Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“It was a dark and stormy night…” March 15, 2013

Snoopy's GuideJUST THINKING about the scene—my husband and kids lying belly down on the carpet reading the Sunday funnies—makes me smile.

My mother’s heart swelled with love to witness this weekly connection between father and daughters/son. Back then, I considered only that bonding aspect, that break from full-time mothering, the laughter that spilled from the living room.

I’ve never been a reader of comics, considering them a waste of time. Besides that, I’m a serious person, not inclined to reading anything remotely humorous. But now, at age 56, it is not too late to admit that I was wrong. Comics offer not only laughter, but insights into life and much more. Duh.

Thanks to Minnesota writer Sue Ready, who blogs at Ever Ready, I discovered the value in comic strips via her recommended reading of Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, published in 2002 by Writer’s Digest Books and edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz.

It was the title, not the comedic aspect, which grabbed my attention. I am always interested in reading about writing and this volume offers insights from noted authors like Ray Bradbury, Fannie Flagg and Danielle Steel, among about two dozen others.

Their advice, though, isn’t presented in a straight-forward manner. Rather, the selected writers are prompted by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s Snoopy strips, specifically featuring Snoopy the writer at his doghouse rooftop typewriter.

Why had I forgotten that Snoopy was a writer? Perhaps because I have not read all that many Peanuts cartoons.

Snoopy faces the sometime issues of writer’s bloc, criticism (from the ever present loud-mouthed Lucy), rejection and more. But the problems somehow seem funny when faced by Snoopy and not me.

The canine is stuck on beginning his stories with “It was a dark and stormy night,” or a slightly revised version. How often do we writers also become stuck, writing in the same way or, even worse, writing how we think we should write?

Author Fannie Flagg advises:

The joy about writing is that as long as you write from your heart, a thousand English degrees cannot compete with that.

How true. Readers can sense when you write from your heart.

I found Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life packed with pieces of useful advice, some which I already knew, some not. Here are some paraphrased gems I plucked from the book:

  • Too much time on the typewriter (translate computer) can cause double vision. (Correct.)
  • Avoid boring descriptions and heavy explanations.
  • Understand your subject and your market.
  • Surprise is an important element of humor (and writing in general, might I add).
  • Stop seeking approval and advice and trust your instincts.
  • “Try to leave out the parts that readers skip” (direct quote that I could not paraphrase).
  • Plot develops from character, a point emphasized by more than one writer.
  • Just write. Every day.

Now, one of my favorite lines comes from Monte Schulz, the son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. Monte surmises that writers write “for the music of beautiful language.” I love that phrase because I totally get what he means. As a writer, and especially as a poet, my heart rejoices when I find the exact word or line which makes my poem sing. It is a glorious moment.

Then, on the second to last page of Snoopy’s Guide, writer J.F. Freedman throws in that element of surprise, at least for me, when he writes:

 Great comic strips…are a fine introduction into literature, and are damn good writing in and of themselves…

And after reading (in this book) more than 180 “Snoopy at the typewriter” comic strips, likely more comics than I’ve read in my life, I’d agree with Freedman. Damn good writing, indeed.

WHAT WRITING TIPS can you offer? Let’s hear them.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Shopping for antiques in St. Peter is like way cool March 14, 2013

IF YOU HAD PREDICTED 40 years ago that I would be poking around antique stores someday, celebrating the past, remembering the days of my youth, I would have rolled my eyes.

The mere suggestion of such behavior would rate as totally uncool.

But long ago I discovered that antiquing is, indeed, cool, if not downright groovy. Just to be clear, I categorize 1970s merchandise as collectibles, not antiques.

Patrick's on 3rd anchors the corner on the left with Diamonds in the RUST on the right. Diamonds sells merchandise from antiques to present. Love that name.

Patrick’s on 3rd (bar and restaurant) anchors the corner on the left with Diamonds in the RUST on the right. Diamonds sells merchandise from antiques to present. Love that name.

That said, when I entered the charming Diamonds in the RUST shop along Park Row Street three doors down from Patrick’s on 3rd, which I’m told makes the best burgers in St. Peter, I automatically fell in love with the place.

Diamonds in the RUST, looking toward the front of the store.

Diamonds in the RUST, looking toward the front of the store.

See how the sunlight streams through those windows and onto the floor and merchandise.

Love how the sunlight streams through those windows and onto the floor and merchandise.

Light flooding through a street-side bank of tall windows, patches of sunlight slipping across the wood floor, artfully arranged merchandise and then, that most fabulous find of all, a Joseph’s coat of many colors sweater, defined this as one happin’ place.

Seventies coming of age child that I am, my eyes connected with that multi-colored sweater like a hippie drawn to a peace symbol.

The sweater similar to one I wore in the 70s.

The sweater similar to one I wore in the 70s.

“I had a sweater just like that,” I shared with the shopkeeper, although, on closer inspection, I discovered this to be a Tommy Hilfiger replica and not exactly like the sweater I paired with my hip huggers. Oh, well, I thought, and then wondered aloud if my mom, the keeper of everything, had saved that groovy sweater from my teen years. It’s possible; I recently retrieved lime green cuffed, flared pants, with about a size 18-inch waist (was I really that tiny once?), from her basement.

Ah, how antiquing prompts memories…

I own a vintage Chinese checkers board similar to these, found at a garage sale 30 years ago.

I own a vintage Chinese checkers board similar to these, one I found at a garage sale 30 years ago.

Then I spotted two Chinese checkers boards flaunting their psychedelic hues. I always connect Chinese checkers with my farmer dad, gone 10 years now. He never had time for board games. But pull out the metal Chinese checkers game and he was right there with the rest of us gathered around the Formica kitchen table, his clumsy fingers guiding marbles into place.

I would never buy a dead (or live) pheasant, but someone might.

I would never buy a dead (or live) pheasant, but someone might.

More memories of my dad surfaced when I sighted a taxidermy pheasant perched on a slip of wood set upon that beautiful wood floor. I am not a hunter. But, as a child, I would occasionally accompany Dad on his way to the slough—a grassy waterhole long ago drained and converted to farmland—to hunt for pheasants. It wasn’t the actual act of walking the land, searching for pheasants, that appealed to me. Rather, it was the rare opportunity to be with Dad when he was not in the barn or field that drew me to the hunt. I did not understand that then. But I do now.

Pheasant glasses like this are coveted by some members of my extended family.

Pheasant glasses like this are coveted by some members of my extended family.

I didn’t purchase any of those memory items at Diamonds in the RUST, only snapped photos, including one of a set of pheasant glasses that would interest my middle brother or niece’s husband.

A snippet of downtown St. Peter, along Highway 169.

A snippet of downtown St. Peter, along busy U.S. Highway 169.

Down the block and around the corner, walking St. Peter’s main drag, I slipped into a memory lane high when my husband discovered copies of Tiger Beat magazine in another antique store. Oh, my heart. The Beatles. The Monkees.

My beloved Tiger Beat magazine.

My beloved Tiger Beat magazine.

Cousin Joyce, who was two months younger than me, but way more worldly because she had two older sisters and therefore knew about stuff like boys, green eye shadow, David Cassidy and fishnet stockings long before me, introduced me to Tiger Beat. Back in the days when relatives still “visited” each other, Joyce and I would stretch out on her bed stomach side down, knees crooked, feet rocking, paging through the pages of Tiger Beat. And for a few hours I felt like I was hip and, mostly, totally, in love.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Another 70s find in an antique store that was closing for good on the day we shopped there.

A 70s bridal gown found in an antique store that was closing for good on the day I shopped there.

Love that cobalt blue in glassware showcased at Diamonds in the RUST.

Love that cobalt blue in glassware showcased at Diamonds in the RUST.

The whimsical design of these elephant glasses (shot glasses/juice glasses?) caught my fancy at Diamonds in the RUST.

The whimsical design of these elephant glasses (shot glasses/juice glasses?) caught my fancy at Diamonds in the RUST.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Strange but true: Abolish the privy-pit & use the dry earth closet March 13, 2013

DURING THE FIRST 11 years of my life, I lived in a cramped three-bedroom farmhouse in southwestern Minnesota with my parents and four siblings, my third brother not yet born.

The house, albeit aged and plain, provided necessary shelter for our family. But, unlike most rural homes in the area, ours did not have a bathroom. Instead, we used a two-hole outhouse during the warm months and a pot on the porch during the winter.

It was not the outhouse, but rather the red-rimmed white enamel porch pot which I remember with particular disdain. Cold nipped at my butt in the frosty uninsulated and unheated porch. And the pot, naturally, reeked of feces and urine. I couldn’t remove the lid and slap it back on fast enough.

Stone Valley General Store, 110 Pine Street, located in the old Engesser Brewery on the south side of St. Peter.

Stone Valley General Store, 110 Pine Street, located in the old Engesser Brewery on the south side of St. Peter.

With that memory, you will understand why I was especially fascinated by the Heap’s Patent Dry Earth Closet I found recently at the Stone Valley General Store, an antiques/collectibles/consignment shop in St. Peter.

And we’re not talking clothes closet here.

We’re talking water closet, minus the water.

Not just a fine piece of furniture, but a toilet. The door opens to reveal a urine receptacle on the inside of a door and a pail tucked underneath.

Not just a fine piece of furniture, but a toilet. The door opens to reveal a urine receptacle on the inside of the door and a pail tucked underneath.

William Heap & Sons of Muskegon, Michigan, so my research reveals, patented this stylish bedroom commode in 1886 and promoted it as “perfectly inodorous.” The idea was to sprinkle odor absorbing ash or earth into the galvanized bucket which came with the unit before doing your duty. A separate porcelain receptacle on the closet door collected urine.

The urine collector which hangs on the door.

The urine collector which hangs on the door.

In theory it all sounds so wonderful:

No water! No drain! They are simply invaluable… ABOLISH THE PRIVY-PIT!…Secure health, comfort and cleanliness…

You can almost hear the infomercial, can’t you, with these units priced from $8 – $13 and “25,000 already in use.” That’s the pitch in an ad placed in the “Household Necessaries” section of The Cosmopolitan.

Jackie posted these instructions with the dry earth closet.

Jackie posted these instructions with the dry earth closet.

According to Jackie Hoehn, owner of the Stone Valley General Store, the Heap’s Dry Earth Closet she is selling for $1,500 was used at the Mayo Clinic and the State Hospital in St. Peter.

No trying out the dry earth closet in Jackie's shop.

No trying out the dry earth closet in Jackie’s shop.

Now, I didn’t ask Jackie how she acquired this toilet or when. But I expect she may be sitting on it for awhile. Not literally, of course.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

This Minnesota mom welcomes her daughter back from Argentina, again March 12, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:16 AM
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WE RETRIEVED HER between bouts of morning and late afternoon snowfall from the parking lot of the Culver’s restaurant in Lakeville, wrapping winter coat arms around her thin frame.

Miranda in Valles Calchaquies, near the town of Cafayate in the Salta province.

Miranda in Valles Calchaquies, near the town of Cafayate in the Salta province.

She, her arms and torso snugged in a borrowed red parka, shivered in the Minnesota winter. Already she missed her beloved Argentina where the summer sun’s rays brushed bronze upon her skin.

As she and her dad lifted her travel-worn suitcase and lavender backpack from the trunk of her sister’s car, shifting them into the trunk of ours, I savored the sweet moment of her homecoming. Nearly four weeks earlier I’d embraced my second-born, tears trailing down my cheeks as she turned away. The scene of her wheeling that suitcase, slipping through the airport doors, remains imprinted upon my memory.

But on this Sunday afternoon, joy defined the minutes, the hour, in which all three of my adult children (it always seems odd to write that contradiction of words, “adult children”) and the boyfriend of the eldest, slid into a corner booth at Culver’s. The restaurant marked a deliberate dining choice by the oldest daughter whose sister once raved about the fast food eatery. Ironically, it’s headquartered in Wisconsin, where the returning traveler now lives.

Unique restaurant architecture in Cafayate, Salta province.

Unique restaurant architecture in Cafayate, Salta province.

I truly cared not where we ate. Rather, I cared that my family surrounded me. With two of my three now living 300 miles away in opposite directions, such togetherness happens only a few times a year. I am not complaining as many more miles, even oceans, separate families.

A tango band performs on the street during a fair in San Telmo barrio of Buenos Aires.

A tango band performs on the street during a fair in San Telmo barrio of Buenos Aires.

But tucked deep into the recesses of my mother’s worries exists the possibility that my second daughter, some day, will return to Argentina. Permanently. Twice she’s lived there, once visited. She’s been mistaken already numerous times as a local, Spanish flowing fluent from her tongue.

While she can claim a knowledge of Spanish as her own, I have passed along this genetic love of language, this appreciation for words and sentence structure and communication.

Riding the cable car in Salta.

Riding the cable car in Salta.

This desire to adventure, though, wells from within her, sourced perhaps from me. I intentionally encouraged her, like her sister before, her brother after, to travel, to see that which I’ve never seen, never will, for I possess not a distant traveler’s heart.

This has been my selfless mother’s gift—this unfurling of the fingers, this revealing of the palm, this opening to flight, this letting go.

Every Thursday afternoon the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo march in front of the central government of Argentina. They are honoring the memories of, by most accounts, 30,000 protesters who disappeared during the "Dirty War" between 1976-1983. The then military/dictorial government, so my daughter tells me, kidnapped

Every Thursday afternoon the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo march in front of the central government of Argentina, in Buenos Aires. They are honoring the memories of, by most accounts, 30,000 protesters who disappeared during the “Dirty War” between 1976-1983. The then military/dictatorial government, so my daughter tells me, kidnapped those who opposed the government and placed them in detention camps. Those detainees “disappeared,” killed in the camps or drugged and dropped from planes into the ocean, she further explains. Why have I not heard of this or why do I not remember this?  The white scarves identify the group and, she says, are embroidered with the names of the mothers’ lost children.

BONUS PHOTOS from Argentina:

Casa del Gobierno (House of Government) in San Miguel de Tucuman.

Casa del Gobierno (House of Government) in San Miguel de Tucuman.

El Mirador (Lookout), Valles Calchaquies, Salta.

El Mirador (Lookout), Valles Calchaquies, Salta.

An open air market in Purmamarca, Jujuy province.

An open air market in Purmamarca, Jujuy province.

A herd of vicunas, Jujuy province.

A herd of vicunas, Jujuy province.

A meat stand at Mercado del Norte (North Market), San Miguel de Tucuman.

A meat stand at Mercado del Norte (North Market), San Miguel de Tucuman.

Valles Calchaquies near Cafayate, Salta province.

Valles Calchaquies near Cafayate, Salta province.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Miranda Helbling

 

Country song March 11, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:48 AM
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Somewhere along Minnesota Highway 19 west of Red Wing, Minnesota.

Somewhere along Minnesota Highway 19 west of Red Wing, Minnesota.

THERE’S SOMETHING about a pick-up truck on a gravel road and high-line wires (as I termed power lines in my youth) that stretch seemingly into infinity, and how the two mimic each other—the road and the wires—in strong horizontal lines.

There is something poetic and lonely and haunting in this rural winter scene, almost like the plaintive lyrics of a country western song or strings strung taut upon an acoustic guitar.

Is he destined to break her heart or has he already broken it?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finding spring in Minnesota in the midst of winter March 9, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:49 AM
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WINTER GETTING TOO long for you?

Uh, huh. I hear you. I’m feeling winter weary, too, my spirits quelled by the recent 10-inch snowfall in Faribault.

I long for warmth and sunshine, for bursts of color and blooming flowers. Just give me spring, will you?

Well, readers, I quite unexpectedly walked into spring, in Red Wing, Minnesota, of all places. Who would have thought? Certainly not me.

But look, spring…

Tulips, among the first flowers of spring.

Tulips, among the first flowers of spring.

More tulips in bloom.

More tulips in bloom.

This scene just makes me happy.

This colorful scene simply makes me happy, just like spring.

So many flowers in bloom.

So many flowers in bloom.

The pretty pastels of Easter and of spring.

The pretty pastels of Easter and of spring.

Pretty, pretty floral plates.

Pretty, pretty florals.

Exactly what I needed to see on a winter day: jolts of color.

Exactly what I needed to see on a winter day: jolts of color and flowers in bloom.

Pottery Place in Red Wing

Pottery Place Historic Center in Red Wing, site of antique and specialty shops, eateries and the Red Wing Pottery Museum.

…inside two antique shops at Pottery Place Historic Center, 2000 West Main Street, Red Wing.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Montgomery, Part V: Slinking through the alleys March 8, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:48 AM
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WRAPPING UP OUR TOUR of Montgomery, I present several bonus photos from this southern Minnesota community.

A view from a downtown Montgomery late on a Sunday afternoon.

A view from a downtown Montgomery alley late on a Sunday afternoon.

These photos don’t showcase anything particularly outstanding. Yet, they reveal interesting buildings or parts of buildings not seen unless you detour through an alley or along a less-traveled street.

I’d always advise you to follow the road less-traveled. Always.

Discovered in that same alley.

Discovered in that same alley.

Another "blacksmith shop" across town.

Another “blacksmith shop” across town.

The rear handicapped accessible entry to historic Hilltop Hall.

The rear handicapped accessible entrance to historic Hilltop Hall which is built into the side of a hill. This entry off a narrow alley leads to the second floor performing arts center space.

I believe this building once housed Montgomery Brewing Company. Can anyone confirm?

I believe the building on the right once housed Montgomery Brewing Company. Can anyone confirm?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling