ON THIS NATIONAL day of Thanksgiving, I realize that gratitude may feel elusive.
Perhaps you are mourning the loss of a loved one, grief shadowing your thoughts. Perhaps a loved one is seriously ill, near death. Maybe you are struggling with new or ongoing health issues. If this describes your situation, I’m sorry. Holidays like today, focused on family, can be hard, really hard.
We’ve all had those years when we’d rather skip the holiday for all the pain it brings.
But within and over and under and through and beside and between, gratitude can still find a way into our hearts. In photos. In memories. In a phone call or a text or a video chat. In time together, whether in-person or virtually. In a prayer offered. In a prayer received.
This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for you. For your support of my creative work. For the connections we’ve made, the friendships formed. For being part of my world. I value you. I count you among my reasons to give thanks, especially today.
A blessed and happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, dearest readers of Minnesota Prairie Roots!
WITH THANKSGIVING ONLY DAYS AWAY, my thoughts shift to gratitude. I must admit, though, that feeling grateful in the midst of this ongoing global pandemic takes effort. Yet, it’s important, even necessary, that I reflect on my blessings.
Now, I could simply list the usual broad categories most of us would choose as reasons to feel grateful—family, food, faith, health… But hovering a magnifying glass over those words for a close-up look really focuses gratitude.
With that introduction, I am feeling thankful for…
My immediate FAMILY circle, including my husband, three grown adult children, two sons-in-law and two grandchildren. I feel grateful for their love and for the last time we were all together in May. Although I yearn to see my out-of-state family more, I’m happy for that spring visit.
The grandchildren, especially, bring joy. Most recently, before temps plummeted into the 20s here in Minnesota, Isabelle, Isaac and I swirled sticks in a mud puddle in our backyard. What a simplistically memorable moment. Later, inside the house, we crafted snow people from paper and birthday cards for their Aunt Miranda. More moments of connecting and bonding and loving.
Time spent at an extended family member’s guest lake cabin this past summer with the eldest daughter and her family rate particularly high on my gratitude list.
HEALTH, mine and that of those I love most, gives me pause for thankfulness. But this year I’m stretching that to include the scientists and researchers who created COVID vaccines and to those in healthcare who strive to keep us healthy and also care for us, whether doctors, nurses, public health officials or others. And to businesses who recognize the importance of COVID mitigation/safety measures (and to the people who follow them).
Along the topic of health, I feel relieved and thankful to now be on MEDICARE. That gives Randy and me affordable healthcare coverage and thus accessibility to healthcare. Paying about $500/month in premiums compared to nearly $1,900/month (with $4,200/each deductibles) lifts a great financial burden.
These days my thoughts often turn tomy dear mom, 120 miles away in a long-term care center, health failing. I feel overwhelmed by emotion, my heart aching in the missing of her. I last saw her in early July (and not since due to too much COVID in my home county, and now all of Minnesota). Too long.
But I think back to THAT SUMMER VISIT with such gratitude. Per the social worker’s suggestion, I brought along a stash of old family photos. As I held the black-and-white images close to Mom so she could see them through eyes clouded by age, joy blossomed. “That’s my dad,” she said. “That’s me.” And then the moment that brought me to tears. “That’s my husband.” It was a photo of my dad, in his 20s, when he met and married Mom. She recognized him. He’s been gone now nearly 18 years.
If I never see my mom again this side of heaven, I carry that cherished visit with me. The brief period of time when she connected, remembered, celebrated the love of her parents and her husband. Even as she likely forgot within minutes of my departure that I’d visited and shown her those vintage photos. But I realize, still realize, that this is not about me, but about her.
NATURE gives me another reason to feel blessed. During these pandemic years, especially, I’ve embraced the natural world with a deepened sense of the peace it brings. River Bend Nature Center in Faribault remains a cherished place to walk through the woods and prairie. To feel the calming effects of the outdoors, of solitude and quiet, and escape from reality. Likewise I feel the same when following a back country gravel road.
ART continues to hold importance for me. I’m thankful for all creatives. I consider myself among them. That I can create via images and words brings me unlimited satisfaction and joy. I’m thankful for those who value my work.
LOVE centers gratitude. I feel grateful for the love of God, the love of my husband and children and grandchildren. The love and support of friends. To love and to give love tops reasons to feel grateful this Thanksgiving. I love, especially, to observe how my grown children love and support one another. My heart overflows with gratitude this Thanksgiving, even during a pandemic.
TELL ME: What are you feeling especially thankful for right now? Please be specific.
NOVEMBER MARKS A MONTH of transition from autumn to winter here in Minnesota.
Trees stand against an often grey sky, brisk winds stripping the last of their leaves to bare branches. Nests crafted by squirrels high in treetops appear vulnerable, unsheltered, exposed to the elements while far below these busy oversized rodents munch on maple seeds, hide walnuts, prepare for winter. Their smaller cousins find their way into our aged house and garage, necessitating a daily check of the trap-line.
Harvest is done. Corn and soybeans reaped. A once lush rural landscape now looks drab, awash in muted earth-tones.
For farmers, long days and nights in the field are but a memory. Stress and rush easing into a slower rhythm of life.
The early days of autumn hold such beauty in landscape, such promise in anticipation of harvest. I’ve always loved September and October. This autumn, particularly, in the unchanging season of COVID-19, I’ve needed to reconnect with the earth. To witness the harvest. To view farm sites. To follow back country gravel roads, dust trailing the van. To find peace.
My appreciation for rural traces to my rural roots. I shall always feel gratitude for my 18 years on the farm. The southwestern Minnesota prairie shaped me as a writer and a photographer in that I noticed, still notice, details. The brutal slice of the winter prairie wind. The remarkable beauty of a flaming sun edging down. The taste of earth in potatoes dug from the garden. The sound of silence in hearing nothing. The unmistakable smell of harvest carried from combine to farmyard.
These farm memories I carry with me as autumn wanes, as November days move Minnesota toward winter. Harvest done.
NOTE: All of these photos were taken a month ago. The landscape looks much different now. Grey. Stark.
This Saturday, November 20, his community will rally at Bridge Square at noon to raise awareness of the missing 71-year-old and to continue the search for “Dice,” as he is known. Northfield police term him an endangered missing person due to possible onset dementia.
The only clues in his disappearance are the discovery of his hat and money clip.
Law enforcement and volunteers have searched many areas in and around Northfield for Budenski, who is 5-foot 9-inches tall, weighs 145 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes.
If this was a story about art, I would pen an endless list of this 83-year-old’s accomplishments. But this is not a story focused on Lillo’s sheet metal art. Rather, this is about a crime. He was the victim of a recent brutal attack.
On November 10, Lillo was attacked from behind and hit in the head with a hammer. He was able to drive to a neighbor’s home for help. A 34-year-old acquaintance is now charged in the crime which left the rural Good Thunder man hospitalized with serious injuries. Lillo is recovering, but in need of financial and emotional support.
AT THE END of the growing season a few weeks back, I walked into Buckham Memorial Library and spotted a stash of green tomatoes free for the taking. To say that I reacted with joy might be an understatement.
I felt practically giddy at the thought of preparing green fries, a coveted food I haven’t eaten in years because…I don’t have a garden.
But, back in the day, my mom planted a sprawling garden, growing vegetables to feed our farm family of eight. Green fries were a summer-time to harvest staple as were the tomatoes left to ripen on the vine.
Earlier this summer and fall, when I stopped at The Friends Organic Learning Garden on the library’s east side to look for produce, I noticed choice green tomatoes. I was tempted to pick a few. Who would miss the green orbs? But my conscience prevailed and I walked away empty-handed.
So when those green tomatoes appeared inside the library, I quickly took four, reining in my greedy impulse to grab more.
The next day, I sliced two of those beautiful green tomatoes, dipped both sides in all-purpose white flour and laid the slices into a hefty cast iron skillet sizzling with butter. Lots of butter. I ground on fresh black pepper, sprinkled on salt and then waited for the slices to brown, flipping and seasoning and adding butter as needed.
The result: golden circles of green-fried tomatoes that tasted of sun and sky and earth. And of yesterday’s garden.
As I forked into the savory rounds, I thought of Mom and how she spaced tomato plants evenly in the tilled soil and ringed each with a rusty tin can opened on both ends. The cans protected the tender plants from the prairie wind and cold. I remember pouring water into those cylinder reservoirs, overflow sometimes flooding the surrounding ground. When the plants edged over the cans, Mom removed the weather shields.
To me, green fries rate as much more than a food I enjoy. They are part of my culinary family history. A connection to my now 89-year-old mom who, though no master chef, did her best to feed her family with food sourced from our farm.
TELL ME: Do you have a favorite food tracing to your childhood and that you crave today? I’d like to hear. And, have you ever eaten, or made, green fried tomatoes?
I DISLIKE CONFLICT. I prefer decency, kindness and respect. I’d rather we all just got along. Listened. Stopped all the political jockeying and spread of misinformation. Cared about one another. Really cared. That would be ideal.
But this is not Utopia, especially not now during a pandemic. I am beyond frustrated. We’ve risen to new levels of disagreement and disconnect that threaten our health and our relationships, even our democracy. I find myself faced with sometimes heartwrenching choices as I try to protect my health and that of those I love most.
WHOOPING COUGH WAS BAD ENOUGH
A severe viral infection, which my husband caught at work and then passed along to me in mid-August, showed just how vulnerable I am to respiratory infections. While this week-long-plus infection had all the marks of COVID-19, it was not. We both tested negative. (Yes, we were fully vaccinated and recently got our boosters.) Yet, this reminded me of my need to be careful. Sixteen years ago I developed a severe case of whooping cough that lasted for three months and required an inhaler and steroids to help me breathe. (Yes, I was vaccinated for pertussis, but that protection wears off, unbeknownst at the time to me. Staying current on vaccines is essential.)
When I asked my doctor back in 2005 where I could have contracted whooping cough, he replied, “You could have gotten it waiting in line at the grocery store.” I was his first adult diagnosed case in 30-plus years of practicing medicine. I never want to be that ill again.
PROTECTING MYSELF & OTHERS
I have made, and will continue to make, choices that best protect me and my closest family circle from COVID-19. With young grandchildren and also a mother in a long-term care center, I am not willing to take chances with their health or mine. Because of high COVID rates in Minnesota, I haven’t seen my mom since July.
In the past nearly two years, I’ve opted out of grad parties, family reunions and gatherings with friends that included unvaccinated and unmasked individuals. I also stopped attending in-person worship services earlier this summer for the second time during this pandemic. I don’t feel comfortable being in enclosed spaces (beyond brief passing) with people who may or may not be vaccinated and who are unmasked.
I’ve missed funerals, attending only one since this whole pandemic began. And that was my father-in-law’s in February, pre-vaccination. It was a horrible experience, trying to keep my distance from the half-maskers and unmasked, too often repeating that I wasn’t hugging or shaking hands because, um, we’re in a pandemic.
Already, family relationships feel strained as I struggle to understand why some extended family refuse to get vaccinated. And then feel it’s OK to attend family get-togethers. I expect to make some difficult choices soon about whether to attend upcoming holiday gatherings. If unvaccinated adults are in attendance, I likely won’t be. Not because I don’t trust the vaccine, but because there’s always some risk and it’s a matter of principle. I don’t want to, by choice, be around individuals I know to be unvaccinated.
CARE, COMMON SENSE & OUR CHILDREN
And then there are those daily life occurrences which trigger concern. Like the unmasked teenage grocery store cashier who ran her fingers around her mouth. Then checked out my groceries.
Months ago at the playground, I watched my granddaughter run up and down a tunnel slide with another little girl. The whole time I wondered, should I allow her to do this? In the end, I did, mostly because they were outdoors and in constant motion. I find myself feeling especially protective of my two grandchildren. The day my 5-year-old granddaughter got her first vaccine dose, I felt incredible joy. I cannot wait for the nearly 3-year-old to become eligible for his COVID vaccine.
It’s true that, generally, if kids get COVID, they experience milder cases. But some have also ended up severely ill in the hospital and others have died. I will take every preventative measure I can to keep my dear grandchildren healthy and safe.
I recognize we each have different comfort levels. I tend to believes the experts, to be a rule follower, to want to do my part to keep others safe via vaccination and mitigation. I trust health and science. If public health officials are recommending we wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, I will do exactly that. Not that I need them advising this. Common sense and knowledge of the highly-contagious Delta variant are enough for me to mask up, keep my distance and more. I would never think of going into surgery (and I’ve had many surgeries in my life) with an unmasked healthcare team, pandemic or not.
Minnesota’s overwhelmed healthcare system concerns me as it affects anyone who needs care. Not just those with COVID. Despite all of this, too many Minnesotans are still refusing to get vaccinated.
I want this pandemic to end. But right now I don’t foresee that happening any time soon…unless we start acting like we care about one another. How? Get vaccinated (and that includes boosters). Wear a face mask. Social distance. Stay home when sick. Practice other proven COVID mitigation measures. We have the power to stop COVID-19. This isn’t 1918. But sometimes it sure seems like 103 years ago, despite advances in science and knowledge and an understanding of how this virus spreads.
NOTE: I will not publish anti-vaccine or anti-masking comments on this, my personal blog. Likewise, I will not publish misinformation, etc. as it relates to COVID and vaccines.
WHITE ROCK. Belle Creek. Hader. They are among the 60-plus ghost towns of Goodhue County. Places that once thrived, marked now only by signs along a road, a cluster of homes, perhaps a church or abandoned buildings.
Yet, acknowledging their existence, as the Goodhue County Historical Society does with roadside signs, matters. Because these towns mattered to previous generations and still matter to those with connections to the likes of Aspelund, Burr Oak Springs, Crystal Springs, Eidsvold, Skyberg and so many more with names that hint at heritage and sound poetically beautiful.
On a road trip to Goodhue County a month ago, Randy and I followed County Road 8 east and then south of Cannon Falls back toward Faribault.
Our route took us past clusters of woods, some tinged in autumn hues.
Soon the road curved and swept into the valley, rows of corn rolling across the landscape. Only groves of trees surrounding farm sites broke the vista of endless unharvested fields.
Sometimes those farmyards hugged the paved road and I caught a close-up glimpse of farms, some with aged weathered barns and outbuildings, others updated with modern equipment and structures.
In Belle Creek, Randy and I noticed a white building, likely a former creamery. Creameries often graced these small settlements, a necessity for farmers who sold cream for butter-making.
Another building in Belle Creek left us guessing at its past life. Perhaps a general store. Then a dance hall. We could be way off…
Occasionally, we spotted cattle, cows, calves. Growing up on a dairy farm, I delight in seeing bovines, especially Holsteins. But rare are the small family farms today that still raise animals. Corporate and mega farms have mostly replaced that self-sufficient lifestyle. That’s reality.
Just like ghost towns, many farms have become, in some ways, ghost farms. They are but ghosts of the past. Ghosts of their former selves and purposes. I see that in decaying, empty buildings, especially barns. I see that in the absence of livestock. I see that in families who can no longer support themselves solely via the farm.
All of this is unsettling. But with time comes change. And with change must come acceptance and perhaps also an added historical appreciation for the past.
THE “Mailbox Mysteries” SIGN POSTED in the front window of a downtown Cannon Falls insurance agency, drew my interest. I’ve always appreciated a good mystery and I wanted in.
So I headed to the nearby library, home base for the mysteries, to inquire about the featured Gangster’s Gold mystery. Within a week I received an introductory letter about notorious gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz and his $50 million treasure hidden somewhere in the Cannon River Valley.
Channeling my inner Nancy Drew, I determined to locate that treasure. If only my sleuthing skills matched my enthusiasm. Right from the start, I couldn’t figure out how to fold, and then use, a Tri-Hexa-Flexa-Coder to de-code a secret message. I needed help. My friend Stephani, who once considered becoming a private investigator but stuck to family genealogy, solved the folding/coding problem.
I realized solving this mystery would not be easy. Exactly as “Mailbox Mysteries” creator Matthew Stelter, Teen and Adult Services Librarian in Cannon Falls, likely intended. He created this interactive mystery series last winter as an outreach program for library patrons stuck at home during COVID-19 and, as he said, “tired of a life lived entirely through a computer screen.” At that time, the library building was closed to visitors. All of the clues for his mysteries are sent via US mail to the home-based investigators.
Eventually, Stelter crafted six mysteries—five for adults and a math-based set, “Postcard Puzzles,” for kids 12 and under. A bit overwhelmed by managing all of those mysteries, Stelter has since tweaked and downsized the “Mailbox Mysteries” to three.
His past experience developing escape rooms and murder mysteries shows in “Mailbox Mysteries.” I admire his ability to craft a fictional mystery rooted in facts with added local elements. He uses newspaper clippings, photos, letters, historical documents, maps, coded messages (he created the code for the challenging Hexa-Flexagon) and more in believable story lines.
A seemingly authentic newspaper article, for example, references the long-ago Fleckenstein Brewery in Faribault and a possible connection to the underworld. Turns out that story was pure fiction as is gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz’s connection to Minnesota. He never had ties here, although many gangsters did. Rather, he lived in New York, where his treasure is rumored to be hidden. Schultz died in a gang shoot-out.
In the end, I found the location of the $50 million treasure after hours of dissecting documents—yes, I became a bit obsessed—and using a magnifying glass to better view details on a map. Stelter rewarded me with a personalized Certificate of Commendation and advised me to bring a shovel to dig deep for the buried treasure.
Now I’m on to the next “Mailbox Mysteries,” Spy School. I’ve received my introductory letter, a brochure for the Vera Atkins Spy Academy and an encoded note warning that the school is compromised.
VASA happens to be in Faribault, as printed in a brochure so professionally done that I would think the academy really existed if I didn’t recognize the photos of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. Stelter lived at Shattuck for 10 years. I’m also semi-familiar with the campus so I’ll see if that familiarity helps in solving the mystery. As in Gangster’s Gold, I expect this mystery writer to weave more local details into the fictional story line.
While I await the next set of clues, I invite you to join the team of private investigators. Stelter welcomes all Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes types to register by November 30. Simply email your request for Spy School along with your name and complete snail mail address to: mstelter (at) selco (dot) info
Be forewarned, though, that these mysteries are challenging and time-consuming. Yet so worth the satisfaction of solving and of reaching into your mailbox to find, not a bill, but rather the efforts of a talented and creative librarian.
The third “Mailbox Mysteries,” Cypher Cabin, will be available starting December 1.
ONCE UPON A TIME in The Land of Plenty, a waif of a girl and her mother wound through the packed dirt and cobblestone streets of their remote village.
Sometimes they walked side-by-side. Other times the wee girl trailed her mother. But when they reached the village square, where a raucous crowd had gathered, they clasped hands and quickened their pace. The pair wanted to avoid the angry villagers crowded around The Village Know-It-All. He stood high above the throng, encouraging them to resist all attempts by The Ministry of Health and other officials in a far away city to stop The Great Invader.
His voice boomed authority across the square. “Stand strong,” he urged. “There is no need to defend yourselves against The Great Invader. He poses no threat. Stories of his strength are greatly exaggerated. There is no need to arm yourselves with protective gear or to hide or to avoid each other. There is no need for a potion to keep you safe. That’s nonsense. Lies. No one can tell us what to do! No one!”
DEATH & DENIAL ALL AROUND
As mother and daughter fled, reaffirming cheers created a deafening din. The two wanted nothing more than to escape the ire and untruths that raged.
Soon the pair passed The Village Center for Healing where an overflow of the sick and dying lay in cots along the street. While the ill-informed words of The Village Know-It-All droned on, echoing through the streets, the ill struggled with fits of coughing, gasping for breath. Fevers wracked their bodies and some lay stone still, perhaps already dead.
The mother shuddered in fear, clenching her daughter’s hand, distancing them as best she could along the narrow pathway.
They pressed on, passing the marketplace where vendors and villagers crowded among wagons heaped with grain, potatoes and overripe tomatoes. The mother had heard stories of villagers stealing the rotting tomatoes to lob at healers. She couldn’t understand why the healers—those who toiled endless days and nights to care for the sick—were now targeted, viewed as traitors. She could only trace that hatred to The Village Know-It-All and his followers who continued to spew misinformation about The Great Invader.
INSIDE THE VILLAGE SCHOOL
Soon they reached the village school where children scratched sticks across the dirt yard. Inside, other students crammed onto benches in cramped, windowless rooms made of clay walls and dirt floors. After her daughter shared of the crowded conditions, of sick classmates and no efforts to keep The Great Invader out of school, the concerned mother kept her daughter home. She could not fathom risking her daughter’s health or life. Already a long-time elder educator had succumbed to The Great Invader and another, much younger teacher, lay gravely ill.
THE DARKNESS OF GRIEF, THE LIGHT OF HOPE
Just beyond the school on the outskirts of town, the duo passed by the graveyard. To their right, a cluster of villagers circled as the local gravedigger lowered a pine box into a dark hole. The heartbreaking wails of mourners pierced the air. The mother recognized many of the grieving for theirs was a small village. Sadness clenched her thoughts. She knew this much-loved elder had succumbed to The Great Invader, although his family and friends denied the truth. The Office of Truthfulness posted a daily record in the village square and she had seen the man’s name on that list before The Village Know-It-All ripped down the official death document.
Witnessing such grief and observing the cemetery grounds marked by countless rectangles of black, mounded dirt, the mother hurried on. Past a simple marker with a familiar name. She hoped to reach a distant, much larger, village by nightfall. There she would accept the preventative potion to protect her beloved child. Just as she had sought out for herself many months earlier. She’d waited for this day, through the grief of losing her husband to The Great Invader only weeks before the magical potion was created and distributed, then subsequently destroyed by The Village Know-It-All. She focused on the journey at hand, through her weariness and grief, determined, filled with hope.
I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to ask. And then to listen.
I’m sorry I didn’t recognize earlier that you were suffering.
I’m sorry I was too busy with my own life and family to realize that I could have, should have, tried to understand.
Nearly 19 years have passed now since your burial, since that brutally cold early April day when I wrapped my arm around Mom in the wind-swept hilltop Vesta Cemetery. I felt her body shivering, shaking with grief as she accepted a folded American flag.
Moments like that imprint upon me as I remember you—husband, father, grandfather, son, brother…and veteran.
You were buried with military honors. The firing of guns. The mournful playing of taps. An in-ground military marker notes your final rank as a sergeant in the US Army. Awarded the Purple Heart, albeit 47 years after you were wounded on Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.
Today, on Veterans Day, I think of you. Honor you. And consider how fighting as a boots-on-the-ground combat soldier in the mountains of Korea forever changed you.
I recall the few stories you shared through the decades. You watched as a mortar killed your friend Ray, who was scheduled to leave Korea the next day. He left behind a wife and infant daughter. Dad, your grief led me to search for that “baby” two years after your death. I found Teri living in Iowa and with only minimal knowledge of her birth father. I have yet to meet her, but want to some day.
Some day. Days and weeks and months and years pass and then some day is too late. Now I hold a shoebox brimming with curled black-and-white photos and other items from your time in the Army. Your Selective Service System registration certificate. A well-worn mini black book of prayers, hymns and devotions from the Ladies Aid in Vesta. Faith and prayer carried you through many a hellish day and night in Korea.
In a letter to your parents, a copy tucked into a folder labeled “Korea” in my office file cabinet, you termed the war-torn Asian country a “hell hole.” Likewise, an over-sized embroidered decal declares “RETURNED FROM HELL.”
I have no doubt that war was hell for you. “Shoot or be shot,” I remember you saying. You spoke, too, of bitter cold, of hunger, of orphans begging for food across barbed wire fences. Of horrible war-time atrocities that I can’t bear to write here.
And then when you arrived home—bringing with you a folded memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea, dated July 31, 1953, and including your buddy Ray’s name—the horror and grief you experienced remained. But few, if any, acknowledged your struggles back then. You were expected to resume life as usual, returning to rural Minnesota to farm the land, to milk cows, to marry and raise a family. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not yet recognized.
I’m sorry, Dad. Sorry about the neighbor who laughed as you dove to the ground when a rifle fired during pheasant hunting.
I’m sorry, Dad, for the fear you felt when guns fired during a small town parade.
I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you like I should have been.
Near the end of your life, you found empathy and care in your veterans’ support group. That comforts me. Those men understood what you’d experienced. For that I am grateful. They provided the emotional support I failed to give you. I’m sorry, Dad. So sorry.