we could see more relatives in the extended family), I heard for the first time her father’s voice. It had been remastered from a very old recording for that reunion and all of us out-of-towners would have missed it had the funeral been held at any other time.
Singing.Â My tone-deaf great-grandfather was singing one of those songs again in his great old age. It sounded like an old man’s voice, but he only hit a few notes wrong. I would not have known he couldn’t hear better.
Wow. Just, wow. Helen Keller held his hand and didn’t let go. He guided her to that organ console in front of all those pipes. Alexander Schreiner belted out that hymn for all he was worth and they got to hear it as they could, together.
Edited Monday to add: I finished that post, went off to bed, and the obvious suddenly hit me: Helen Keller had learned to speak like my great-grandfather had learned to sing. By how it felt.
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