Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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.


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


30 Responses to “Remembering my mother-in-law, Betty”

  1. Allan Says:

    Very touching story Audrey. Men and their Mothers are special, I don’t know how to explain the bond, other than she gave life and birth to us. Randy is not alone about crying one time and only one time. I cried when my Mother passed away. I could not remember when I had cried the last time before that. My Dad has since passed away, and we were very close, but I did not cry when he died. I gave the eulogy at his funeral, and also for my Sister who had died 2 months after my Mother. Mothers fill a huge space in their Sons heart, that they will never realize. I was not as close to my Mother as I was to my Father, yet, why the tears? I guess Mothers spend so much time with us when we are young, teaching us how to count, spell, recognize colors, tie our shoes, the list is endless. That I think, is why the ties grow strong for our Mothers. Sure Dads teach us how to shoot guns, hunt, fix cars etc, but Dads also teach us Boys not to cry. Not that they are heartless, just the manly thing to teach their sons. There you are Audrey, I poured my Heart out on your blog. I think men who cry at their Mothers death, are more manly and caring, than those who don’t. But every person is different. So be it! God Bless America!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Allan, you are likely spot on correct with your insights. I think it was especially tough for Randy to lose his mom so unexpectedly and at such a young age (59). My own maternal grandmother died when I was only a few months old and she was 49. I know that was especially hard on my uncle, only 13 at the time.

      Allan, a reader would like info on the Amish book you referenced in a comment several days ago. Could you give us the title of the book and the author?

  2. Lovely tribute to your mother-in-law and those old photos are precious. My mother-in-law died before I married Mick, but I did get to meet her a few times. I’ve always been wistful over how she never met our daughter Abby. Mick cried at her funeral, too. I’m grateful that he told her he was going to marry me before she died. She was happy about it.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, Kathleen, you are making me teary-eyed with your story about your mother-in-law. How wonderful that Mick told her he planned to marry you. That’s worth treasuring.

  3. Rosie Says:

    A very touching memorial Audrey, thank you. I remember Jon shedding tears as he tried to explain to Lindsey(nearly 5) and Katie(3 1/2) why Grandma wouldn’t wake up to play with them at the wake – I guess they had poked her to wake her up.

    I remember at the 40th anniversary party Karen Bullinger, (my god mother, and great friend of moms) asked if they were going to do this again in 10 years. Mom replied that she didn’t think she’d be around. She died weeks later. She certainly is watching down on her children,grandchildren and great grandchildren with love and pride.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I hadn’t heard either of these stories, Rosie. But I do recall how upset you were that your Katie would not remember her grandmother.

  4. Jackie Says:

    She was much too young, wasnt she! Such a nice tribute to her, sounds like a wonderful mother in law. I still think you have some pretty sweet memories, thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, 59 is way too young to die. And now we’re nearly that age.

      She was a wonderful mother-in-law and I feel like I just did not have enough time with her.

  5. randy Says:

    Very touching tribute, dear Audrey, thank you. I too remember how much she was ready for a grandson after 7? granddaughters in a row. Much like her father who died several months before I was born.

    Also hard to believe her own brother would die 20 years later on the same day.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, dear.

      • Rosie Says:

        Jonathan may feel a bit left out, he was between Cherie and Katie.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Oh, I don’t think your mom forgot Jonathan, nor did I. But, for whatever reason, she was quite adamant in stating she wanted a grandson “to carry on the family name.” I remember that as clear as if it was yesterday. Randy and I simply wanted a healthy baby. That we were blessed with the boy your mom wanted was a double blessing.

  6. cecilia Says:

    What a lovely eulogy for your dear mother in law and how amazing that she and her brother died on the same day and exactly twenty years apart. Where they close as children? Life plays the strangest jokes. and Fancy you being afraid of mice! c

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, the mouse encounter tales I could tell…

      I don’t know if my mother-in-law and her brother Steve were close. But I think perhaps they were as Steve and his family, after Betty and her husband moved with their family to central Minnesota, came more often than any other relative from North Dakota to visit.

  7. I remember the phone call when my grandmother died – Dad’s mom. Those moments stick with you. I never knew any of my grandparents too well – mom’s parents died when I was 4 and Dad’s lived pretty far away. I’m sorry that I missed that connection in my life. What lovely memories you have of your mother-in-law! That’s a blessing to be able to say!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I was fortunate to have both my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandparents nearby. One grandma died when I was only a few months old and one of my grandpa’s when I was in early elementary school. There is much to be said for those relationships.

      I’m sorry you missed out on those.

      • This is why we Skype with my parents every Sunday night – so that our kids at least are close in that way.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        What a great idea. I wonder if that would work with my son in Boston? Oh, yes, it would. But no time for that when you’re a busy college student of few words.

        We did the Skype thing when our second daughter was living in Argentina.

  8. Vivian Says:

    Thank you, Audrey, for this beautiful tribute in honor of Mom. It is unfortunate she was not able to meet Caleb and her other grandchildren born after her death.

    I recall the night of her death as if it were yesterday. We drove through the ‘pea soup’ and got there before her death. Along the way, when he learned she was now in the hospital, Justin, age 11 at the time, asked what it would be like. Never one to lie or sugarcoat, I told him we could get there and she could be just fine. Or she could be attached to an IV, monitors, and/or tubes making an effort to regain her health. Or, she may have died. At that point he pulled his sweatshirt over his face and said, “that’s enough.” We arrived and it was the second option. The beep of the heart monitor drove me crazy (it was beeping frequently) and when I took my turn to sit with her so the others could nap in the family waiting room, I asked the nursing staff to turn it off. After all, if we wanted to know what it was telling us, we could watch it. They obliged. There is much more I could write, but we can discuss at another time, if you wish.

    I have no doubt that Mom, Uncle Steve, and all the Beehler family are watching over us. In my opinion, it’s a God-cident that he died on the anniversary of her death and think it’s wonderful. Though Jerry and I weren’t able to stay for the funeral, Uncle Steve would have loved being at his wake/vigil last evening, and seeing all the friends and relatives who gathered to remember him. It is good to celebrate lives well-lived. But I also know we can’t imagine the love, joy and peace he is having in his new life in heaven, with all his birth family, with the exception of one sister, Tillie.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I am smiling right now at that anecdote about Justin. And remembering your precious boy up there in heaven, way too early, with his grandma. But I know they are in a better place…with our Lord.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Vivian. I agree that it was no coincidence that Uncle Steve died twenty years to the date after your mother. In many ways, that is a comfort to those of us who survive.

  9. Neil Says:

    Audrey –

    Thanks for the story and pictures, two of which I’ve never seen before. The middle one was taken in October, 1988. I’m pretty sure it was on the Sunday prior to their 35th anniversary, or possibly the Sunday after (their anniversary fell on a Wednesday that year). I have a copy of a similar photo in which Annette and I appear alongside of them. I remember attending a special anniversary service for them the evening before at the church. We all went out for brunch right after taking the pictures.

    I’m interested to find out more about the date/occasion pertaining to the first photo. I’m guessing that they were at someone’s wedding.


    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks for the date on that middle photo, Neil. I do remember going out to eat on their anniversary, at some beautiful spot along the Mississippi in maybe Sartell. Is that on the Mississippi? I remember the beautiful fall colors.

      Maybe one of your siblings knows where and when that first shot was taken. Siblings?

  10. Vivian Says:

    Not sure but I think it may have been Eva and Dennis Beehler’s wedding. I believe Mom was a bridesmaid. Dad would likely remember.

  11. Rosie Quale Says:

    I was rereading this as we are in Baudette preparing to bury the urns of Tony and Mary Quale – my in-laws. Thank you again for this wonderful story of our mom. It brings tears to my eyes once again. Not just tears of sadness, but also of joy and reliving

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