Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Making memories at a Minnesota family reunion with red Jell-O and, um, underwear July 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:41 AM
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UNDERWEAR AND CHEWING GUM, packets of Jell-O and Kool-Aid, a jar of pickles and even a bag of flour—all were part of the annual Kletscher family reunion held last weekend in Vesta.

First a little background. Vesta, a town of about 300, lies in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota along State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and Marshall. Every July descendants of Henry and Ida Kletscher, my grandparents, gather at the park in our ancestral hometown. I didn’t take a head count, but I estimate that 150 relatives attended this year’s reunion.

This shows a small section of the Kletscher family gathered for a trivia contest at the annual reunion in Vesta.

But back to that underwear and the other listed items. As a co-coordinator of this year’s reunion, I organized a family trivia contest complete with give-aways. To win prizes, audience members had to quickly shout out answers.

Now, I’m certain you’re wondering what I could have asked that prompted me to offer underwear as a prize. Well, here’s the question: “At family gatherings, the girl cousins played Chinese jump rope, which was made from what material?” The answer: recycled underwear elastic. Yes, because we were poor, we had to be resourceful. Rather than buy an elastic Chinese jump rope, we improvised by cutting elastic from worn-out undergarments and tying the pieces together.

I’m quite certain my niece Tara wishes she hadn’t been the first to respond to that Chinese jump rope question. She appeared shocked, maybe horrified is a better description, when I pulled out over-sized striped underwear and then tossed the panties her way. Later I would discover that she left her panty prize behind (on purpose, I’m sure). Big mistake. Big, big mistake.

Here’s another trivia question: “What was a popular food prize awarded to winners of Kletscher bridal shower games? This food was also served at family birthday gatherings.” As any good Minnesotan knows, that would be Jell-O, specifically red Jell-O. Naturally, I tossed out boxes of strawberry gelatin.

Then, the question that generated the most interest from the young girls: “Who made gum wrapper chains and strung them in her bedroom?” That would be my cousin Diane who carefully crafted discarded gum wrappers into chains. And, here’s the incredible part. Diane still had one of those decades-old chains and, per my request, brought it to the reunion. This intrigued the preteens and teens. And, as you would expect, I gave away packages of gum.

Aunt Iylene shows off the gum wrapper chain made by my cousin Diane decades ago.

Trivia contest winners, Diane, my mom and my niece Tara, pose with their "medals." The trio also received Smarties candy for being so smart. The losing teams received Dum Dum suckers.

So our reunion went…beginning with several families attending the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant, “Fragments of a Dream,” in Walnut Grove on Friday evening. (Read my July 27 post on the memorable ride home. My cousin Ronda’s daughter Emily wrote a song, “The Unforgettable Storm,” performed on Sunday.)

Saturday evening we gathered at the Vesta Park for a campfire, wine tasting, singing, a texting competition, an outdoor movie and old-fashioned games like gunny sack and three-legged races. I laughed until my stomach hurt and then laughed some more.

Sunday brought the usual potluck followed by an afternoon of activities. Typically we eat and just sit and visit. But in an attempt to generate enthusiasm and more interest in the reunion, especially among the younger generation, we added planned events.

We themed this year’s reunion to the celebration of my cousin Jeff’s 20th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately his wife, Janet, could not attend as she was working, or so Jeff told us. More likely, Janet did not attend because she is not real. Twenty years ago Jeff pulled off an April Fool’s Day prank by announcing a marriage that was totally fraudulent/made-up/imaginary. Jeff, good sport bachelor that he is, allowed us to celebrate his “anniversary” in style. I’m not sure he expected a garter and bouquet toss, anniversary cake, crepe paper and bells, and a pile of gifts.

My husband and I and a handful of young girls decorated the park shelter and a screened tent with bells and crepe paper in honor of Jeff and Janet's 20th wedding anniversary.

My cousin Dawn, with the help of daughter Megan, made two beautiful anniversary cakes for her brother. My Uncle Wally and Aunt Janice made and decorated the less attractive cake with the beanie baby bridal bears.

Other afternoon events included a rock-paper-scissors tournament, a cupcake walk, a scavenger hunt, a memory game, and bean bag toss.

Oh, and I can’t forget the bridesmaid dress judging. Family members hauled their dresses to the reunion, where the garments were hung on a rope strung between two trees.

Family members selected their favorite and least favorite bridesmaid dresses that were hung between the trees.

The black-and-white dress was voted as the prettiest. The green one next to it is from my May 1982 wedding.

Relatives voted for the “prettiest” and the “ugliest.” Pre-teens, teens and my oldest daughter then modeled several dresses—fabric falling from their shoulders and dragging in the grass—before we crowned the winners with a beautiful tiara and a gaudy, flower-bedecked cap.

Later my cousin Terri would share that she felt vindicated as the bridesmaid dress worn in her wedding was voted the “prettiest.” (She claims to have gotten the “young” vote.) When she was married in 1989, Terri’s sisters teased her about the black-and-white bridesmaids’ dresses, saying they made them look like (Holstein) cows. Terri, now a model, actress and co-host of a public television show, Nature Adventures (airing soon in Minnesota), proved even back then that she had style. So there, sisters of hers.

Now, as I reflect on this weekend gathering with my mom, siblings, nieces, nephew, cousins, aunts and uncles and other family members, I have such good memories. I hear the laughter, the engaging conversations, our voices united in song. I feel the hugs, see the smiles. Bonds have been strengthened, new memories made, old ones rekindled. For me, that makes the hours and hours and hours of planning and hard work during the past year worth my time and energy.

I love my family and I would do this again for them in a heartbeat (just give me a few years to recover).

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos by my daughter Amber (because I had absolutely no time to shoot photos).