Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Sweet Land” coming to Faribault & I’m in September 18, 2017

I KICKED BACK in the recliner attempting to read while my eyelids fluttered in fatigue. Randy relaxed nearby on the sofa, eyes focused on the Faribault Daily News. He started to say something, then stopped. “Never mind,” he said. Now that grabbed my attention. But I didn’t press. I figured if he wanted to tell me whatever, he eventually would.

 

 

 

The next morning Randy flipped open the paper and pointed to a display ad for the Fesler-Lampert Performing Arts Series at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault. Targeting his finger on the October 12 performance of “Sweet Land, the musical,” he asked me to order tickets. This, he said, would be my birthday gift, albeit late and on his birthday. Mystery solved.

 

Ann Michels in the lead role alongside Robert Berdahl. Photo courtesy of the History Theatre.

 

I am delighted with this birthday gift to a musical I had hoped to see on stage at the History Theatre in St. Paul. But we never got there and now the performance starring Faribault native Anne Michels as German immigrant Inge Altenberg is coming to my community, to the campus of a noted college prep school just across the viaduct from my home.

The Faribault performance is among seven on a summer and fall travel tour of “Sweet Land” to towns in greater Minnesota. Other upcoming shows are in Detroit Lakes, Grand Rapids, Red Wing and Worthington.

 

A promo for the film from the Sweet Land website.

 

My excitement for this musical traces to my deep love of the award-winning independent film, Sweet Land, based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat.” The movie, filmed in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, tells the story of a mail-order bride and the challenges she faces as a German immigrant. The topic is especially relevant today.

Yet Sweet Land is much more. It’s a story that also focuses on the love between two people in a place where the land weaves a strong presence into the storyline.

To have this opportunity to see Sweet Land locally rather than travel into the metro is a gift, birthday or not.

 

FYI: Click here for more information about the History Theatre’s tour of “Sweet Land, the musical.” Click here for specific info about the Faribault show.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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From sunshine to storm on Labor Day September 4, 2017

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Looking to the north and the Minnesota River Valley just outside Delhi around 4 p.m. Monday.

 

TO THE NORTH, storm clouds bruised the sky late Labor Day afternoon.

 

To the east of Delhi heading toward Redwood Falls.

 

Brooding blue, then masses of grey before the rain gushed near New Ulm as we drove east from the southwestern Minnesota prairie toward home. The rainfall, while heavy at times, seemed nothing more than a September downpour.

 

Sky and corn define this area of Minnesota.

 

Well before we got to Mankato, the rain stopped.

 

The farther east we drove, the more ominous the clouds appeared.

 

Yet clouds continued to stack and I began to consider the possibility of severe weather as we entered Waseca, then Steele, counties. Randy switched on the radio to a local station but then turned it off when our son called from Boston. I ended the conversation as we reached Owatonna and exited U.S. Highway 14 onto Interstate 35.

Rounding the entrance ramp, Randy noticed a state highway patrol car and, then, a short distance later, another. By that time the rain had ramped. Wheels hydroplaned. And the wind blew so fierce the van rocked.

“I’m scared,” I said. “I want to get off the interstate.” Randy steered the van off the next exit, much to my relief. But I was still scared. I don’t like storms or strong winds like these of probably 50 mph. I’ve seen the damaging power of tornadoes and straight line winds and I respect them enough to fear them.

 

Just a few miles from Faribault on Rice County Road 45.

 

We drove through part of Owatonna, the wind still whipping trees. The short detour off I-35 proved enough to semi calm me before Randy directed the van out of town along a back county road. I wanted nothing more than to get home to Faribault. I’d had enough of the wind and the rain on an otherwise glorious September day in southern Minnesota.

 

TELL ME: Have you ever been caught on the roadway in a storm that scared you? I’d like to hear about your experiences.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Witness to an unleashing of verbal abuse in a grocery store parking lot August 29, 2017

A snippet of a domestic violence poster published by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

HE EXITED AHEAD OF US, the man with his right arm in a cast. His whole demeanor exuded anger as he strode from the grocery store pharmacy empty-handed.

Then the f-word started flying like missiles zoning for a target in the parking lot. “Where the f*** is she?” he shouted, followed by a string of more f-words. Clearly he expected her at the door, waiting for him.

His fury struck me like a coiled rattlesnake. His every move, his every word, heightened my concern. For her. His poisonous words flowed in a venomous assault on the absent woman. If he could verbally attack her in public without her present, what would he say and do in private?

“If he does anything to her, I will call the police,” I told Randy. My husband knew I meant it. I will not hesitate, ever, to phone law enforcement when I see someone being abused. I have done so in the past. If an abused woman was my daughter, my sister, my niece, my friend, I would want someone to speak up, to take action, to refuse to remain silent.

My eyes traced the irate man’s path across the parking lot toward a maroon SUV too distant to notice license plate or details. We watched, listened. I was already mentally preparing to punch 911 into my smartphone.

 

A photo of police reports published in the Faribault Daily News in May show the pervasiveness of domestic calls to local law enforcement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2017.

 

But no criminal laws had been violated, only human rules of common decency and respect. “He has anger control issues,” Randy observed. I agreed. I feared his rampant rage might explode into physical abuse of the woman behind the steering wheel. Heck, he had already verbally abused her in her absence. I doubt that ended once the vehicle door slammed.

I stood next to our van on the opposite side of the lot, eyes following the vehicle as it turned right onto a frontage road and eventually onto Minnesota State Highway 60 heading west out of Faribault.

I wondered and worried. Could I have done more? What awaited this woman? Would she be OK? Or would he blacken her eyes, clench his hands around her throat, shove her around?  Would he tell her she was worthless and no good and a b****? Would he strike with those venomous words, “f*** you,” while she recoiled in fear?

Perhaps I am wrong about this man, this situation. But my gut and observations tell me otherwise. I trust both; they have never failed me.

 

I hope victims of domestic abuse will focus on that word, HOPE, and take action to reclaim their lives, lives free of abuse.

 

FYI: If you are in an abusive relationship (and that covers not only physical, but also verbal, mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, technological and financial abuse), please seek help. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, clergy or anyone who can help you. Reach out to your local women’s shelter or advocacy services. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. The probability of violence against victims heightens substantially when they try to leave their abusers. Do not do this alone, for your own safety. You deserve to be free. Free of any type of abuse.

NOTE: I am aware that men can also be victims of abuse. But since women are most often victims, I write about domestic abuse and violence from their perspective. Click here to read previous posts I have written on the subject.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Building memories & reconnecting at a Minnesota family reunion August 24, 2017

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Seven of the eight living Helbling siblings, including my husband, Randy, in the front row, gathered last Saturday for the annual family reunion.

 

FROM PONIES TO GOATS, German potato salad to kuchen, a scavenger hunt to a trivia game and more, all were part of the annual Helbling Family Reunion held Saturday on a rural Faribault acreage.

 

A neighbor brought over two ponies, a hit with all ages.

 

Randy and I co-hosted the event with a nephew and his wife, creating shared experiences to connect generations spanning from age one into their sixties.

 

The Helbling cousins posed for a portrait that includes my three children, front center and back right.

 

Nearly 50 of us gathered, first for a meal of mostly German and some American foods, and then for an afternoon of fun under a canopy of sprawling oaks.

 

Even though she was too little to really bounce, my granddaughter, Izzy, still loved the bouncy house as did all the other kids.

 

Emmett, who just turned one and was the youngest at the reunion, is already practicing his bean bag tossing.

 

Likewise 16-month-old Izzy, second youngest in the Helbling family, dropped bean bags in holes.

 

Kids jumped in the bouncy house while adults tossed bean bags into holes in angled boards.

 

Among the gnomes I hid.

Among the gnomes I hid.

 

I sent some kids on a scavenger hunt for gnomes and ceramic animals tucked into hiding places below sunflowers and lilac bushes and in and around trees and more. They raced with enthusiasm, clues in hand, to search for the treasures on a day as perfect as they get here in southern Minnesota in August.

 

I pulled stories from a family history book published in 1993, printed them on paper with graphics and then displayed all on a table. Some of the stories were part of the family history trivia contest.

 

Later, after the bean bag tournament ended, the adults answered questions about family history in a trivia contest. Three scored a perfect ten, proving they know that roaming coyotes once kept the three oldest Helbling children indoors during recess at a one-room country school in North Dakota in the 1960s.

 

Getting all the kids to sit still for a portrait proved impossible.

 

One dashed away…

 

The final portrait, minus one.

 

This is the stuff of family history, of stories that can be told and retold through generations. Stories unique to this family once rooted in Germany, then moved to Russia before emigrating to America.

 

Katherine, 5,  took time to create art.

 

I am not, by blood, a Helbling. But for 35 years I have been part of this family which still cares enough each August to gather for a reunion. While the majority travel from various parts of Minnesota, others arrived here this year from Boston, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri.

 

My three kids, Amber, left, Miranda and Caleb, having fun with the German photo props.

 

My great nieces and sweet sisters, Meghan, left, and Katherine. Their mom said they look forward to the reunion.

 

The Helbling cousins having fun with photo props.

 

There were the traditional posed family portraits juxtaposed with informal and fun photo ops using German themed props ordered online. A set salvaged from Vacation Bible School served as an Alps mountain backdrop.

 

My niece Amber and I picked wildflowers, garden flowers, grasses and weeds and then arranged bouquets in bier steins.

 

Adding to the ethnic bend were bier steins filled with mostly wildflowers and weeds culled from fields and yards, the impromptu vases set on banquet tables draped in yellow, black and red, the colors of the German flag. The themed reunion honored the Helbling family’s German heritage. As a detail-oriented creative type, I delight in adding such memorable details. Family members noticed and appreciated.

 

Family members hammered nails into a stump in games of hammerschlagen.

 

As the day wended from bright afternoon sunshine to dusk and a spectacular sunset, the sound of nails hammered into a stump in games of hammerschlagen ceased. Voices rose and fell in conversation while lines formed for the evening meal of build your own burgers. At the grill, Randy took orders for burgers topped with American, pepperjack or blue cheeses. Much to our surprise, many chose blue cheese made and aged in sandstone caves some six miles away in the heart of Faribault.

 

We are creating memories for the next generation. Here my husband and our granddaughter play bean bag toss. Sort of.

 

And then, while Randy and I grabbed our burgers from the grill and finally sat down to eat, others piled onto a wagon for a hayride around the rural acreage. I wished I could have joined them, even taken photos. But I needed to refuel after a fun, but exhausting, day. It takes effort and energy and hard work to carry out a family reunion. But it’s so worth it for the memories created, the love and experiences shared as a family.

TELL ME: Does your family hold reunions? I’d love to hear details.

CLICK HERE to read posts about past family reunions.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

No solar eclipse for me…just grey skies August 22, 2017

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A line of grey stretches across the sky as we drive back into Faribault along Rice County Road 19 Monday evening.

 

ON A DAY WHEN THE SOLAR eclipse focused eyes to the sky, I failed to share in the excitement. For me the day marked my son’s return to Boston after a few days in Minnesota. His visit had been too brief and I’d been too busy with a family reunion to consider the weather event of the year.

 

 

About the time the eclipse peaked in Minnesota, clouds shifted across the sky, diminishing the view. It didn’t matter much to me. We were aiming for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. My thoughts were not of the solar eclipse, but of the miles closing in before I would, once again, hug Caleb goodbye. I long ago stopped crying at the airport.

On the drive home, grey clouds opened, pouring down rain in weather that fit my emotions.

 

 

Hours later my phone binged with a message that Caleb’s plane had just landed in Boston. We were back on the road again, this time heading to the reunion site to load up tables and chairs to return to friends. A band of grey stretched across the darkening evening sky in a seemingly infinite trail that, in my mind’s eye, reached 1,400 miles away to a residential neighborhood in greater Boston.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Troubling words in Faribault August 17, 2017

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I photographed these words by aiming my cellphone down toward the water and the bottom of a public fountain in Faribault.

 

WHEN I SAW THE WORDS White gang in a public fountain in Faribault recently, I was troubled. I still am and especially in the light of all that’s happened in this country in the past week.

My intention is not to give a voice to those who hate.

Rather, I feel the need to express my sadness, disappointment and dismay that a message like this was scrawled inside a fountain below a sculpture of town founder Alexander Faribault and a Dakota trading partner. Alexander modeled compassion, kindness and acceptance in his life and work as a fur trader. He did not advocate hatred.

There’s been a shift in our nation that is empowering and emboldening individuals—perhaps like the person who wrote these two words—to spew violence and hatred and bigotry. No place seems immune.

Sometimes I can’t believe this is America in 2017.

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© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Vacation Bible School, past & present August 11, 2017

Maker Fun Factory: “Created by God, Built for a Purpose” was the theme of this week’s Vacation Bible School at Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault.

 

MY, HOW VACATION Bible School has changed.

 

Volunteers, led by my friend Steve, created this amazing factory-themed set for VBS.

 

Back in the day, I joined other children in a one-room school singing familiar hymns to the accompaniment of a foot-pumped organ.

Today’s kids gather in an expansive sanctuary, belting out catchy tunes written specifically for VBS. They mimic the hand, arm and other motions in a video airing on multiple screens.

 

Volunteers created several robots for the set.

 

Back in the day, I sat on the steep steps of a Lutheran church devouring my peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in waxed paper.

Today’s kids delight in heart-shaped Jello served with fruit and whipped cream in individual servings delivered by volunteers in an air conditioned fellowship hall.

 

Who knew painted cardboard boxes could be so much fun? Kids stacked and restacked these boxes, following the theme of “built for a purpose.”

 

Back in the day I laid and glued toothpicks side by side on a cardboard cross cut-out.

Today’s kids adhere self-adhesive foam stickers to foam crosses.

 

Steve crafted this musical instrument from PVC pipes with paper covered fly swatters used to hit the tops of the pipes, thus creating sound. Numerous interactive “toys” lined a hallway.

 

Back in the day I dreaded the call of “Red Rover, Red Rover, please send Audrey right over!” as I ran and tried to bust through the brawny arms of strong farm boys, failing every time.

Today’s kids stand in a line passing a ball backward into paper cups in a game of teamwork.

 

 

Back in the day I listened as the pastor read a bible story.

Today’s kids listen to a retired Christian day school educator share a bible story in an interactive and memorable way.

 

 

Back in the day, I learned that Jesus loves me, that he is always with me.

Today’s kids learn that Jesus loves them, that he is always with them.

While times change, certain truths remain. Unchanged.

 

TELL ME: If you have stories about Vacation Bible School, past or present, I’d like to hear.

 

FYI: I volunteered this week as a crew leader at my church’s VBS. In past years, I’ve done the photography. But because of my shoulder injury, I didn’t have the stamina yet to shoot photos for two hours. And that’s OK. I loved working directly with the kids. Sometimes change is good.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling