Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

Preparing for a family reunion August 15, 2017

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At last year’s reunion, the young adults and kids played a human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2016.

 

FOOD, FUN AND FAMILY. Those three words focus my attention and energy this week with the annual Helbling Family Reunion just days away. Randy and I are co-hosting with a nephew and his wife.

Gatherings like this of nearly 50 people take substantial planning and implementation. But I love doing this sort of thing.

 

Randy found this Oktoberfest bier mug from Bismarck, North Dakota, at a New Ulm thrift store. He’ll use it at the reunion. His family roots are in the Bismarck-Mandan area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

A year ago, we chose a German theme to honor the family’s heritage. We’ll have a German meal complete with brats, German potato salad, sauerbraten, sauerkraut, kuchen, homemade pretzels and American foods, too. Food assignments were made months ago.

Following the German theme, I created a scavenger hunt for the kids to find gnomes and animals.

I culled the family history book for stories, some of which will be part of a trivia contest.

 

Using discarded props from Vacation Bible School past, Randy and I crafted this mountain backdrop.

 

And then, because I am a photographer who considers it vital to document events like this, Randy and I crafted a photo backdrop and the eldest daughter ordered German themed props for fun photo ops.

I’m always all about making a celebration special with decorating details. So off to Dollar Tree I went to scoop up plastic tablecloths, napkins and cups in black, red and yellow, the colors of the German flag.

Wildflowers and garden flowers will fill bier steins as table centerpieces.

 

Randy and I are on the right, pictured here with other siblings and in-laws. Several are missing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2016.

 

I want to make this day special and memorable for a family I love and have been part of for 35 years. I expect plenty of laughter and BS as we talk and mingle and have fun together.

As much as I am excited about seeing many of my in-laws, I am especially happy that my son is flying in from Boston for a long weekend. My second daughter and her husband are driving from northeastern Wisconsin. And my eldest, her husband and baby girl are arriving from an hour away. I cannot wait to have all of my kids together for a day. We last saw each other at Christmas.

Now, as the days wind down, I consider all I have yet to do. Although the reunion is not at my house, I still have to clean and cook for overnight guests. I started that job last week but then stopped after the city sealcoated my street and dust filtered into my house day after day after day. There were times when I couldn’t see a block away for the dust stirred up by the traffic. Sigh.

And then I had a bit of a setback in my physical therapy and some limitations placed on me yesterday. Apparently I pushed myself too hard with weight lifting and general overall lifting resulting in near constant pain in my recovering shoulder. Now I’m on a weight restriction which should allow my muscles to rest and recover. I so did not need that this week.

But then that’s life. I’ll do what I can and leave the rest to others.

And if I have time to write more here this week, I will. If not, then I won’t, because right now I’m focused on food, fun and, most important, family.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting with loved ones at a Minnesota family reunion August 17, 2016

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Cousins Evelyn, left, and Sierra are the same age.

Cousins Evelyn, left, and Sierra, both about 16 months old.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE a family reunion?

Family: my eldest daughter, Amber and her husband, Marc, and their daughter, Isabelle.

Family: my eldest daughter, Amber; her husband, Marc; and their daughter, Isabelle.

I define those two words as an annual gathering of related people who love and care for one another. They meet to have fun, to laugh and cry together, to joke and also carry on serious conversations, to remember and to make memories. It’s all about reconnecting and maintaining the strong bond of family.

Saturday marked a perfect Minnesota summer day for the Helbling family reunion in a stunning setting.

Saturday marked a perfect summer day for the Helbling family reunion in a rural Minnesota location.

Last weekend my husband’s family reunited at his youngest sister and her husband’s rural acreage north of the metro. It’s a beautiful property with woods and pond in a serene setting that I really did not want to leave on Sunday afternoon.

Four-month-old Izzy's feet.

Four-month-old Izzy’s feet.

On this land, 43 of us came together—from as distant as west central Missouri and Grand Rapids, Michigan—for the Helbling family reunion. Thirty-two adults. Eleven kids. And two babies. Every year in recent years there have been new babies.

Sierra tugs at her mommy's shirt.

Sierra tugs at her mommy’s shirt.

Missing were my father-in-law, who is recovering from a stroke, and eight others. We remembered, too, those who are no longer with us—my mother-in-law, gone nearly 23 years now, and my nephew who died of cancer 15 years ago. A small group of us, including Justin’s parents, honored him on Sunday with a pizza lunch.

Brothers-in-law Randy and Marty catch up as smoke trails from three grills.

Brothers-in-law Randy and Marty catch up as smoke trails from three grills.

Through shared experiences, we bond as only family can in joy and in grief.

My husband, Randy, is on the right with his siblings who attended the reunion.

My husband, Randy, is on the right with his siblings who attended the reunion. He is the oldest boy in a family of nine children.

On this weekend, we paused for family portraits, understanding the importance of documenting our presence for future generations. We laughed and cheered as young adults and then kids competed in the human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Many threw bean bags in a tournament. Others basked in the bright sunshine on the pond dock watching a cattail float on the water. We cradled snail shells, paddled in the paddle boat, gave hugs and high fives.

Baby Emmett was passed from arm to arm.

Baby Emmett was passed around all day.

We celebrated successes and welcomed the newest Helbling family member, Emmett, born only two weeks prior.

Justin stands atop a deck and calls the family to lunch by blowing into a conch shell.

Justin stands atop a deck and calls the family to lunch by blowing in to a conch shell.

The memories continued to stack as kids chased a baby bunny found in a window well. Great nieces plucked sun-ripened tomatoes. A niece’s husband summoned family to lunch by blowing in to a conch shell. Adults tossed batons and wood chunks onto the lawn in the Scandinavian game of Kubb. Four slim family members stuffed themselves inside a cardboard box, just for fun. And in the deep dark of night, those sleeping in tents awakened to the eerie howling of wolves from a nearby sanctuary.

Balls, purchased for a human game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, proved popular with the kids. Here four-month-old Izzy doesn't know quite what to do when set among the orbs.

Balls, purchased for a human game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, proved popular with the kids. Here four-month-old Izzy doesn’t know quite what to do when set among the orbs.

This is the stuff of memories. This is the stuff of family reunions.

Cousins found a hole in the yard and proceeded to dig and dig.

Cousins found a hole in the yard and proceeded to dig and dig.

TELL ME, do you have an annual family reunion? What are some of your memories of that event? For me, I have a lingering physical memory of Saturday’s reunion in the form of multiple intensely itchy chigger bites.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a post about the human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos which was played at the reunion.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering my mother-in-law, Betty October 18, 2013

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Tom and Betty

Tom and Betty in a vintage photo, date unknown.

YOU THINK YOU WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER.

But then the years, the decades, slip by and the memories begin to fade.

You can’t picture their smile, hear their voice, recall their mannerisms.

Twenty years ago on October 16, my mother-in-law, Betty Helbling, died after suffering a heart attack the previous evening. She was just weeks shy of turning sixty.

I still remember that phone call around 9 p.m. on a Friday. Not every detail. Not even who phoned with the devastating news that my husband’s mother was in the hospital. Alive. But not alert.

I remember the request that we drive northwest to Little Falls several hours away. But the hour was late, the fog as thick as the proverbial pea soup making travel impossible for my husband and me and our two daughters, ages seven and five.

To add to the concern, I was five months pregnant with our youngest, the baby Grandma Helbling hoped was a boy after a long string of granddaughters. I knew, for my unborn child’s sake, that I needed to remain as emotionally unstressed as possible, which was impossible given the situation.

It was a mostly sleepless night of tossing and turning, of prayer and worry. By morning we were making phone calls—me to my mother, another to a dear friend and my husband to the local Red Cross to get his brothers and a sister-in-law home from their respective military bases, one as far away as Germany.

We packed and left Faribault. By then, before our arrival, Betty had already passed.

Those next days on the family farm were a blur of grief and of condolences, phone calls and visits, food and family hugs. The wake and funeral and burial. I remember seeing my husband cry, for the first and only time. Ever.

Today, two decades later, I am thinking of my mother-in-law, of the woman who never saw the grandson I birthed in early February 1994. She would have loved my son, knitted him a baby blanket or a blue sweater or something equally adorable like she had for Caleb’s sisters. It saddens me to think that Betty never saw the grandson she so badly wanted to carry on the Helbling family name. It saddens me that my now 19-year-old never knew his paternal grandmother.

But I still have the memories, one occurring only weeks before her death, when we all gathered on the farm to celebrate the 40th wedding anniversary of my in-laws. I arose in the middle of the night to pee, descending the stairs to the first floor bathroom in the dark of a country night. I’d just settled onto the toilet when movement, that of a mouse, caught my eye. I hate mice, just hate them. And there I was, pregnant and stuck in a small bathroom with a mouse circling my feet. I could see no way out.

I calmed myself down between shrieks of fear, which I tried to hold in, not wanting to awaken the entire household. But apparently I was loud enough to rouse my mother-in-law. She simply thought I was in the bathroom with a sick child and did not investigate.

Eventually, after climbing onto the bathtub, I grabbed a pile of wet bath towels from the floor, tossed them onto the menacing mouse and fled up the stairs to my still sleeping husband.

That is the last memory I associate with my mother-in-law.

Tom and Betty. This may be from their 40th anniversary party, although I am not sure.

Tom and Betty. This may be from their 40th anniversary party, although I am not sure.

But there are other memories—that of a competitive Scrabble player who could beat me, the master of words. I loved the challenge of playing Scrabble with Betty, even if she usually won.

Cooking wasn’t her strength, but she made the best darned chicken and caramel rolls.

Once my husband, brother-in-law Neil and I rummaged through Betty’s cupboards while she was gone, seeking to spice up her bland hotdish baking in the oven. When a sister-in-law later praised the tastiness of the dish, we three could barely contain our laughter as Betty attributed the flavor to a dash of Mrs. Dash seasoning.

Four generations: Great Grandma Katherine Simon holding my daughter, Amber, with my mother-in-law behind them beside my husband, Randy. Photo taken in July 1986 at a family picnic, Pierz, Minnesota.

Four generations: Great Grandma Katherine Simon holding my daughter, Amber, with my mother-in-law, Betty, behind them beside my husband, Randy. Photo taken in July 1986 at a family picnic in Pierz, Minnesota.

I knew my mother-in-law for only 11 years. Not very long really. But long enough to know that she was a woman of deep faith who loved God and family. Above all.

On Thursday, October 16, 2013, twenty years after her death, Betty was joined in heaven by her brother, Steve.

Blessed be the memories of those we loved and those who loved us, sometimes even before we were born.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling