Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My Halloween horror story October 31, 2019

From a Halloween display in Hayfield, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


WHAT SCARES YOU? I mean really scares you.

Is it the current state of our political climate? Climate change? Changes in your personal life? Life that feels overwhelming? Overwhelmingly high health insurance rates?

There’s so much to concern us. And I would place check marks in front of several items on that list, the most recent being health insurance premiums. Ours are increasing again. And I am seriously stressing about the additional $120/month we will pay for insurance that is nothing but a catastrophic plan. Our deductibles will rise from $4,000 each to $4,250 each come January 1.

I don’t pretend to be good at math. Words are my thing. But no matter that lack of skill set, I understand that the health insurance premium numbers are not good for our budget and have not been for years. I joke with my husband that he will need to pay his employer to work for him given the amount deducted from paychecks for insurance. Randy’s employer pays half of his premium, none of mine. I’m on Randy’s plan because I’m self-employed.

Now let me show you the numbers: In 2020, our monthly premiums will each be $1,149 for a total of $2,298 every single month. Of that, we will pay $1,723/month, which totals $20,677/year. And then we have those $4,250 individual deductibles before the insurance even kicks in.

This is absolutely absurd. There are no other words to describe the financial challenges we are facing because of health insurance rates that are through the roof ridiculous. No wonder we don’t go on big vacations, drive vehicles that are 15 and 17 years old, seldom dine out, have a vintage kitchen in need of a complete re-do, windows that need replacing, siding that needs paint or replacement…and don’t want to go to the doctor because we can’t afford to go to the doctor. Much of our income is funneled directly to the health insurance company rather than being pumped into the general economy. Sigh.

I never thought that at our age—in our early 60s—we would be in this financial situation because of health insurance premiums.

So what am I doing about this? Screaming, venting, crying, stressing. But I’ve also set up an appointment with a MNsure navigator to see if we qualify for any type of financial assistance. When I checked a few years back, that proved fruitless. I’m not especially hopeful this time either.

There you go, my financial horror story just in time for Halloween. I am thankful Randy and I both grew up in really poor families so we are not materialistic. We manage to pay all of our bills, get food on the table…and still donate to charities. We paid off our home mortgage years ago and I’m thankful we did.

But we never expected this overwhelming financial burden as we looked to the future and are nearing retirement.

This Halloween I’m not scared of things that go bump in the night. I’m scared of health insurance premiums.

THOUGHTS? Do you have similar health insurance horror stories?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Beyond salad, a Minnesota Halloween horror story October 31, 2018

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I’M NOT A BIG FAN of scary anything. Reality is scary enough. So if you want to talk about things that go bump in the night, exclude me from the conversation.

Yet, when Halloween rolls around, it’s pretty difficult to avoid that which frightens. Right now, as I write, I look out my office window across the street to a Scream face. I’ve never seen the movie, or whatever, that features this character. But I recognize the image as something meant to frighten.

I can’t exactly stride across the street and yank the cloth from my neighbor’s front yard tree. That wouldn’t be nice. But if I had little kids…

Kid talk brings to mind a particularly memorable Halloween from my youth. As a member of the Junior Legion Auxiliary, I attended a Halloween party held in the basement of the local veterinarian’s house. Can you see where this is going?


Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of grapes in a Minnesota vineyard. Grapes used for wine, not salad.


The vet’s daughter blindfolded me and then asked me to touch something. “Cow eyeballs,” she said. Now you can only imagine how horrifying that experience to an impressionable elementary-aged girl. As my fingertips landed on the cold orbs and those frightening words were uttered, I shrieked. Cold grapes feel an awful lot like cow eyeballs, let me tell you. Not that I’ve ever touched a cow’s eyeballs.

Likewise, cold spaghetti feels like guts. I don’t know that I touched anything else in that vet’s basement after that. But the experience has stuck with me as a particularly memorable Halloween.

And, yes, I eat grapes.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear your memorable Halloween stories. Keep in mind that I’m not a big fan of scary.

NOW, IF YOU’RE WONDERING about the title of this piece, flash back to November 2014 when a New York Times reporter wrote an article listing the Thanksgiving recipes that “evoke each of the 50 states.” For Minnesota, he chose Grape Salad. That unleashed The Grapes of Wrath from Minnesotans who found that an absurd choice for our state. Most of us, but not all, had never heard of, let alone eaten, Grape Salad. Oh, the horror of eating cow’s eyeballs.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thoughts from Minnesota after the Halloween Day terrorist attack in NYC October 31, 2017

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Assorted squash in Hayfield, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, October 2016


AT THE KITCHEN COUNTER, I position the knife across the squash, pushing hard to slice through the tough skin. When that effort fails, I thwack the squash against the cutting board, splitting the garden fresh produce in half.



As I work, the television blares a news conference from the living room. I sprinkle sea salt and grind fresh pepper onto the squash, add pinches of brown sugar and dabs of butter. In between I strain to hear the words of public officials talking about the latest terrorist attack, this time in my country, in Lower Manhattan in New York City.

Far removed from Minnesota, this attack still hits home. A bike path. A school bus. The selected weapon of terror—a rental truck from The Home Depot. Ordinary. Everyday. Unexpected. People just going about their daily routines. On Halloween afternoon.

As details unfold, I hear of eight dead and a dozen or more injured, bikers and pedestrians plowed down on that bike path. And then that school bus, with two adults and two children inside also struck by the rental truck.

Now he’s in custody, a 29-year-old suspect labeled as a terrorist. Shot. Hospitalized. Under investigation.

Back in my Minnesota kitchen, I slide the pan of squash into the oven. Soon the scent of autumn permeates my home. The TV still blares. And I think of family on the East Coast, although not in NYC. I grab my cell phone and text I love you! Happy Halloween! to my son in Boston. At times like this, I want nothing more than to hold close those dearest to me.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Gotcha: A pre-Halloween scare

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Three almost ghost-like faces, with undefined, haunting eyes, created by Pam Bidelman, and featured in a 2012 exhibit at the Arts Center of Saint Peter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.


WHEN THE DOORBELL BINGED twice in rapid succession Saturday evening, my body pumped adrenalin. The ringing happened at the precise moment of intense drama in a psychological thriller unfolding on our DVD player.

I’ve heard this type of hurry-up-and-answer-your-door ring before, years ago when a young man appeared on our stoop seeking protection from a group of men pursuing him. In that panic of phoning 911, of split second decisions, of waiting for the cops, I felt exposed to real, definitive danger.



This time I expected a law enforcement officer at my door given the darkened hour. Instead, when I switched on the exterior light and peered through the narrow glass in the deadbolted front door, I saw nothing. No shadowy figure. Nothing.



Until I looked to the bottom step. And then my mind clicked into relief mode, to understanding that an unknown person left a Halloween treat for us. After Randy retrieved the treats—by that time he’d already sprung from his comfortable spot—we discovered that we’d been BOOed. That seems a fitting word given the pre-Halloween scare.



Once we recovered, we fingered through an oversized seasonal mug holding mini candy bars, a Little Debbie snack, two packets of hot chocolate, a mini scarecrow and my favorite, a blinking jack-o-lantern ring. You can bet I’ll sport that this evening when doorbell-ringing ghosts and goblins arrive, perhaps even the mysterious ghost who BOOed us. I have my suspicions about that spirit’s identity…


FYI: We’ve been recipients of such kindness in the past, although not on Halloween. But a cousin and an aunt have continued to haunt me each Halloween with the story of Annie Mary Twente. We’ve carried out such stealthy under-the-cover-of-darkness missions on unsuspecting friends on other occasions like Valentine’s Day.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Happy Halloween, Minnesota style October 31, 2016

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I was working in the lab driving into Janesville late one night Friday afternoon, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…Frankenstein by the train tracks.




I was working in the lab exploring Hayfield late one night one Saturday morning, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…a sign for Kuster’s Dead & Breakfast.




I was working in the lab walking in Zumbrota late one night early one morning, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…a witch/ghost with an identity crisis.




I was working in the lab visiting the House of Kuster in Hayfield late one night morning, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…skulls staggered along a stairway.




I was working in the lab checking my texts late one night early one morning, when my eyes beheld an eerie a crazy sight…my six-month-old granddaughter disguised as Poppy the troll. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Deep belly laughs. I’m still laughing.




Happy Halloween!

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Troll image of my granddaughter, Izzy, is courtesy of her mom, Amber. Izzy’s paternal uncle works for DreamWorks Animation, which is releasing the movie, Trolls, in a few days. He shipped the Poppy hat from California to Minnesota for his niece.


Halloween in Hayfield October 27, 2016

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A doll's head lies next to a tombstone in a Hayfield, Minnesota, yard decorated for Halloween.

A doll’s head lies next to a tombstone in a Hayfield, Minnesota, yard decorated for Halloween.


YOU WON’T FIND A SINGLE Halloween decoration in my yard. It’s not that I’m anti-Halloween. It’s just that, without kids at home anymore, I don’t feel the need to decorate. And the trick-or-treaters who stop at my house typically number less than a dozen.



Looking from the Gargoyle suspended from the Kuster home toward Hayfield's Main Street.

Looking from the Gargoyle suspended from the Kuster home toward Hayfield’s Main Street.


But then there’s Brianna Kuster who lives in Hayfield, a Dodge County community of about 1,300. She loves Halloween. So much, in fact, that she and Ryan were married on October 31. Their first of two children, a son, was born on a Friday the 13th.




Until last Saturday, I’d only been to Hayfield once previously and I’d never met Brianna. But as I was photographing her Halloween adorned home in the former The Herald newspaper office, Brianna opened her front door to let out the dog. I nearly toppled over in fright, not expecting a canine to bound out of a building.




Along Main Street in Hayfield, Brianna and Ryan Kuster have decorated their property for Halloween.

Along Main Street in Hayfield, Brianna and Ryan Kuster have decorated their property for Halloween.




Thus my introduction to this young mother who creatively staged her House of Kuster, est. October 31, 2009, property for Halloween. The décor is tastefully done with nothing particularly ghoulish.








There’s a humorous bent and an obvious attention to details. This is kid-friendly.




That said, Brianna shared how she recently scared a group of students walking by while on a field trip. She simply peered through the curtains. That was enough to get a rise.




As we talked, Brianna carried totes of Halloween items to a vehicle for transport to the fire hall a few blocks away. The Hayfield Fire Department is sponsoring a Spook House & Carnival and this Halloween lover was on it.




Before leaving, Brianna invited me into the former newspaper office. There’s no evidence this Main Street building once housed a community newspaper. The Kusters live upstairs and hope to some day finish the lower level, which holds great promise with worn wooden floors. As we stepped inside, a black cat (imagine that) walked through an open doorway. And then I noticed the mini green skulls lining the stairway.


On the Kusters' front door...

On the Kusters’ front door…


Yup, this is the home of a family (or at least a wife/mother) who loves Halloween. And I expect come October 31, the House of Kuster will draw lots of trick-or-treaters to the Main Street of this small southern Minnesota farming community.


When the Kusters purchased the former The Herald building, they also bought the property next door. They tore down the house there. The vacant lot is now the setting for the bulk of the Kusters' Halloween decorations.

When the Kusters purchased the former The Herald building, they also bought the property next door. They tore down the house there. The vacant lot is now the setting for the bulk of the Kusters’ outdoor Halloween decorations.


TELL ME: Do you decorate for Halloween or have a neighbor/friend/family member who loves Halloween as much as Brianna Kuster?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Faribault: Costumed kids on parade on Central October 11, 2016



OLAF, STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE, Raggedy Ann, Laura Ingalls Wilder, police officers, firefighters and more—all paraded down Faribault’s Central Avenue at noon Saturday for the Fall Festival Costume Parade.




It’s an annual event that not only celebrates the season, but also gives kids a chance to dress up, pretend and, well, act like kids.




I watched as parents dressed kids street-side,








as families walked toward the beginning of the parade route




and then later followed the route.




I delighted in the uninhibited enthusiasm,




in the clasped hands,




in the hesitant waves,



and in the exuberant smiles.




I appreciated the dog striped as a skunk,




the colorful and playful witch kicking her legs




and even the preschool princess trailing, unable to pedal her trike fast enough.




For awhile, those of us gathered in downtown Faribault focused on the scene before us. Joyful. Happy. Fun. A time of togetherness that is the stuff of October memories in Minnesota.











TELL ME: What’s your favorite Halloween costume memory?



© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling