Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A tender moment honoring Justin August 31, 2017

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SHE HAD NO IDEA, this baby girl, that her endearing interaction with a garden sculpture would hold meaning beyond cuteness. But it did.

 

 

As my granddaughter, Isabelle, squatted to look at the boy with the jar of fireflies sitting on my patio, I photographed the scene. She looked, reached, waved, moved in closer, then touched. There was a poignant sweetness in Izzy’s connection with the garden art I call “Little Justin.”

 

 

I purchased the mass produced sculpture in 2012 after seeing the same piece in my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s Memory Garden honoring their son. Justin died on August 14, 2001, of Hodgkin’s disease. He was only 19. When his mom, Vivian, told me how much Justin loved light, especially that of fireflies, I felt moved to add this art to my yard.

 

 

Now, just days after the 16th anniversary of my nephew’s death, Izzy reached out to Little Justin with zero prompting from anyone. The moment held such sweetness, such tenderness that my heart ached with love for this darling little girl and for the cousin she would never know.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Comfort in music August 30, 2017

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Raindrops on hosta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ON AN AFTERNOON WHEN TEARS rushed in rivers down my cheeks, when my heart ached with grief for my friends, when the reality of life seemed too overwhelming, my compassion and love not enough, I took comfort in the words of contemporary Christian singer Laura Story.

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

Story’s Blessings has uplifted me in the past, carried me through angst and worry and difficulties. Music holds healing power when used in a positive, inspiring and memorable way. It is a gift, a prayer. From those who write it, to those who hear it (as I did on Twin Cities based Christian radio station KTIS) and to those who experience comfort within the lyrics.

FYI: To listen to Blessings, click here.

 

Witness to an unleashing of verbal abuse in a grocery store parking lot August 29, 2017

A snippet of a domestic violence poster published by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

HE EXITED AHEAD OF US, the man with his right arm in a cast. His whole demeanor exuded anger as he strode from the grocery store pharmacy empty-handed.

Then the f-word started flying like missiles zoning for a target in the parking lot. “Where the f*** is she?” he shouted, followed by a string of more f-words. Clearly he expected her at the door, waiting for him.

His fury struck me like a coiled rattlesnake. His every move, his every word, heightened my concern. For her. His poisonous words flowed in a venomous assault on the absent woman. If he could verbally attack her in public without her present, what would he say and do in private?

“If he does anything to her, I will call the police,” I told Randy. My husband knew I meant it. I will not hesitate, ever, to phone law enforcement when I see someone being abused. I have done so in the past. If an abused woman was my daughter, my sister, my niece, my friend, I would want someone to speak up, to take action, to refuse to remain silent.

My eyes traced the irate man’s path across the parking lot toward a maroon SUV too distant to notice license plate or details. We watched, listened. I was already mentally preparing to punch 911 into my smartphone.

 

A photo of police reports published in the Faribault Daily News in May show the pervasiveness of domestic calls to local law enforcement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2017.

 

But no criminal laws had been violated, only human rules of common decency and respect. “He has anger control issues,” Randy observed. I agreed. I feared his rampant rage might explode into physical abuse of the woman behind the steering wheel. Heck, he had already verbally abused her in her absence. I doubt that ended once the vehicle door slammed.

I stood next to our van on the opposite side of the lot, eyes following the vehicle as it turned right onto a frontage road and eventually onto Minnesota State Highway 60 heading west out of Faribault.

I wondered and worried. Could I have done more? What awaited this woman? Would she be OK? Or would he blacken her eyes, clench his hands around her throat, shove her around?  Would he tell her she was worthless and no good and a b****? Would he strike with those venomous words, “f*** you,” while she recoiled in fear?

Perhaps I am wrong about this man, this situation. But my gut and observations tell me otherwise. I trust both; they have never failed me.

 

I hope victims of domestic abuse will focus on that word, HOPE, and take action to reclaim their lives, lives free of abuse.

 

FYI: If you are in an abusive relationship (and that covers not only physical, but also verbal, mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, technological and financial abuse), please seek help. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, clergy or anyone who can help you. Reach out to your local women’s shelter or advocacy services. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. The probability of violence against victims heightens substantially when they try to leave their abusers. Do not do this alone, for your own safety. You deserve to be free. Free of any type of abuse.

NOTE: I am aware that men can also be victims of abuse. But since women are most often victims, I write about domestic abuse and violence from their perspective. Click here to read previous posts I have written on the subject.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I’ve graduated August 28, 2017

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LYING WITH MY HANDS behind my head, elbows bent, I studied the photo of rock climbers strategically positioned at the end of the therapy table to offer motivation. Funny thing, I’d never noticed the over-sized image on prior visits, 11 total. But on this, my last day of physical therapy, I did.

 

This is a photo of an x-ray of my broken shoulder. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2017.

 

And my thoughts were this: I’ll never climb a rock wall. I couldn’t before the May 22 fall that left me with a broken right shoulder and I have no intention of ever doing so. But I feel as if I’ve scaled a precipice to get to where I am today. I once again have a nearly fully functional right arm that for too long hugged my body in a sling as it healed. Muscle strength and range of motion vanish quickly in a constricted appendage.

 

I’m using this shoulder pulley at home twice a day for three minutes each time to stretch my muscles.

 

But you do what you must to heal and then recover. It takes a certain amount of discipline, fortitude and willpower to work through the pain, to push yourself, to move forward. I couldn’t have done it alone. My physical therapist, John, provided the tools, the know how and the extra spark of motivation. I didn’t want to let him, or myself, down. When I would grimace in pain, John would look at me and ask, “Who’s in charge?” I wanted to say, “you are,” but that answer would have been wrong. I was always in charge of my body.

 

I hold this elastic band in my hands and pull opposite directions to stretch and strengthen my muscles.

 

When I walked into therapy on August 24, I looked at John and asked if I could graduate. I was so ready to be done. Not that I didn’t like John or therapy. I simply felt as if I had reached my potential in supervised therapy and the rest would come naturally with increased activity. John agreed.

 

The weight of the dumbbells I could lift started at 1.5 pounds, then advanced to the 3, 5 and 8 pound weights shown here. The eight-pounder is still a challenge.

 

And so, as I passed my final tests and rated my pain at one, I felt a sense of relief that I’d come this far. Just weeks ago I couldn’t lift five pounds, couldn’t reach to slide a plate into the cupboard, couldn’t hook my bra. I had even attempted to mow the lawn the evening before my final therapy session, but found that still too difficult especially given the too tall grass and the too heavy lawnmower. John typed “no mowing lawn” into my records, but gave me permission to lift my 21-pound granddaughter if I rely primarily on my left arm. Then I shared that I’d already picked her up the day prior. He smiled.

 

During the past six weeks or so, I’ve done the exercises shown here and more to first regain range of motion and then to rebuild muscle strength.

 

As I lay on the therapy table waiting for John’s final instructions, I focused on that photo of the rock climber. I had scaled a steep and sometimes rocky wall to regain use of my right arm. I felt good and thankful for the grace of healing.

Now if only John had programmed the theme song to Rocky or perhaps Pomp and Circumstance into the sound system to mark my graduation day, a goal I had been striving toward for three months and two days. That would have marked the pinnacle of reaching the recovery summit.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Building memories & reconnecting at a Minnesota family reunion August 24, 2017

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Seven of the eight living Helbling siblings, including my husband, Randy, in the front row, gathered last Saturday for the annual family reunion.

 

FROM PONIES TO GOATS, German potato salad to kuchen, a scavenger hunt to a trivia game and more, all were part of the annual Helbling Family Reunion held Saturday on a rural Faribault acreage.

 

A neighbor brought over two ponies, a hit with all ages.

 

Randy and I co-hosted the event with a nephew and his wife, creating shared experiences to connect generations spanning from age one into their sixties.

 

The Helbling cousins posed for a portrait that includes my three children, front center and back right.

 

Nearly 50 of us gathered, first for a meal of mostly German and some American foods, and then for an afternoon of fun under a canopy of sprawling oaks.

 

Even though she was too little to really bounce, my granddaughter, Izzy, still loved the bouncy house as did all the other kids.

 

Emmett, who just turned one and was the youngest at the reunion, is already practicing his bean bag tossing.

 

Likewise 16-month-old Izzy, second youngest in the Helbling family, dropped bean bags in holes.

 

Kids jumped in the bouncy house while adults tossed bean bags into holes in angled boards.

 

Among the gnomes I hid.

Among the gnomes I hid.

 

I sent some kids on a scavenger hunt for gnomes and ceramic animals tucked into hiding places below sunflowers and lilac bushes and in and around trees and more. They raced with enthusiasm, clues in hand, to search for the treasures on a day as perfect as they get here in southern Minnesota in August.

 

I pulled stories from a family history book published in 1993, printed them on paper with graphics and then displayed all on a table. Some of the stories were part of the family history trivia contest.

 

Later, after the bean bag tournament ended, the adults answered questions about family history in a trivia contest. Three scored a perfect ten, proving they know that roaming coyotes once kept the three oldest Helbling children indoors during recess at a one-room country school in North Dakota in the 1960s.

 

Getting all the kids to sit still for a portrait proved impossible.

 

One dashed away…

 

The final portrait, minus one.

 

This is the stuff of family history, of stories that can be told and retold through generations. Stories unique to this family once rooted in Germany, then moved to Russia before emigrating to America.

 

Katherine, 5,  took time to create art.

 

I am not, by blood, a Helbling. But for 35 years I have been part of this family which still cares enough each August to gather for a reunion. While the majority travel from various parts of Minnesota, others arrived here this year from Boston, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri.

 

My three kids, Amber, left, Miranda and Caleb, having fun with the German photo props.

 

My great nieces and sweet sisters, Meghan, left, and Katherine. Their mom said they look forward to the reunion.

 

The Helbling cousins having fun with photo props.

 

There were the traditional posed family portraits juxtaposed with informal and fun photo ops using German themed props ordered online. A set salvaged from Vacation Bible School served as an Alps mountain backdrop.

 

My niece Amber and I picked wildflowers, garden flowers, grasses and weeds and then arranged bouquets in bier steins.

 

Adding to the ethnic bend were bier steins filled with mostly wildflowers and weeds culled from fields and yards, the impromptu vases set on banquet tables draped in yellow, black and red, the colors of the German flag. The themed reunion honored the Helbling family’s German heritage. As a detail-oriented creative type, I delight in adding such memorable details. Family members noticed and appreciated.

 

Family members hammered nails into a stump in games of hammerschlagen.

 

As the day wended from bright afternoon sunshine to dusk and a spectacular sunset, the sound of nails hammered into a stump in games of hammerschlagen ceased. Voices rose and fell in conversation while lines formed for the evening meal of build your own burgers. At the grill, Randy took orders for burgers topped with American, pepperjack or blue cheeses. Much to our surprise, many chose blue cheese made and aged in sandstone caves some six miles away in the heart of Faribault.

 

We are creating memories for the next generation. Here my husband and our granddaughter play bean bag toss. Sort of.

 

And then, while Randy and I grabbed our burgers from the grill and finally sat down to eat, others piled onto a wagon for a hayride around the rural acreage. I wished I could have joined them, even taken photos. But I needed to refuel after a fun, but exhausting, day. It takes effort and energy and hard work to carry out a family reunion. But it’s so worth it for the memories created, the love and experiences shared as a family.

TELL ME: Does your family hold reunions? I’d love to hear details.

CLICK HERE to read posts about past family reunions.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

West of Mankato August 23, 2017

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

 

WHEN I TELL FELLOW MINNESOTANS I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, specifically near the small town of Vesta, I typically get a blank stare. So, when “Vesta” doesn’t register with them, I mention Marshall to the west and Redwood Falls to the east of my hometown. Both are county seats and fair-sized communities, in my opinion.

 

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling to southwestern Minnesota.

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling through southern Minnesota toward the prairie.

 

Even after dropping those two names, I still often get that quizzical look. It’s as if they have no idea there’s anything west of Mankato.

 

This barn along U.S. Highway 14 west of Sleepy Eye always catches my eye.

Gotta love this barn between Sleepy Eye and Springfield.

 

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

 

 

But there is. Lots. Land and sky and small towns and oddities and grain elevators, and corn and soybean fields stretching into forever. There are pitch-black skies perfect for star-gazing and sunsets so bold I sometimes wonder why I ever left this land.

 

There are so many well-kept barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

There are so many beautiful old barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

I understand beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I simply want others to see that this corner of Minnesota, just like the lakes and woods to the north and the rolling hills and rivers to the south and the Twin Cities metro, is lovely and quirky and interesting in a peaceful prairie way.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

U.S. Highway 14 passes through many small towns, like Sleepy Eye where these guys were shopping for a car.

Shopping for cars in Sleepy Eye, one of many small towns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

 

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

 

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

 

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

 

FYI: All of these photos are from my files and were taken along U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Lamberton. That would be west of Mankato.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

No solar eclipse for me…just grey skies August 22, 2017

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A line of grey stretches across the sky as we drive back into Faribault along Rice County Road 19 Monday evening.

 

ON A DAY WHEN THE SOLAR eclipse focused eyes to the sky, I failed to share in the excitement. For me the day marked my son’s return to Boston after a few days in Minnesota. His visit had been too brief and I’d been too busy with a family reunion to consider the weather event of the year.

 

 

About the time the eclipse peaked in Minnesota, clouds shifted across the sky, diminishing the view. It didn’t matter much to me. We were aiming for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. My thoughts were not of the solar eclipse, but of the miles closing in before I would, once again, hug Caleb goodbye. I long ago stopped crying at the airport.

On the drive home, grey clouds opened, pouring down rain in weather that fit my emotions.

 

 

Hours later my phone binged with a message that Caleb’s plane had just landed in Boston. We were back on the road again, this time heading to the reunion site to load up tables and chairs to return to friends. A band of grey stretched across the darkening evening sky in a seemingly infinite trail that, in my mind’s eye, reached 1,400 miles away to a residential neighborhood in greater Boston.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling