Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Jell-O memories May 10, 2018

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A WEEK BEFORE MOTHER’S DAY, my sister-in-law showed up with a bowl of Jell-O at her granddaughter’s third birthday party. But this wasn’t just any Jell-O. This was Seven Layer Jell-O Salad, multi layers of gelatin in a fancy glass bowl.

Years have passed since I ate Jell-O. It was a staple of extended family gatherings during my growing up years in rural Minnesota. Every “little lunch” served at midnight included red banana-filled Jell-O. In addition to summer sausage sandwiches, homemade dill pickles and pans and pans of bars.

 

Peach Jell-O. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Sometime through the years, I stopped liking Jell-O. Especially if celery, carrots or marshmallows were added to enhance the basic recipe. I came to associate Jell-O with illness. And in recent years, prep for a colonoscopy (although not red or purple Jell-O).

Still, I admit that I ate a lot of Jell-O as a kid. And I liked it. I was willing to dip my spoon into the bowl of memories and eat a serving of Seven Layer Jell-O Salad prepared by my sister-in-law. She spent a lot of time making those seven layers and I could show some appreciation for her efforts.

But another reason existed for my decision to eat the Jell-O salad, which really is more dessert than salad given its sweetness. Seven Layer Jell-O Salad was a specialty of my mother-in-law, who died in 1993 at the age of 59. I think everyone in the family would agree that Betty wasn’t a particularly good cook. But she made the best homemade caramel rolls, chicken and cottage cheese pie (if you like cottage cheese pie, and I don’t). She also had perfected Seven Layer Jell-O Salad.

 

My in-laws, Tom and Betty. From the family photo archives of 25-plus years ago.

It’s interesting how food triggers memories. I suppose because so many memories are made over food. On this Sunday in April, I remembered my dear mother-in-law who died just months before my son was born. She wanted a grandson after a long string of granddaughters. If only she’d lived to see her oldest son’s son.

I’m certain, if Betty was living, that she’d still be making Seven Layer Jell-O Salad for family gatherings. It was one of her signature dishes. As in days past, I’d admire the jewel-colored layers, not because the salad is particularly delicious. But because it is layered in family memories.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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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