Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Minnesota Class Reunion in Poetry April 30, 2015

LAST SEPTEMBER THE WABASSO High School Class of 1974 gathered at the Wabasso Community Center for our 40-year reunion. That’s on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, in Redwood County.

I lived on a farm 15 miles to the north and west, just outside of Vesta, an hour’s bus ride away from Wabasso. It takes time to travel gravel roads, backtracking and weaving to farm sites to pick up all those country kids.

Forty years. I used to think people who’d been out of high school for four decades are really old. I don’t think that anymore.

The Wabasso High School Class of 1974 fortieth year reunion.

The Wabasso High School Class of 1974 fortieth year reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo by Randy Helbling.

Still, that’s a lot of years and much has happened since 89 fresh-faced rural Minnesota kids walked across the gym stage in May 1974 and received their diplomas. As you would expect, the reunion mixed nostalgia and reconnecting, sharing of memories and sharing of lives.

And for me, the gathering inspired a poem, “Class Reunion,” recently published in Poetic Strokes & Word Flow, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume 9. My other entry, “Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion,” was also published, among the 30 winning poems chosen from 157 submissions in the adult division.

I attended and read my poem, "Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion," at an invitation only Poetry Bash at The Rochester Civic Theater on Tuesday evening.

I attended and read my poem, “Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion,” at an invitation only Poetry Bash at The Rochester Civic Theater on Tuesday evening. The event was a delight with some poets reading their works and Minneapolis poet Todd Boss as the featured speaker.

I am grateful to Southeastern Libraries Cooperating for publishing this annual collection of poetry from writers in the 11-county SELCO region. I’ve entered the competition eight times with 10 poems published in seven volumes.

I took poetic license and photoshopped this image of the button I wore identifying me as a poet at the Poetry Bash.

I took poetic license and photoshopped this image of the button I wore identifying me as a poet at the Poetry Bash.

And because April is National Poetry Month, here is the poetic version of a rural southwestern Minnesota high school reunion:

How many classmates can cram into a photobooth, left, and four members of the reunion committee, right.

How many classmates can cram into a photobooth, left, and four members of the reunion committee, right. That’s me in the pink striped shirt, front right in image on the right.

 

Class Reunion

Bulbous red clown nose clamped onto face,
boa thrust around neck movie star style,
pirate hat tilted upon bald head,
skull patch positioned across left eye,
we cram into the photo booth, all smiles,
pretending to be someone we are not.

“How are you?” We pause, then hug,
hoping the response will be a lie
rather than the truth of the past forty years
chiseling our faces, greying our hair
(if we still have hair),
etching grief into our souls.

A classmate pulls the curtain tight,
shuts out reality for the lens.
Memories overtake us, filling the booth with laughter.
We remember when nothing seemed more important
than our anti-establishment defiance of choosing
“Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” as our class song.

The camera flashes again and we swap accessories—
Vikings horns for Peter Pan hat,
leather biker hat for Mickey Mouse ears—
the promise of never growing up
and living in a happily-ever-after fairytale world
almost Disney believable if we didn’t know the truth.

In this moment, all seems right with the world.
No husbands dead. No children buried. No cancer battled.
No eyes blackened. No marriages broken.
The future lies before us, full of promise and hope
and all that is good and wonderful and perfect.
Except it isn’t and wasn’t and never will be.

The camera flashes for the third, and final, time.
A classmate draws back the curtain.
We drop props into a basket, revealing receding hairlines
and sagging necks and worry lines edging our eyes.
Then we chat about our children and our grandchildren
and our dreams, as if our entire lives lie before us.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Poem reprinted with permission from SELCO (Southeastern Libraries Cooperating), Rochester, MN.

 

When fashion wins over horses April 29, 2015

FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, my now nearly 83-year-old mom has been enthralled by the Kentucky Derby.

I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-number painting for a song last fall at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. The scene reminds me of the Kentucky Derby. Interestingly enough, on the official Derby website store, paint-by-number horse paintings are available for purchase.

I purchased this stunning unframed 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-number painting for a song last fall at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. The scene reminds me of the Kentucky Derby. Interestingly enough, on the official Derby website store, paint-by-number horse kits are available for purchase.

This week I asked her why, something I felt compelled to know because, well, time slips away and then we wish we’d asked these questions. So I phoned her at her assisted living apartment 120 miles away in southwestern Minnesota, catching her right before lunch.

“It’s because of the hats they wear, not because of the horses,” she replied. And here, all along, I thought her Derby interest was fixed on the horses.

She continued: “It’s unbelievable to me what kind of crazy hats they wear. They’re so big.”

The fancy hat I purchased months ago for a Kentucky Derby party.

The fancy hat I purchased months ago for a Kentucky Derby party.

In that moment I wished Mom could join my husband and me for the Big Hats & Big Hearts Annual Auction for the Arts and Kentucky Derby Party at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. Saturday. That celebration includes viewing of the race, live and silent auctions, and Derby food and drinks.

Kentucky Derby hats

Kentucky Derby hats at The Crafty Maven, 212 Central Avenue, on display in early April.  Photo courtesy of The Crafty Maven.

A bonus is the current gallery exhibit, “A great place to hang your hat,” running through May 5 and sponsored by The Crafty Maven. That downtown Faribault shop offers an assortment of Derby hats and will even custom embellish hats for the big race day.

While I’m sitting in the Paradise theatre watching the Derby on the big screen, my mom will have her TV tuned to the festivities. She’ll review the list of contenders and choose a horse solely on liking its name. That’s precisely how I pick a horse. Neither of us cares about their rankings, only the names.

Names of past Derby winners are listed on a commemorative drinking glass gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann.

Names of past Derby winners are listed on a commemorative drinking glass gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann.

Of the 140 Kentucky Derby winners, I remember only one—that of triple crown and 1973 winner Secretariat. Aristides won the first race in 1875. Reviewing the list of horses for the 141st Derby run, Bold Conquest grabs my fancy.

My vintage paint-by-number horse painting up close.

My vintage paint-by-number horse painting up close.

I wonder which horse Mom will choose. She’s never been to Churchill Downs, but years ago attended several races at Minnesota’s Canterbury Park. The Shakopee horse race track is hosting a Kentucky Derby party on Saturday. Mom and her sister Rachel selected horses at Canterbury based on liking their names. Once, though, they picked a horse co-owned by the son of the veterinarian from my hometown.

My friend Beth Ann, who spoils me, gifted me with official Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses from 1986 and 1991.

My friend Beth Ann, who spoils me, gifted me with official Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses from 1986 and 1991.

I wish Mom could travel to Louisville, sit in the stands in a big fancy hat and sip mint juleps. She’s always wanted to attend the Derby. But at her age, she never will. Life is like a horse race. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we don’t.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The evolution of prom April 28, 2015

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Me in the dress I stitched for prom in 1974, my senior year of high school.

Me in the dress I stitched for prom in 1974, my senior year of high school. I went with a date that year.

THERE WAS A TIME when prom was as simple as a bunch of girls and guys dressing up, dining in the school cafeteria and then dancing the night away under crepe paper streamers. No need to have a date, no flowers required, no professional photos, no getting your hair and nails done. No spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars for an evening of fun which, decades later, is mostly forgotten.

I recall few details of my high school proms except the dresses I stitched from flocked gingham and dotted Swiss fabrics.

If there was a grand march at the prom site, the Wanda American Legion, I don’t remember it and my parents were certainly not there to watch. My friends and I snapped pictures of each other with our Instamatic cameras. Many of us came with friends, not dates.

Today’s proms, with expensive formals and flowers and photos and everything else, are nothing like those of 40 years ago. Today even asking someone to prom is a big deal. Take Faribault High School. Student organizers set up a Twitter account encouraging prom goers to submit their promposals. The entry with the most “favorites” won a prize at prom, which was held on Saturday.

I amused myself scrolling through the creative prom invitations. Using Van shoes to arrows to cats, tennis balls, a watch, balloons, dinner out at a Japanese restaurant, bananas, Girl Scout cookies, a horse and more, these students asked each other to prom.

The winner popped his promposal during previews to a movie.

But if I was to choose the winner, I would have selected David, who penned lyrics to his girlfriend, Katie, to the tune of “Marry Me” by Jason Derulo. I don’t know the song. I don’t know the artist. But I do know that writing a song takes time and thought. And I have, as you would expect, an affinity for words.

What are your thoughts on prom and promposals? Have they gone over the top, gotten too expensive, become too important? Or do you like how prom has evolved to what it is today?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Waiting April 27, 2015

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My daffodils are in full bloom here in southeastern Minnesota.

Daffodils are in full bloom in southeastern Minnesota.

THEY’RE POPPING UP here in the north land. Daffodils. Crocus. Tulips. Bulging buds burst or about to burst into the vibrant hues of spring.

Fiddleheads are poking up along the foundation of my house.

Fiddleheads poke up along the foundation of my house.

I’m waiting, waiting, waiting for tulips to loosen their lips, for fiddleheads to unfurl in the rhythm of the wind.

Waiting, always waiting.

Why? Why must I always wait for tomorrow?

Wild day lilies are emerging.

Wild day lilies emerging.

I must delight in today. Green growth. The slow warming of days. The beginning. This transition of seasons.

Garden art that stays on my backyard fence year-round.

Garden art stays on my backyard fence year-round.

There will be time to seed zinnias and spinach, to fill pots to overflowing with greenhouse goodness, to climb the ladder and haul down the garden art, to pull out the lawn chairs and gather around a backyard campfire.

My artist friend Steve Denninger gifted me with this piece of original garden art created from recycled items. It hangs on an old wooden box in my backyard. The box is built from a recycled fence.

My artist friend Steve Denninger gifted me with this piece of original garden art created from recycled items. It hangs on an old wooden box in my backyard. The box is built from a recycled fence.

For now, on this day, in this moment, I must appreciate today. Stop waiting. Maybe tomorrow won’t be better than today and today is actually better than tomorrow. Yes, I must stop waiting and live in today’s season of life. Whatever that may be.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Country Crooner April 24, 2015

Portrait #18: Dunnell Lenort

 

Portrait 16, Dunnell Lenort, Village of Yesteryear 2012

 

If you were to read the biography of country and oldies rock n’ roll singer Dunnell Lenort, it would read like a country song.

Heartache and hardship. Good times and bad. But through it all, he perseveres.

I knew none of this when, in July 2012, I listened to Dunnell perform “I Fought the Law” at the 26th annual Steele County Historical Society Extravaganza at the Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna. It was an afternoon of living history, activities and entertainment.

I often wonder what brings a singer onstage to perform with a passion. So when I chose Dunnell’s image for today’s portrait feature, I googled his name to learn more. After hearing Johnny Cash on a home stereo at age five, Dunnell knew he wanted to sing.

But his journey into music starts even earlier. A stroke at only eight months old paralyzed Dunnell’s right leg and arm, beginning 20 plus years of trips to Gillette Children’s Hospital for treatment and multiple surgeries. Through it all, one thing kept this young man’s spirits high—music.

His music career has ebbed and flowed. He once performed on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and as an opening act for Roy Clark at the Surf Ballroom. (Buddy Holly performed his last show there before the February 3, 1959, fatal plane crash near this Clear Lake, Iowa, venue.)  Mostly Dunnell has entertained audiences in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. County fairs, casinos, community events. He lives in Twin Lakes, a small town in Freeborn County.

In early 2008, Dunnell’s beloved wife, Angie, underwent surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor. Things were going good until the couple was seriously injured in an automobile accident several months later.

Angie lost her battle with cancer on September 24, 2014.

On the home page of Dunnell’s website, you won’t find a photo of him. Rather, you will find an image of Angela and these loving words:

I love you Angie and will miss you so very much.—Dunnell

I would like to thank everyone who have expressed their condolences to myself and the family at the loss of my companion, friend and wife Angie. I will miss her tremendously. God’s blessings to you all.—Dunnell

Now that’s a country love song if ever I read one.

Dunnell has many performances booked already for this year, including an appearance again at the July 12 Steele County Historical Society Extravaganza. He’ll take the stage at the Village of Yesterday at 1 p.m.

If you happen to hear Dunnell perform anywhere, remember his inspirational story. His is a story of strength and love, holding strong to hope and a dream.

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Civil Rights Movement as photographed by Stephen Somerstein April 23, 2015

POWERFUL. HISTORIC. MEMORABLE.

Looking through a window into an exhibit space at Flaten Art Museum.

Looking through a window into the “Selma to Montgomery” exhibit in the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.

That trio of adjectives describes Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail, an exhibit of 45 black-and-white photos documenting the 1965 Civil Rights Movement through the work of photographer Stephen Somerstein.

I was only eight years old in 1965, living in rural southwestern Minnesota, far removed from what was occurring in Alabama.

The faces of the Civil Rights Marches and Movement include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stephen Somerstein.

Faces of the Civil Rights Movement include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, right. This shows a snippet of a photo by Stephen Somerstein.

But the exhibit, showcased at the Flaten Art Museum of St. Olaf College, took me to Alabama in 1965 and into the movement for equality in an up close and personal way.

An overview of a section of the exhibit at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

An overview of a section of the now-closed exhibit at St. Olaf College.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Somerstein’s pictures are worth 45,000 words. My one regret is that I did not visit this exhibit until the day before it closed on April 12 thus failing to inform you, my readers, of the opportunity to see this for yourselves.

This portion of a photo by Stephen Somerstein drew my attention.

This portion of a photo by Stephen Somerstein drew my attention.

As I circled the museum space, I studied many of the photos in detail. These images by Somerstein, a then student at City College of New York and editor of the school newspaper, call for close examination. It is in the details that we begin to fully understand, to see the fear, the hope, the defiance, the anger, the love, the determination.

I found myself drawn to hands and arms—those of an interracial couple, that of a union member gripping a sign, activists carrying American flags, a soldier focusing binoculars, a mother cradling her son:

One of my favorite images

One of my favorite photos by Stephen Somerstein.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section  of a Stephen Somerstein photo.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section of a Stephen Somerstein photo I photographed.

The two things I noticed in this Stephen Somerstein photo: the marcher carrying and American flag and the soldier atop the building scanning the scene with binoculars.

The two things I noticed in this Stephen Somerstein photo: the marchers carrying American flags and the soldier atop the building scanning the scene with binoculars. It’s truly a multi-layered image.

The Teamsters Union

The Teamsters Union Local 239 sent supplies to activists who were marching. This is a selected section of a photo by Stephen Somerstein.

Eyes and words also drew me in:

vote

Bobby Simmons, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, wearing zinc oxide to prevent sunburn, wrote VOTE onto his forehead. This is a section of Stephen Somerstein’s portrait of Simmons.

The exhibit featured explanatory information about photos and the movement.

The exhibit featured explanatory information about photos and the movement.

And although I did not participate in the interactive portions of the exhibit created by artist Nancy Musinguzi, I appreciated that visitors could photograph themselves and pen thoughts on working toward justice and equality.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the exhibit and express their thoughts.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the exhibit and express their thoughts.

Opinions expressed in the exhibit polling place.

Opinions expressed in the exhibit polling place.

They could also vote in a People’s Survey. Vote.

A St. Olaf College student staffing the museum makes sure a video is working properly.

A St. Olaf College student staffing the museum makes sure a video is working properly.

The exhibit drew a wide range of interest at St. Olaf College with students in social work, history, art history, gender studies and more viewing the photos, says Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson. The timing of the exhibit—on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, relating to current day issues and release of the movie, Selma—added to the interest.

Another overview of part of the exhibit.

Another overview of part of the exhibit. Photos displayed are by Stephen Somerstein.

Additionally, Becker Nelson notes that the exhibit connects to the 50th anniversary of the death of St. Olaf graduate James Reeb. (More to come on that in a post next week.)

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate.

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate.

This remarkable collection of documentary photos impresses in a deeply personal way. Beyond headlines. Beyond news stories. Beyond the pages of history books. Somerstein’s photos document the humanity of the Civil Rights Movement in the eyes, in the hands, in the stances of individuals. And that connects all of us, no matter our skin color.

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© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Original photos are by Stephen Somerstein. My photos of Somerstein’s images are published here with permission of Flaten Art Museum, St. Olaf College.

Selma to Montgomery was booked through New York-based National Exhibitions & Archives.

 

A must-read Pulitzer prize winning report on domestic violence April 22, 2015

“IF I CAN’T HAVE YOU, nobody can.”

Then he shot her.

That story of a woman who was shot by her husband, and survived, is part of a powerful investigative report on domestic violence by the Charleston, South Carolina, The Post and Courier which Monday won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

The Pulitzer Committee calls the seven-part “Till Death Do Us Part” series “riveting.”

That it is. It’s a must-read for anyone who cares about domestic violence. And we should all care. These are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends, our neighbors, our nieces, our granddaughters, who are dying and being abused (verbally/mentally/physically/emotionally) at the hands of men who supposedly love them. Men who control them. And then sometimes kill, or try to kill, them.

Whether you live in South Carolina—where the rate of men killing women ranks highest in the nation—or California or Minnesota or any place in between, you need to read this prize-winning series. Today. Now. (Click here.)

the logo

The logo for NO MORE, a national campaign for “No More Silence. No More Violence.”

The series addresses all facets of the issue. You will read stories and see images that will break your heart. You will read about survivors and grieving families. You will read about problems within “the system.”  You will read about frustrated law enforcement officers. You will read about lack of accountability and communication. You will read about warning signs and the reasons women stay in abusive relationships. You will read a list of problems and suggested solutions.

This is powerful information that will cause you to think and, hopefully, open your eyes and empower you to stand strong, to not look the other way. To care.

Here are some key bits of information that I gleaned from this series:

♥ Survivors often describe falling in love with “charming men who began abusing them well into their relationships.”

♥ Abusers are calculating and manipulative.

♥ Domestic violence is often mistaken as an “anger management problem.”

♥ Domestic violence is about control.

♥ Behavior such as choking/strangulation can predict a possible deadly outcome for those in relationships with domestic abusers.

♥ As South Carolina legislators recently debated domestic violence bills, all but one proposal died in committee. The sole surviving bill provided court-ordered protection for the pets of domestic violence victims.

♥ Domestic violence laws in South Carolina treat first-time offenders “about the same as shoplifters and litterbugs.”

♥ In dealing with domestic abuse offenders, it’s all about holding them accountable.

♥ When The Post and Courier emailed 30-plus clergy, asking whether they’d ever preached about domestic violence or heard a sermon on the topic, only four said they’d mentioned domestic violence. Most didn’t respond.

♥ Victims sometimes/often times fail to cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutors because “they are terrified of their abusers.”

♥ Zero tolerance of domestic violence leads to a drop in deaths.

The series concludes with the final section titled “Enough is enough.” Problems and solutions are presented therein.

Repeat that: Enough is enough.

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IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY in an abusive relationship, seek help. Call a local women’s shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

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FYI: April 19 – 25 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week which focuses on supporting victims of crime.

Click here to read the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women 2014 Femicide Report.

I understand that men can also be the victims of domestic abuse. But the investigative report by The Post and Courier focuses on women, which is why I also focus on women in this post.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling