Until Next Week, Annabelle

Originally written 5/07/03

Main Street, Harmony, Minnesota –

Traffic jams only occur when some farmer’s tractor blocks the lane. Road hazards are more organic here, consisting of deer, raccoon, and Amish buggies. Drivers greet each other not with obscenities or implicating gestures, but with nods, waves, and tips of their hats. On Main Street of this quiet, no stoplight town a few miles north of the Iowa border lives Annabelle Kvam.

For the past 22 years, Kvam has written a weekly newspaper column for the residents of Fillmore County. Kvam’s column speaks of a ubiquitous country time and old-fashioned values. And yet, while pointing to days gone by, her column also reflects current life in Fillmore County, a rural area that is similarly removed from modern, fast-paced society.

“Who the hell is Annabelle?” asked new Fillmore County Journal owner and editor John Torgrimson when the former owner reminded him to “pay Annabelle.” He got another reminder a few days later, when a woman stopped him on the street and warned Torgrimson, “So you’re the new owner? Whatever you do, don’t get rid of Annabelle!” By then, he had realized that this mysterious “Annabelle” was the voice of the Journal’s popular column “Notes from a Country Kitchen.” However, she is more than the voice of a column, she is the voice of the rural Minnesota county and the people who live there.

Annabelle’s column begins with a report of her week that usually includes a visit with old friends and a musing on the good ol’ days. Next, “Chuckles” features a montage of jokes and ditties. Lastly comes a recipe of the week, like last week’s “Buster Bar Dessert.” Torgrimson describes her column as “Norman Rockwellish,” written in a conversational “Reader’s Digest style” that older generations can relate to. “It’s a quintessential, small-town, Sunday schoolmarm story line, with a mix of recipes, jokes, poetry, verse, and old-fashioned advice,” he says. “It points to a different time, a simpler time, when people would sit in a parlor and visit for forever.”

“It shows her speed of life and the way she lives it, and we try to relate to it,” says Phyllis Solberg, longtime resident of Fillmore County and reader of the Journal. Solberg notes, “It tells a little bit about the way we live here.” Torgrimson agrees, saying, “[Annabelle’s] values reflect where she’s from … Through her column, you understand somewhat the history, context, culture of what she writes about.” The reader begins to understand Fillmore County, an innately rural community with a population around 20,000. Fillmore was the most populous county in Minnesota at the time of its statehood, in 1868, but is now the most populous in beef cattle.

Annabelle grew up two miles west of Harmony, Minnesota, on a big farm with a strict father, an easygoing mother, three brothers, two sisters, chickens, cows, pigs, horses, and goose or two. “I grew up happy,” she says, “I guess everybody did on the farm.” She and her brother and sister were in charge of milking, and would “sing and yodel and harmonize” morning and night to pass the chore. “I don’t think [the cows] would milk without our singing,” she laughs. “Our neighbor said he could hear us across the fields.”

Annabelle never really liked school, partly because she was picked on for being tall and overweight and partly because it didn’t interest her much. She quit during her sophomore year of high school to help out at home. “I didn’t finish high school and went only to a little old country school, don’t understand politics,” she wrote in a recent column. “Dad needed us,” she says matter-of-factly. So she began to live the life expected and needed of her. She took a job in town, then met and married her husband. He hauled milk, and they began a family, now five kids, seven grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

“I just got that idea one time,” Annabelle remembers modestly. Twenty-two years ago, to be exact, she got the idea to write a column for the Harmony News-Record. “I said, ‘you know, I’d kinda like to write,’ and she [the editor] said, ‘go ahead.’” Without any formal training or a high school diploma, Annabelle began writing. And people began to come up to her and thank her for a good laugh or a good recipe. “I used to get a lot of compliments,” she remembers, noting that the compliments seem to have tapered off over the years, perhaps because Annabelle’s column has become so integrated and engrained in the lives of the people of Fillmore County.

After a writer for the News-Record set fire to the office in the early 1990s, she became a columnist for the Journal. She still writes her columns out by hand, in slanted cursive on unlined paper, ignoring the typewriter that she was given a few years ago, to the dismay of the Journal’s typesetters.

Annabelle finds “Chuckles” material in everyday life and the “oodles and oodles of books and books” she has around. “Chuckles” include occasional jokes about “Ole and Lena,” a Norwegian-style Ma and Pa Kettle known for their humor, but not their intelligence, and Burma Shave advertisements, humorous poems or ditties that used to be posted on the sides of highways. “One time I was in the doctor’s office, and I liked something [in a magazine] and just ripped it out,” she says.

However, her hearty sense of humor sometimes doesn’t translate to a politically correct generation. In one of the jokes she published, a husband “smacked” a wife, spurning a few heated letters to the editor and indicating a generation gap between Annabelle and some of the Journal’s readers. Torgrimson notes that while the joke may have “run afoul of conventional mores,” for Annabelle’s generation, that “was their way of dealing with domestic issues… they didn’t talk about it much, they joked it off.” Annabelle defends the joke, saying it was “not to be hurtin’ anybody,” yet she acknowledges the gap: “ Oh, I don’t know, I think it’s mainly older people that read my column. The older generation is leaving – they’re gone, now – and the younger generation is too busy.”

Annabelle is aware, too, of the difference in the current generation’s standards about sex on television and her own. “I don’t see any benefit of showing your belly button. What’s that?” she asks comically. “We all have it, I’m sure!”

“I hate recipes!” she jokes. Except, it seems, for ones involving rhubarb, the bitter root growing rampantly in all Minnesota gardens. In the past month-and-a-half, Annabelle has printed recipes for “Sour Cream Rhubarb Pie,” “Rhubarb Bread,” “Rhubarb Jam,” and most recently, “Rhubarb Coffee Cake.” She likes to keep her recipes simple, with basic ingredients and easy directions. “People got the sugar and the butter and the flour in the house. I try to get something that anyone can make,” she says. This attitude was practiced during her days as a housewife, when she couldn’t afford luxury items – “things like coconut and raisins” – but found that “you can’t beat the basics.”

Besides cooking, Annabelle sews, quilts, and puts puzzles together. “It’s relaxing,” she says of her puzzle hobby, and sticks to puzzles of dogs, horses, and kittens. “Nothing sexy this day and age!” she says, then heartily laughs at her own use of “sexy.” She also spends time sewing, making quilt tops for relatives and for church.

In this way, Annabelle is similar to her peers. “There’s not a lot of flash; she’s not an exception to her peers. They do the same thing – they quilt, they sew. The thing that separates Annabelle from the other ones is that she converses about this,” says Torgrimson. A recent column was inspired by the old “friend” that she had to take to the doctor (she later revealed it as her broken sewing machine). “You sure had us scared!” readers told her later.

Yet, like many independent elderly people, Annabelle still drives herself around. But she isn’t the little old lady who peers over her steering wheel and putters down the road in a wide, excruciatingly slow Cadillac. If you get behind Annabelle, you’ll notice that she actually drives the speed limit and always puts her lights and turn signal on – they’re her driving pet peeves. “You get on the road – those things kind of irk me, those things cause accidents!” she says. She drives a red ‘96 Chevy Cavalier, but doesn’t like it much. “It’s too fancy for me,” she says, then adds humbly, “but I suppose I should be thankful that I got it.”

Independent and active, at 76, Annabelle is hardly old. “Sometimes I feel 96 and sometimes I feel 26,” she says. “I feel young when the sun shines and I can get some work done.” For Annabelle, age has brought certain perks, but certainly not fragility or delicacy. “A good thing, I suppose, is senior discounts – when you get money off your lunch. A bad thing, you don’t get surprised as much,” she says. And in 76 years, she has only one regret. “I would finish my high school … I would haveË graduated in 1954,” she remembers. Writing for the paper, however, has compensated for and reconciled her with her past.

“Suppose you’ve had enough with it?” Annabelle asks Torgrimson occasionally of the column. “I get discouraged sometimes; I keep threatening [Torgrimson], and he’ll say, ‘Oh, don’t!’” Times are changing, and her experiences and values are becoming more, she thinks, out-of-touch. Annabelle reflects that her column has not been as much “fun anymore because of the war. At least it’s harder to write now … Like I say, now after the September 11th deal, I’m more serious. I like to joke and laugh – now it’s more serious. I try and keep it the same. I didn’t have someone there, but it hurt. Yes, it hurt everybody. The shock – sometimes you don’t get over a shock easily.”

Yet despite the differences and problems that Annabelle has encountered in 22 years, she has stuck with it. She manages to both talk herself into and out of writing: “I always think that there’˚s one person. Oh, that! If you can help one person… I’d miss it if I didn’t do it, and yet it’s a headache. I’m happy that I’ve made some people happy.” For 22 years, she has always ended her columns the same way: “~Until next week, Annabelle.”