Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Tom at the organ March 7, 2012

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My father-in-law, Tom, at the used Lowrey organ he purchased a few years ago.

THE CONSOLE LIGHTS UP like a Christmas tree or the Vegas strip or a carnival midway as my father-in-law settles onto the bench of his Lowrey organ and flips switches.

I’ve asked Tom to play a tune or two during a brief visit at his St. Cloud apartment.

He’s taking organ lessons. I find that particularly admirable given he’s 81. Not that he’s a musical novice. Tom isn’t. He once played an accordion and piano and even an organ and tuned and repaired pianos. He typically plays music by ear, including on this occasion.

Playing the organ, with his artificial hand, left, and his real hand.

Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Somewhere My Love,” from the movie “Doctor Zhivago” flow from the keys like music at a supper club all sugary and sweet and smooth. We should be dining in the dark corner of a long ago Saturday night destination, backs pressed against walls pasted with flocked red wallpaper, slicing our serrated knives through pink steaks and sipping our whiskey sours.

But instead, we are cramped into a tiny apartment among a hodgepodge of doll and angel collectibles, beer steins and toy tractors, and a clutter of miscellaneous knickknacks. We’re sipping water in a room flooded with light.

The organ takes up considerable space in the tiny apartment.

In the corner, my step mother-in-law pauses from circling words in a word search book to listen to the organ music, until, finally, she requests that the music stop.

We leave her there, with her words, as we descend several floors to my father-in-law’s art studio, a corner in the basement community room. Just over from a cluster of outdated exercise bicycles, Tom has stashed frames he’s recycling for his own art. Finished and in-progress works lean against each other and we file through them—elk in the mountains, loons, raccoons…

Threshing on the home place, a painting by my father-in-law. While growing up here, Tom already played organ.

He unrolls a scroll onto a table, revealing a sketch of the home place near St. Anthony, North Dakota. His second oldest daughter wants a painting of the farm where Tom grew up with his parents, Alfred and Rosa, and siblings, then later lived with his bride.

My husband studies the drawing, points out the summer kitchen and the creek, the details he remembers of Sunnybrook Farm, the place he called home until moving with his parents to central Minnesota in the early 1960s.

In moments like this, I begin to glimpse the history and the roots of this family I married into 30 years ago.

And in moments like photographing my father-in-law at the organ and in sifting through his paintings, I see the artistic side of this man. The man who once attended Catholic boarding school and worked the land and lost his left hand to a corn chopper in 1967, but never lost his desire, or ability, to pursue his passion to create music and art.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling