I simply do not know how to go about saying goodbye to “A Prairie Home Companion,” maybe my most faithful companion for the last 40 years. I know there is nothing I can do that can begin to pay for the thousands of moments — of joy, of laughter, of tears, of waiting to go to the bathroom so I could hear the end. I have my ticket to the Hollywood Bowl for the last show. I know I’ll be a puddle of tears. But it’s not enough. I simply need to do more to pay tribute to all of the Saturday afternoons when I could not have asked for anything more. So here’s my attempt to share what the show has meant to me.
I first heard the show in 1974. I was married, a farmer’s wife in southwestern Minnesota: a mix of homegrown farmer’s daughter, college dropout, Mother Earth News and Whole Earth Catalog. The mix did not make for financial success. Our entertainment options were few, pretty much consisting of a radio. But I noticed that my husband always found something to do at 5 on Saturday afternoon that involved driving the tractor with a cab and a radio. Then he said we should go to Worthington, Minn., one Saturday to watch a new, live radio show at the community college there.
We went with our 3-year-old son and our 6-month-old daughter. I was introduced to the Powder Milk Biscuit Band and Lake Wobegon. During the show, Edith started to fuss, so I stood up in the back to rock her. The host, Garrison Keillor, included that in an improvised song by saying “rock that baby, mama” several times in the chorus.
Saturday afternoons were never the same. Chores were arranged so that at 5 o’clock, we could be in the living room — Jeff playing on the floor while I rocked Edith. Or I would dance to the music with them in my arms. Cooking dinner, folding laundry and ironing were all chores saved for “A Prairie Home Companion,” so I could listen at the same time.
When we decided that we really were not making a living, we moved to married student housing at the University of Minnesota while my husband went to graduate school. We usually listened to the show on our radio, yet we also frequently packed up the kids for an impromptu visit to the show. Tickets were still easy to get back then.
When we moved to Peru, we could still listen on the Armed Forces Radio Service. “A Prairie Home Companion” was a weekly touchstone to home. I remember one Saturday when we were in Cajamarca, where the Spanish conquistador Cortez met Atahualpa. We were able to listen to the show on the one radio we had with us while bathing in the same steaming mineral waters that the leader of the Inca Empire had used to heal his battle wounds.
Then came our four years of exile in Iowa. Luckily for us, we lived in the northwest corner, and Minnesota Public Radio came in loud and clear on KSJN. Hearing the piano playing at 5 on Saturday was the best time of my week. And I remember coming to the Twin Cities for the 25th anniversary show on the State Capitol grounds. Who could forget singing the 23rd Psalm in unison with a crowd that actually knew it?
By the time we moved back to the Twin Cities, tickets had become hard to get. Nonetheless, we managed to watch the show live a few times a year. Our teenage kids knew that from 5 to 7 on Saturdays, the only thing playing in the house was the radio tuned to APHC. When Garrison announced the end of the show in 1987 — ultimately just a hiatus — I tried to get tickets to the last performance, but it was sold out. I wrote him a letter telling him that I had been listening to the show since it started and that I was the mom he had mentioned in a song in Worthington in 1974. A week later, a letter arrived with four tickets inside.
Our lives continued. I got divorced. Our kids grew up. And even though eventually I could have afforded other entertainment options, on Saturday evenings I still preferred to stay at home and enjoy APHC, now with a glass of wine in a comfortable chair inside or, if weather permitted, on the deck. As my public high school teaching job became more and more difficult, sometimes it was the only entertainment I was able to fit in.
I know all things come to an end. Having retired just last year, I know everyone comes to a point where they want to enjoy a bit of life before it’s too late. Garrison has earned that more than the rest of us. So I will be at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday, package of Kleenex in hand. So long, it’s been good to know ya. You’ve been a jolly good fellow. Stay in touch. And thanks for helping us know that Minnesotans truly are above average.
Betty Lotterman, of St. Paul, is a retired high school teacher.