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BEST-SELLING AUTHOR JANET ELAINE SMITH PRESENTS FICTION, FUN AND FACTS

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From Volume 1 - Tales of a Misplaced Lutheran

 

 

Introduction

 

 

How much really “bad stuff” can an 11-year-old girl do? Yes, I was raised in a “Christian” family, maybe told a lie or two to my parents, never stole anything more than a candy bar or a comic book, but there was something missing. Even a “good girl” has a conscience, and mine had that evil little devil perched on my shoulder, telling me that I wasn’t nearly as good as I pretended to be.

I went to our minister and told him of my frustration and guilty feelings, and he sort of patted me on the head and said, “You are a good girl, Janet. You don’t have a thing to worry about. You will make it into heaven with angels’ wings.”

So why did it continue to nag at me, day after day? And what could I do about it?

Fate, or God, or whatever you want to call it, does step in when we allow it to. A move from southern Minnesota, a bit of lutefisk, lefse and meatballs, and I was on my way to find my answers. And now, please continue reading to see where that path led me in my young life. I still don’t like lutefisk, and have never been able to get past the smell of the rotten fish, but I will always be grateful for lutefisk, lefse and meatballs. They saved my life—and gave me a way to “pay back” a little bit of the wonders that God has bestowed on me.

CHAPTER ONE

Trinity Lutheran Church Kid

 

 

            It was a normal Easter Sunday morning in Minnesota. According to my “well-educated” religious upbringing, ninety percent of the population of the state was Lutheran. The other ten percent—well, they were Catholics. It was 1954, and the difference was that I was in sixth grade and Ann Marie Johnson and I were allowed to wear honest-to-goodness nylons for the first time. We even had the little lace garter belts to hold them up.

            As I dressed in my finery, I took great care not to get a run in the nylons. After all, Mother had bought me only one pair. There wasn’t a spare. If I ruined them, I was doomed to wear anklets—on Easter Sunday morning—with Ann Marie Johnson wearing her nylons all by herself.

            I didn’t realize that my religious experiences had come from a very sheltered upbringing at Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Peter, Minnesota. To me, this was normal. I am sure that there must have been other churches in St. Peter besides the Lutheran and Catholic ones. I knew there were several other Lutheran churches, and they were “okay.” There had to be other Lutheran churches, because some of the Lutherans were Germans, some were Swedes, and some were just plain Lutherans so there was the German Lutheran Church, the Swedish Lutheran Church and Trinity Lutheran Church for all the other Lutherans. The Catholic Church, well, that was another story. Good Lutherans never set foot inside the Catholic Church. The only time I was ever allowed inside was when Kathleen Lorge got married and I was her flower girl. Her dad was my dad’s boss, so my parents couldn’t very well say “No” when she asked me.

            I knew there was such a thing as a Methodist Church, even though there wasn’t one in St. Peter. My mother was brought up a Methodist and she had to pick a different church, and the Lutheran was a lot better than the Catholic one, she said. So, she and my dad joined Trinity Lutheran Church.

            My dad never had much to do with a church when he was growing up. He’d never even been baptized. So, after he took the religious training he needed to join up, he got baptized. In fact, my dad and I were baptized together. Of course I didn’t take the religious training, mainly because I was only a couple of weeks old.

            So, this was my religious experience up to this point. I went to Sunday school every week, then to church service, and I sang in the junior choir. Oh, in the summer time I didn’t go to church because my mother, my brother and I went “up north” to keep Mother alive.

            Mother, you see, had hayfever, and it wasn’t nearly as hard on her up in the woods as it was in St. Peter. My dad spent the week in St. Peter, where he worked for Hallett Construction Company. It was perfectly logical, since his name was Howard Hallett. It was his uncle who owned the company, and I don’t know for sure, but I think Uncle Wilbert figured some day my dad would “grow up” and he would be entrusted with the company.

            On the weekends, Daddy always came up north to see us. It was 350 miles from St. Peter to Spring Lake, where our log cabin was. By the time he got there he was too tired to go to church, and besides there wasn’t any church real close, at least not a Lutheran Church. The closest ones were in Squaw Lake and Jesse Lake, and I don’t remember anybody ever talking about going to church during the summer.

            But then the shoe fell. Daddy came home from work one day. It was in the spring of 1954, probably not too long after my favorite Easter, the one where Ann Marie Johnson and I grew up and got our nylons.

            “We are going to build a house right on top of the hill by the cabin.”

            It took a while to absorb this news. Why did we need a house just for the summer? And if we were going to be there for longer than that, what was Daddy going to do? And where would I go to school? In St. Peter there were two grade schools: Lincoln and Washington. The school had an upstairs and a main floor. People talked about that little white building down by the Spring Lake store (there was only one) as the school. They said that all eight grades were in the same room. It was no bigger than one classroom in either Lincoln or Washington School. How could they fit all those kids in there?

            Then I began thinking about the “kids” I knew. There was Johnny and Lana Rae Chaplin, Kenny Stangland and the Gunther kids. That was about it. As I pondered this fact, I realized that I didn’t know much about the people farther down towards Spring Lake. Maybe there were more kids down there. I remembered seeing a whole slew of kids running around outside some little tarpaper shack. Some of them must have been old enough to go to school.

            But the really important things in life are often harder to find. Like a church. Would we go umpteen miles to Squaw Lake or Jesse Lake every Sunday? They probably didn’t even have a choir! No, life from here on in was definitely not going to be the same. None of it. Not even going to church on Sunday morning.

           

            After a very eventful summer, with Mother going to the hospital for surgery and me being left in charge to cook for the whole crew of carpenters and the well driller, it was time for school. We still hadn’t gone to church anyplace, but it was autumn and Daddy had moved up north too.

            Daddy was used to all this stuff. He grew up right next door to where our house was. (“Next door” in St. Peter was close enough to run over in your bathrobe to watch Saturday morning cartoons on Annie Boucher’s television when we didn’t have one of our own yet. Up north, out in the woods, “next door” was almost a mile away and you had to unlock the fence on both ends of the trips to Aunt Hazel’s house—which was originally Gram and Gramp’s house—so Bossy didn’t get out. Boy, cows are ugly to a city kid! He was used to not going to church too. I could see why he never went to church until he got married and lived in St. Peter. Maybe we would never go to church again. Except for Easter, I guessed.

            Then life began to change. Somebody invited us to a lutefisk and lefse supper at the Jesse Lake Lutheran Church. I guess the folks thought it would be a good place to get acquainted with some more people, so we went. I didn’t know what lutefisk and lefse was, but somebody told me they always had meatballs, too. Well, I liked meatballs, so it shouldn’t be too bad. Maybe there would be some new kids there.

            Let me tell you, that meal was one I will never forget. If I never smelled lutefisk again in my entire life, the stench would still linger in my nostrils, even after all these years. I couldn’t believe it as I sat and watched people actually stick their forks into the white flaky fish, drowned in melted butter and eat it! I looked around to see if anybody was wearing a clothespin on their nose, but they actually seemed to be enjoying themselves!

            Then the true humiliation happened. There was a piece of something sort of yellow and brown rolled up and resting beside each plate. I had been eyeing the other people to see what they were doing, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. They picked up the limp tube and took a bite out of it. I figured out that that was the lefse, and I didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was made out of, but I sure wasn’t going to take a chance on putting that stuff in my mouth! 

            “Yeowch!” someone shouted as their hot coffee spilled all over the table.

            It was Super Mom to the rescue. She grabbed the lefse from the side of her plate and handed it to the woman who had just dumped her coffee. “Here,” Mother said, “somebody left a dishrag on the table.”

            Now I didn’t know what that stuff was, but I had watched people eating it, and I knew it wasn’t a dishrag. I could have died! I was so glad I didn’t know any of these people. I hoped I would never see them again. One thing was sure, Lutheran or not, I wasn’t going to that church again. Not and have them laugh at me. By this time the entire group was laughing at my mother, and we were all properly introduced—to lefse!

The thing that resulted was probably a good thing, though, because on our way back home, after being duly humiliated by Mother and her dishrag episode, we decided maybe that little church that Daddy said was “some sort of a Baptist Church, I think” didn’t look half bad. At least they wouldn’t know how uneducated we were.

            Nobody at home said much about the events of the evening. I’m sure it went down in my parents’ file along with the root beer they had under their bed when they first got married that blew up in the middle of the night.

            School started, and it was as crazy as I had thought it would be. It was one big room, and the eighteen students were first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders. There wasn’t anybody the right age for third grade. This from a classroom for just one grade with over forty kids in St. Peter.

            One of the first things I learned at school was that there were some other churches around. Virginia Dowling, who ended up being my best friend, went to the Sand Lake Baptist Church. I had never heard of a Baptist Church, but because Virginia went there I quite often went to young people’s meetings on Friday nights. We did everything from Bible studies to roller skating at the Talmoon VFW hall. I never knew church could be so much fun, even if they weren’t allowed to go to dances or movies. I thought this might be a pretty good church to go to, but for some reason my folks weren’t that enthused about it.

            The other option that arose was what was called the “Spring Lake Community Church.” It was way back in the woods on a winding, picturesque one-way “trail” they called a road. It overlooked Spring Lake—the lake, not the town. It was the cutest place I had ever seen.

            For some reason, my folks decided that was where we belonged. At least it wasn’t the Lutheran Church. It was run by the American Sunday School Union, which as near as I could figure out was sort of like the old circuit riding preachers I had read about in history, except that they traveled in cars instead of on horseback. The preacher, Mr. Wisely—he wasn’t a real preacher, Mother said, because he wasn’t ordained—lived in Deer River, which was about thirty miles from Spring Lake. He only came to Spring Lake for church on the first and third Sundays, so there wasn’t any church service the rest of the month. It wasn’t because he was lazy. The other Sundays he went to other churches. Even on the two Sundays that he had services at Spring Lake, he went on to Otenagen for a service on Sunday afternoon and then someplace else—I can’t remember where—for Sunday night.

            Mrs. Klet played the piano, which was awfully out of tune. I was glad I didn’t have to play it, because our piano at home sounded so much better. But, she did pretty good with what she had to work with.

            The attendance wasn’t really big, compared to Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Peter. We would often have several hundred people in St. Peter, and we almost never had more than thirty people here. But these people could sing! They would never make a choir, because they were way off key. Especially Helen. (I remember her last name, but I won’t tell you!)  The happier she got and the better she liked the song, the louder she sang. And the louder she sang the more off-key she sang. You never knew whether to put your hands over your ears or to laugh (or at least smile) at her. So you sat there and sang a little louder to try to drown her out.

            The music wasn’t all bad, though. Mrs. Wisely had a marimba, and she quite often loaded it up in their station wagon and brought it along for special music. It wasn’t a harp, but I could imagine her playing it in heaven.

            My life was now seemed a little closer to normal. At least twice a month we went to church. And little could I imagine what a huge impact this one little phase of my life could have on the rest of it. In the future, the biggest part of my life would revolve around church.

            Years after this, I remember my mother saying, “I think I made a mistake. We should never have gotten involved with that church. If we hadn’t, you might have grown up normal.” And no matter how many times I told her that I would never have given up my next few years, and the path that the affiliation with the “Spring Lake Community Chapel”—the little white church on the hill—led me down. I would not have changed it for anything.

            And so, let me tell you about the craziest life a church ever had to offer anyone, and the wonderful memories it evokes. Perhaps, for the readers who grew up in “rural Minnesota,” where there wasn’t even a Lutheran church, you will smile with me as you reminisce about the building of your own faith.

 

 

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