I remember sitting in the balcony right at the back of that huge domed building that was supposed to have the best acoustics in the world. Helen -- everybody called her that -- walked in from behind a curtain under the choir seats with her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
She answered questions about being deaf and blind and learning to read and to type and, of course, to talk. Hearing that voice making words was like hearing words for the first time, as if language had only come into being -- into my being at least -- that moment.
Someone asked her, "Do you feel colors?"
I'll never forget her answer, the exact sound of it -- "Sometimes . . . I feel . . . blue."
Her voice went up slightly at the end and meant she was smiling. The audience didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.
After many questions, she said, "I . . . would like . . . to ask . . . a favor of you." Of course the whole audience was alert.
"Is your Mormon prophet here?" she asked.
There was a flurry of getting up on the front row, and President Grant walked up the stairs to the stand. She reached out her hand and he took it.
"I . . . would like . . . ," she said, "to hear your organ . . . play . . . your famous song about your pioneers. I . . . would like . . . to remember hearing it here." All the time, she continued holding the hand he had given to her to shake. I liked them together, very much.
I remember thinking, I am only a little girl, probably others know, but how in the world will she hear the organ? But she turned toward President Grant and he motioned to Alexander Schriener, the Tabernacle organist, who was sitting near the loft.
He placed her hand on the grained oak of the console and she stood all alone, facing us in her long black velvet dress with her right arm extended, leaning slightly forward and touching the organ, with her head bowed.
Brother Schreiner played "Come, Come Ye Saints," each verse a different arrangement, the organ pealing and throbbing -- the bass pedals like fog horns -- as only he could make happen. Helen Keller stood there -- hearing through her hand -- and sobbing.
Lots of us in the audience were mouthing the words to ourselves: "Gird up your loins, fresh courage take, our God will never us forsake, and then we'll have this tale to tell -- all is well, all is well."
I could see my great-grandparents, converts from England and Wales and France and Denmark in the circle of their covered wagons, singing over their fires in the cold nights crossing the plains. Three of them had babies die, all under two, and my grandmother was buried in Wyoming.
"And should we die, before our journey's through, Happy day! All is well. We then are free from toil and sorrow too. With the just we shall dwell. But if our lives are spared again to see the Saints their rest obtain, Oh how we'll make this chorus swell. All is well! All is well!"
So then, that Tabernacle, that singing, my ancestors welling up in me, my daddy beside me, that magnificent woman all combined with the organ and the man who played it and the man who had led her to it, and . . . I believed.
I believed it all -- the seeing without seeing, the hearing without hearing, the going by feel toward something holy, something that could make her cry and could lift my scalp right off . . . .
I get impatient with dogma and dictum, but somewhere way inside me and way beyond impatience or indifference there is that insistent, infernal, so help me, scared singing -- All is well, All is well. My own church, inhabited by my own people -- I would be cosmically orphaned without it.