Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When a 2-year-old comes to Grandma & Grandpa’s house April 12, 2018

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Izzy quickly learned that Grandma and Grandpa would let her jump on the guest bed. (Sorry, parents.)

 

SHE STAYED FOR FOUR days and three sleeps. The two-year-old. My granddaughter.

And now, not even 24 hours after she returned home to her parents, I miss this little girl. I miss her smile, her laughter, her mischief, her beautiful eyes, the feel of her tiny hand in mine, the softness of her hair, the cuddling and reading books…

 

Grandpa, granddaughter, Poppy (from the movie “Trolls”) and baby doll watch for school buses passing our house in the afternoon.

 

What a joy to have Izzy stay with Grandma and Grandpa while her parents traveled. It is the longest stretch we’ve had with her. I’ll admit to feeling a tad uncertain that she would be OK for that length of time. But her parents prepared her well. Video chats and photos helped, too. And Randy and I kept our sweet granddaughter busy. Or should I say Izzy kept her grandparents busy. Even though I raised three children and cared for many more, I forgot how active these little ones.

 

 

It doesn’t take much to occupy a 2-year-old. Toys pulled from basement storage proved a hit, especially the Brio train set and a Fisher Price school bus. Grandpa and Izzy spent a lot of time building tracks and pulling and pushing trains. As for that bus, it made many miles around our house.

I also crafted a house for Izzy using a card table and throws. She loved crawling inside with her beloved Poppy, baby doll and her uncle’s two teddy bears.

 

Grandpa reads Eric Carle’s book, From Head to Toe, to Izzy. The book was one of three gifted to Izzy on her second birthday by a family friend, also a children’s librarian.

 

We read and read and then read more books. We went to storytime at the library, where Izzy took more interest in another little girl’s Minnie Mouse shirt and purse than in the story being read. She loves books. But she loves Minnie Mouse, too.

At River Bend Nature Center, a swimming turtle held Izzy’s attention until a group of children came inside the interpretive center and she wanted to join them. Thankfully, the early childhood family education teacher allowed Izzy to sit with the other kids and eat a snack I pulled from her backpack. Thankfully Izzy was OK with Cheerios. The other kids waved and smiled at her and said, “Hi, Izzy.” So sweet.

Many sweet moments flash from these past several days. I am grateful for this time with my granddaughter. Often during her visit, I caught flashes of the past, of Izzy’s own mama. Perhaps it was the way Izzy looked at me or the curls on the back of her head or the way she laughed. This is such a gift—this connection of generations, this love that binds us as family, this time with my darling granddaughter.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Looking for the “best of” places to dine in small towns & two recommendations April 10, 2018

Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

MY FIRST AND ONLY ATTEMPT ever to eat with chopsticks happened nearly two years ago at Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I tried to position my fingers like my son demonstrated, to clamp the slippery ramen noodles between thin sticks and then maneuver the food to my mouth. I failed.

 

A ramen dish at Sapporo Ramen, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

I was hungry. A spoon would work just fine, thank you.

I’ll admit, I haven’t had all that much exposure to ethnic foods. Choices are limited here in Greater Minnesota, the name tagged to any place outside the Twin Cities metro. Typical restaurant fare around here is standard American. Any ethnic restaurants are primarily Mexican.

 

One of my favorite burgers, the Strawberry Hill Burger, served at Fielder’s Choice in Northfield, Minnesota. The burger features peanut butter, strawberry jam, pepperjack cheese and bacon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I often wish we had more creative choices in dining. But the reality is that folks seem to like the usual burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches, deep-fried fish, the occasional steak—familiar foods to Minnesotans.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Because of cost, I don’t dine out all that often. So when I do, I want something different, something I can’t prepare at home, something tasty and fresh and definitely something made from scratch. When I think about really good food that I’ve eaten at Minnesota restaurants, two places pop to mind—The Amboy Cottage Cafe and The Good Life Cafe.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Homemade blackberry pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Five years ago Randy and I ate at the Cottage Cafe in Amboy south of Mankato. We specifically stopped in this small town to dine in the 1928 cottage style former gas station. I’d read about the great homemade food. There I enjoyed the best salad ever—raspberry chicken—while Randy had spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Both were superb as was our shared slice of blackberry pie. I need to revisit this restaurant.

 

My Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side from The Good Life Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

Some 4.5 hours to the north in the tourist community of Park Rapids I found another hometown restaurant that served up one memorable dish. That would be The Good Life Cafe and the Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish. I loved the creamy, savory flavor of the hotdish (casserole to those of you not from Minnesota), so comforting and delicious on a cool and rainy September day.

How about you? What do you look for when dining out? Tell me about a favorite restaurant and/or meal. I’m especially interested in hearing about restaurants in small (Minnesota) towns.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finding spring in Minnesota at the conservatory April 6, 2018

 

TO ALL MY WINTER WEARY readers in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and any other place where cold and snow are lingering too long into spring, I offer you a visual respite.

 

 

This is for you, as much as for me.

 

 

 

 

A spot exists in Minnesota where flowers now bloom, the air hangs humid and palm trees rise. The proof lies in the photos I took in February 2017 at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul. I should have gone there this winter, just to take in the greenery, to pretend for an hour or so that I wasn’t in Minnesota.

 

 

Since I can’t physically flee to a warm climate of sunshine and seashore, I must mentally and visually escape. I can imagine I’m in Hawaii or Florida or California or some such spot through these photos I took just a little over a year ago inside the Conservatory.

 

 

 

 

Currently, the Spring Flower Show is in bloom inside the Sunken Garden, differing from the flowers in the photos showcased here. Imagine daffodils, tulips, hyacinths…the perfumed scent and bright hues of spring.

 

 

Mostly, imagine that you are in a setting devoid of snow and cold, that winter has vanished and spring arrived.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Snapshots of Le Center April 5, 2018

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Parked along an alley in downtown Le Center, Minnesota.

 

WHEN THE WEATHER WARMS (it will happen soon in Minnesota, right?), I’ll have my camera out more. Documenting. Photographing. Showing you the places I visit, the discoveries made.

 

The original section of the Le Sueur County Courthouse was built in 1897 of brick and Kasota stone at a cost of $55,000. It was designed by Chicago architect Louis M. Curry of Mayo & Curry in the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style. Additions have been made to the building and remodeling done.

 

Those include small towns like Le Center. It’s the county seat of Le Sueur County and about a 45-minute drive northwest of Faribault. It’s one of those communities you’d likely not drive to unless you had business or family there or were passing by en route to somewhere like St. Peter.

 

I love this row of well-kept old buildings in the heart of Le Center.

 

On a recent Saturday afternoon of road tripping, Randy and I stopped in Le Center. We parked downtown, popped into the thrift store minutes before closing, walked 1 ½ blocks along sidewalks and then looped back through an alley to the van.

 

 

I snapped a few photos. These images offer a glimpse of this community.

 

A front window in Mexican Delights, a downtown restaurant.

 

Diverse.

 

 

Patriotic.

 

Spotted inside a Le Center thrift store.

 

Trusting.

 

 

Lovely in aged buildings.

 

Assorted trucks and other vehicles were parked in a vacant lot and along an alley behind Main Street businesses.

 

You can tell a lot about a town in first impressions. I need to revisit Le Center, though, to uncover more of its personality. Small towns are each individual, as individual as the folks who call these communities home.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Time for kindness April 4, 2018

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WE ALL HOLD WITHIN US the ability to express kindness. That needn’t come in a grandiose gesture, a well-thought-out plan. Rather, we can show kindness in random opportunities presented in everyday life.

Take such an opportunity several days ago as I waited with bread and a pound of butter in a grocery check out line. Behind me, a mom and her daughter stood, too, with a carton of strawberries. Ahead of us, a clerk scanned a young woman’s bottle of salad dressing, jar of spaghetti sauce, bag of meatballs and a hefty pack of bottled water. All of the items went into a shopping cart, which the 20-something customer would need to remove before my purchases went therein. If you don’t pay 25 cents to get a cart before entering the store, you don’t leave with a cart.

As I paid for my two items, I observed the young woman wrestling the case of water from the cart while simultaneously clutching the other purchases in the crook of her left arm. I envisioned the jar dropping, spaghetti sauce and glass splattering, shattering across the floor.

“Here, I can help,” I offered, reaching toward the clutch of groceries in her arm. She smiled, released her purchases to me and grabbed the package of water. “I’ll follow you,” I said, trailing her out the store. I limped and struggled to keep pace while dealing with back and leg pain. But I made it to her van at the far end of the parking lot and waited while she opened the door, placed the water inside, then reclaimed her other groceries. “Thank you,” she said, then repeated, her face flashing a wide smile.

“I’m happy to help,” I said and wished her a good day.

I don’t share this story to applaud myself. I share this story because it’s an example of how a stop at the grocery store gave me the opportunity to be kind. I could have chosen to simply watch the young woman struggle with her groceries. But I didn’t. I opted to help, to take the extra time to do what was right. I hope that you, too, find such moments to reach out with acts of kindness. In today’s chaotic and tension-filled world, where disagreements and meanness seem all too prevalent, we need to connect, to help one another. Whenever we can. However we can.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear your stories of simple kindnesses extended or received. Let’s celebrate the goodness in this world.

 

 

 

BONUS KINDNESS STORY: Days after I finished this post and before it published, I noticed my 80-year-old neighbor outside her car parked at the end of her inclined driveway. I was about to grab my shoes and head over to see if something was wrong. But before I could do that, a motorist stopped his car, backed and parked next to her car. Then I watched as a tall and lean young man pulled my neighbor’s recycling bin up her snow-covered, icy driveway to her garage. I doubt she knew him. He was just some guy passing by who saw a person in need and stopped to help. What a fine example of random kindness. This is what I’m talking about, spontaneous giving because we care about each other as human beings.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

This is April in southern Minnesota April 3, 2018

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The snowy scene in my southeastern Minnesota neighborhood Tuesday afternoon.

 

LIVING IN MINNESOTA, I find that winters sometimes get long. Too long. This has been one of them with unseasonably cold temps—try 15 degrees in my part of the state on Easter morning—and now more snow.

 

Snow falls thick and heavy in my Faribault backyard.

 

Heavy, wet snow. Snow globe snow. Beautiful, yet the kind of snow that can slick roadways if it sticks to the surface.

 

Aiming my camera lens upward, I see snow flying against a grey sky bordered by bare branches. Note: I edited this image to make it more visually appealing.

 

The kind of snow, too, that is termed heart attack snow. No explanation needed on that one.

I am wishing for spring. For no more snow. For 50 degrees. Heck, I’ll even take forty.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Of books & puzzles & loving my granddaughter

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Grandpa and granddaughter work together on a puzzle in the morning light.

 

PAJAMA CLAD FEET SLAP against wood as Izzy runs to meet me in the sunshine of a Sunday morning. My smile widens as I scoop my granddaughter into an embrace, my arms and lips kissing her with love. Oh, what joy in the morning.

We are the only two up and I’m enjoying this solo time with Izzy. The evening before, it was three of us—Izzy, Grandpa and me—hanging out while her mom and dad enjoyed dinner and a concert.

Every time I see Isabelle, which is about once a month, she’s changed, grown and learned new words, new skills, new ways to make Grandma smile.

 

 

Books remain her great love. This visit, I read, among many other titles, Pat the Bunny, the same book I read to her mama decades ago. There’s something endearing about familiar words passed from generation to generation. There’s something remarkable, too, about the act of reading to someone you love. The closeness, the teaching moments, the interaction, the bonding over words and pictures imprints love. As I cuddle Izzy in the bend of my arm, her lean body pressed against me, I feel an overwhelming, nearly indescribable, love for this almost two-year-old.

 

 

When I watch my husband put puzzles together with his granddaughter, I experience the same. Likewise when I observe Izzy with her mom and dad, other grandparents and extended family. This little girl is loved by many from West Coast to East Coast and in between.

 

 

On this visit, Izzy demonstrates that she’s learning her letters and numbers. She’s got “o” down and the hoot of owls, a favorite for awhile. But now she loves Poppy, her new best friend from the movie “Trolls.” And she likes Elmo and Daniel the Tiger and Minnie Mouse and… She’s stringing words together, counting to five, learning her colors. She’s holding up two fingers to indicate that she will soon turn two.

I see the independent traits of a two-year-old emerging. I see, too, her endless energy. I swing Isabelle upward and back down just to hear her laugh. (There’s a reason I lift weights.) And I reread the same books just to make her happy. I am thankful I can be part of this growing, this learning, this loving. There’s nothing quite like being a grandma.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling