Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Father’s Day love in memories & greeting cards June 15, 2018

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A greeting card from my sister and me to our dad, circa early 1960s.

 

AFTER MY DAD DIED 15 years ago, Father’s Day lost significant meaning to me personally. I had no dad to give a card to or to call.

 

The message inside the duck card, signed by our mom for her daughters.

 

I love giving and receiving greeting cards. But I’ve observed that fewer people send cards these days, choosing instead to text, email, call or simply ignore important personal days of loved ones. I noticed that with my birthday last fall. Birthday cards, especially from family, once stuffed my mailbox. No more.

 

The verse inside this card reads: “For being all that a Father could be/ Loving, gentle and good;/ For your patience and generosity/ In caring for your brood;/ For the happy glow of family love/ That other folks can see–/ Darling, for all of these and more/…A million thanks from me!” My mom signed the card, “Love, Arlene.”

 

Greeting cards, past and present, still hold a place of importance for me. I especially treasure the cards my mom saved through the decades. I have some of those, among them a handful of Father’s Day cards given to my dad.

 

Three of the four of us were old enough to sign this Father’s Day card to our dad. Two more siblings would be born after this.

 

I selected a few to share here because they hold a certain sweetness in messages, graphics and signatures. They are all vintage early 1960s.

 

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern Kletscher, taken in 1980.

 

While I don’t have my dad anymore, I still have those greeting cards. And I hold memories of my farmer father who loved me and my five siblings deeply and taught us the value of faith, family and hard work. He wasn’t perfect—no one is. But he was a good man, an honest man, a man of the earth. And if I could, I’d send him a card today telling him how much I appreciated him and loved him.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Published in Oakwood: My latest rural-rooted poem honors my farm wife mom April 28, 2017

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta, my hometown. The house is no longer standing. This image represents my rural heritage and looks similar to the house I called home for the first 11 years of my life. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MORE THAN 40 YEARS removed from the farm, my creative voice remains decidedly rural, especially in the poetry I write.

My latest published poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” honors the woman who raised me, alongside my father, on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm. My parents were of good German stock, a hardworking couple who believed in God, in family and in the land. I carry that heritage with me, ever grateful for my rural upbringing.

 

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern, taken in 1980.

 

Life in rural Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s was hard. I see that now from the perspective of an adult. My dad worked long hard hours in the barn milking cows and equally long hard hours in the fields. Farming was much more labor intensive then.

 

The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my brother, Doug.

 

Likewise, my mom’s job of caring for our family of eight required long hard hours of labor. She tended a large garden, preserved fruits and vegetables to stock the freezer and cellar shelves, baked bread from scratch, washed clothes with a wringer washer, did without a bathroom or telephone or television for many years, and much more.

 

My parents, Vern and Arlene, on their September 25, 1954, wedding day.

 

Sometimes I think how much easier my mother’s life would have been had she not married my dad and stayed at her town job in Marshall.

 

Our family Christmas tree always sat on the end of the kitchen table, as shown in this Christmas 1964 photo. That’s me in the red jumper with four of my five siblings. I write about this red-and-white checked floor in my poem.

 

But then I remind myself of how much family means to my mom and I could not imagine her life without any of her six children. She centered us, grounded us, taught us kindness and gratitude, instilled in us a loving and compassionate spirit.

 

Arlene’s 1951 graduation portrait.

 

She has always been mom to me, a mother now nearing age 85. But there was a time when she was Arlene, not somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother. There was a time when she and my dad danced away a Saturday night in a southwestern Minnesota dance hall. They met at a dance.

 

The promo for Oakwood 2017 features “Dancing with Fire,” the art of Samuel T. Krueger. Promo image courtesy of Oakwood.

 

Those thoughts inspired me to write “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” published last week in South Dakota State University’s literary journal, Oakwood. I am honored to have my poem selected for inclusion with the work of other writers and artists from the Northern Great Plains. It’s a quality publication that represents well those of us who call this middle-of-the country, often overlooked place, home.

 

Ode to My Farm Wife Mother

Before my brother,
you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—
a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,
Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,
Perry Como crooning love in your ear.

Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.
Interludes passed between births
until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world
in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.
Not at all unlucky.

Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,
sing-song nursery rhymes,
sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.
Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread
and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,
but to the beat of farm life—
laundry tangled on the clothesline,
charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,
finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,
hard work in a sun-baked garden,
sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,
endurance in endless summer days of canning,
goodness in the kindness of silence.

All of this I remember now
as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.
in the final set of your life, in a place far removed
from Blue Moon Ballroom memories
and the young woman you once were.

                                         #

Four generations: Great Grandma Arlene, Grandma Audrey, mother Amber and baby Isabelle, all together for the first time in July 2016 in rural southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

I took some liberties with my poem. I doubt my mom ever drank whiskey. But back in the day, folks brought booze bottles in brown paper bags to dances for set-ups. She didn’t dance in the Blue Moon Ballroom, although one once stood in Marshall. Arlene went to dances in Ghent, in a dance hall whose name eludes me. Blue Moon sounds more poetic. But the rest of the poem is factual right down to the Naugahyde rocker and my mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.

FYI: You can view my poem on page 78 of Oakwood, found online by clicking here. My bio is published on page 89, listed among the other 40 contributors’ bios. I am grateful to SDSU in Brookings for the opportunity to be part of this magazine which showcases the creative voices of Plains writers and artists. I shall always feel proud of my rural upbringing, the single greatest influence on me as a poet, a writer, a photographer.

Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How my holiday decor celebrates family & the past December 29, 2014

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My Charlie Brown tree, an untrimmed Christmas tree purchased for $12 at a tree lot in Faribault.

I absolutely love my Charlie Brown tree, an untrimmed Christmas tree purchased for $15 at a tree lot in Faribault. It reminds me of the Christmas trees of my youth, which makes it perfect. Branches are sparse and adornment minimal.

I CONSIDER MYSELF A MINIMALIST. I don’t like clutter, an overabundance of stuff filling my house. Too much of anything makes me uneasy, unsettled.

So when I set about decorating my house for the Christmas holiday, I am selective. More remains in boxes than is pulled out for display.

I did not grow up with Christmas stockings. But my husband did. Randy's aunt made this stocking for him in the 1960s. It's missing a few decorations. But that adds to its character.

I did not grow up with Christmas stockings. But my husband did. Randy’s aunt made this stocking for him in the 1960s. It’s missing a few decorations. But that adds to its character.

The items I choose to set the holiday mood must meet my criteria of holding personal/family significance. The older, the better. Handmade ranks high. So does simplicity of lines.

Found in my mom's basement, this lovely pincecone Christmas tree crafted by my godmother, Aunt Rachel. This will now go up in my home each Christmas.

Found in my mom’s basement, this lovely pinecone Christmas tree was crafted by my godmother, Aunt Rachel, in the 1960s. This will now go up in my home each Christmas.

This year, after cleaning my mom’s house and acquiring some old “new” items, my appreciation of the past has deepened. And that is reflected in the items currently displayed.

Here’s a quick peek at my holiday décor and why these items are showcased in my home:

This paper Baby Jesus and an angel go on my Christmas tree each other. They are from the 1960s, from my Sunday School Christmas lesson.

This paper Baby Jesus and an angel go on my Christmas tree each other. They are from the 1960s, from my Sunday School Christmas lesson.

Behind the Christmas tree hangs this paint-by-number winter scene painted by my Great Grandma Anna.  This was the perfect addition to my paint-by-number collection.

Behind the Christmas tree hangs this paint-by-number winter scene painted by my Great Grandma Anna. This was the perfect addition to my paint-by-number collection and was acquired when my siblings and I were dividing my mom’s belongings. My sister got the painting matching this one.

This manager scene dates back to the late 1960s or early 1970s and was handcrafted by my maternal grandfather.

This manager scene dates back to the late 1960s or early 1970s and was handcrafted by my maternal grandfather. The figurines are made from Plaster of Paris.

While going through a box of cards my mom had saved, I found several Christmas cards that I made as a child. This year I displayed those cards, along with a vintage card from Schwans

While going through a box of cards my mom had saved, I found several Christmas cards that I made as a child. This year I displayed those cards, along with a 1971 vintage card from Schwan’s Ice Cream (right) on an old dresser in my living room. The chest of drawers was used by my dad as a child.

Around the corner on a vintage dresser from my husband's family, I display candles and an angel on a vintage mirrored tray set atop a vintage holiday linen.

Around the corner on a vintage dresser from my husband’s family, I display candles and an angel on a vintage mirrored tray set atop a vintage holiday linen.

Come December, I swap out my regular vintage drinking glasses for the Twelve Days of Christmas glasses. These were gifted to me by the furniture store right across the street from the newspaper office where I worked in 1978 in Gaylord. Since then, I've acquired the same set of holiday glasses for each of my four children at garage sales and an antique shop.

Come December, I swap out my regular vintage drinking glasses for the Twelve Days of Christmas glasses. These were gifted to me in 1978 by the furniture store  across the street from the newspaper office where I worked as a reporter and photographer in Gaylord. Since then, I’ve acquired the same set of holiday glasses for each of my three children at garage sales and an antique shop.

Three net angels dangle from the hallway light fixture. They are just like the angels my mom dangled from the living room doorway when I was growing up.

Three net angels dangle from the hallway light fixture. They are just like the angels my mom dangled from the living room doorway when I was growing up.

My oldest brother and I purchased this set of miniature plastic angels for our mom as a Christmas gift in the 1960s. Several years ago, my mom gave them back to me and I display them each Christmas. They are among my most treasured of holiday decorations.

My oldest brother and I purchased this set of miniature plastic angels from a small town hardware store for our mom as a Christmas gift in the 1960s. Several years ago my mom gave them back to me and I display them each Christmas. This angel band is among my most treasured of holiday decorations.

My father-in-law painted this holiday scene, which is why I treasure it. Plus, I really like the painting.

My father-in-law painted this holiday scene, which is why I treasure it. Plus, I really like the painting that hangs behind my couch.

Back in the day, when my dad's siblings and their families still gathered for the holidays, I received two candle Santas and a snowman from my Aunt Ardyce during a gift exchange. A match has never touched the  wicks and never will. I cherish these as much for their vintageness as the memories of so many Christmases past with aunts, uncles, cousins, Grandma and my own siblings and parents.

Back in the day, when my dad’s siblings and their families still gathered for the holidays, I received two candle Santas and a snowman from my Aunt Ardyce during a gift exchange. A match has never touched the wicks and never will. I cherish these as much for their vintageness as the memories of so many Christmases past with aunts, uncles, cousins, Grandma and my own siblings and parents.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Toy stories at the Minnesota History Center December 11, 2014

TOY: Object for a child to play with.

 

Toys, sign and Twister

 

If you’re a Baby Boomer, that object may have been Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs, anything space or Western related, a baby doll or Barbie or perhaps a troll. How about a Tonka truck? Twister or Cootie or Candy Land, anyone?

 

Toys, promo on wall

 

The Minnesota History Center’s “TOYS of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s” is a skip down memory lane for my generation. A recent tour of the exhibit, which runs through January 4, 2015, skipped joy into my heart as I spotted toys I hadn’t thought about in years. Sometimes it’s fun simply to forget about today and remember the carefree days of youth. The days of hopscotch and jacks and stick horses and…

Outdoor toys and a play area are part of the exhibit.

Outdoor toys and a play area are part of the exhibit.

I didn’t see a jump rope, though, but perhaps missed it.

Oh, the hours sitting cross-legged with Tinker Toys scattered across the floor, attempting to construct a Ferris Wheel.

 

Toys, Cootie

 

Oh, the anticipation of rolling a six on the die to insert the last of six legs into a Cootie’s body.

Oh, the tears that raged when I discovered my oldest brother had punched in the boobs of my new bridal doll.

Oh, the gratitude to my friend Robin for gifting me with a mini pink-haired troll at my ninth birthday party. It was the only troll or childhood birthday party I would ever have.

Toys, Spirograph

Some artsy favorites like Spirograph, Lite Brite and making bugs from goop.

 

Oh, the delight in creating kaleidoscopic designs with Spirograph’s pens and plastic shapes.

A museum visitor checks out the 1960s exhibit.

A museum visitor checks out the 1960s exhibit.

Memories rolled in waves as I perused the showcased toys. Some I had as a child; many I did not.

In the '50s section of the exhibit, a Christmas tree with coveted toys of the decade.

In the ’50s section of the exhibit, a Christmas tree with coveted toys of the decade.

I remember each December paging through the Sears Christmas catalog (AKA “Wish Book”) that arrived in our rural southwestern Minnesota mailbox, wishing for so much, knowing in my deepest desires that I would never get the Pogo stick I coveted nor the doll that cried with the pull of a string or a new bicycle (mine came from the junkyard).

Space toys were big in the 1960s and my oldest brother had a rocket.

Space toys were big in the 1960s and my oldest brother had a rocket.

I would receive what my parents could afford and I expect they sacrificed much even for that.

Toys strewn across the floor in a play area of the 1970s part of the exhibit.

Toys strewn across the floor in a play area of the 1970s part of the exhibit.

Looking back, that inability to give me and my siblings a pile of toys was a gift in itself. Sure, I wanted the hottest new toy. That’s normal thinking for a kid who doesn’t understand family finances or a parent’s thoughts on curbing greed.

I remember life without TV and our first television, in black and white. And Mr. Potato Head, a popular toy back in the day.

I remember life without TV and our first television, black and white. And Mr. Potato Head, a popular toy back in the day.

Because of my upbringing, I have never focused on material things.

Anything Western related was especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Here you see the Western influence in furniture.

Anything Western related was especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Here you see the Western influence in furniture. My siblings and I spent countless hours riding our stick horses through the grove and, in the winter, around the house.

Yes, toys are fun to get and give, especially those that encourage creativity and imaginative play and don’t require batteries.

I cherish the blessings of family and home more than anything. I spotted this needlework in the 1970s portion of the exhibit.

I cherish the blessings of family and home more than anything. I spotted this needlework in the 1970s portion of the exhibit.

But it is family that I cherish most. And when I toured the History Center’s toy and other exhibits, I did so with my husband, eldest daughter and son-in-law. Nothing skips joy into my heart like being with those I love.

As we left the museum, we voted for our favorite Minnesota made toy. My daughter and I voted for Cootie. Our husbands chose Tonka.

As we left the museum, we voted for our favorite Minnesota made toy. My daughter and I voted for Cootie. Our husbands chose the Tonka truck.

FYI: For information on “TOYS of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” click here. Just a little heads up: This exhibit was packed on a Saturday afternoon. I’d advise visiting this St. Paul museum on a weekday, especially if you want an opportunity to participate in the interactive parts of exhibits.

BONUS PHOTOS:

My son-in-law noted, as we toured the 1970s part of the exhibit, that toys began to reflect social issues such as being environmentally conscious.

My son-in-law noted, as we toured the 1970s part of the exhibit, that toys began to reflect social issues such as being environmentally conscious.

A 1960s living room.

A 1960s living room.

Never saw this cartoon and I'm glad I did. Audrey carrying a gun? Really.

I didn’t grow up on the Little Audrey cartoon and I’m glad I didn’t. Really, a little girl carrying a gun?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The truths in “The Help” December 1, 2011

The large print version of The Help.

THREE MONTHS AGO I reviewed “The Help,” a movie based on the New York Times bestseller by Kathryn Stockett. (Read that review by clicking here.)

I wrote then:

In a nutshell, “The Help” tells the story of black women working as maids in upper class Southern white households during the 1960s.

It is that and more. So much more.

Yesterday I stole away 10 minutes to finish the final chapter of The Help. My opinion of the book rates as high as my opinion of the movie. Everyone ought to read this novel and see this movie.

Why?

Although a work of fiction, this book speaks the truth.

Let me show you. While reading The Help, I jotted three page numbers onto a scrap of paper, noting passages that especially struck me.

In chapter 17, from the perspective of Minny, a “colored” maid, are these thoughts:

But truth is, I don’t’ care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing the silver.

Consider those words. Do attitudes of “stealing the silver” still linger today?

Near the end of the book, in chapter 34, I came across this line:

Please, Minny, I think. Please, take this chance to get out.

Aibileen wishes this as she speaks on the phone with her friend Minny, who has hunkered down in a gas station after fleeing her abusive husband. Minny finally finds the courage to leave Leroy.

Personal courage, in my summation, is a reoccurring theme in The Help—courage to speak up, courage to be true to yourself, courage to escape abuse.

I would like to see copies of The Help placed in every women’s shelter, given to every victim of domestic abuse, handed to every woman trying to muster the courage to flee an abusive relationship. Stockett’s writing on the topic is that powerful, that motivating, that moving.

Profound, strong words of encouragement for anyone who's been abused, known someone who's been or is being abused, or is currently in an abusive relationship.

Finally, a few pages later I found this passage, a favorite line from the movie and repeated in the book by Mae Mobley, the little girl in maid Aibileen’s care:

“You is kind,” she say, “you is smart. You is important.”

Aibileen ingrained that phrase in Mae Mobley, a child mostly ignored by her mother.

How often do we tell our children, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” and really, truly, mean it?

IF YOU’VE READ The Help, what nuggets did you glean from this book? What themes or passages made a lasting impression on you?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Five stars for “The Help” August 31, 2011

ABOUT ONCE EVERY two years, I see a movie in a theater. Maybe three times a year, I’ll rent a movie from a video store. Occasionally I’ll watch one on television.

I tell you this because I’m no movie expert, critic or star-struck Hollywood fan. A movie needs to hold promise as an excellent film before I’ll spend a dime, or my time, watching it.

“Sweet Land,” based on the book by Bemidji writer Will Weaver, and the classic 1970s “Love Story” are among my all-time favorite movies.

Now you can add “The Help,” based on the #1 New York Times bestseller by Kathryn Stockett, to that list.

I have yet to read the book. In fact, I hadn’t heard of Stockett’s novel until several days ago. Yes, I sometimes live with my head buried in the sand.

The movie version of the book might help more than a few viewers pull their heads from the sand. In a nutshell, “The Help” tells the story of black women working as maids in upper class Southern white households during the 1960s.

As a native Minnesotan who has never even traveled into the deep South, my impressions of Southern history are based mostly on books, stories, photos and films. Whether “The Help” gets it right, I’m uncertain. But, sadly, I expect what I viewed on the big screen depicts historical reality.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for you, so I’ll simplify the storyline: “The Help” focuses on one young woman’s efforts to reveal the stories of the maids who serve those rich, white Southern women in Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter, an aspiring writer, does that by interviewing the black women—first, Aibileen, and next, Minny—and then writing a book.

The writer angle, certainly, is a familiar one to me given I’ve been a writer for decades. But the whole “hiring of help in the household” is mostly foreign, except for the time during my high school years when I cleaned house every Saturday for a family in my hometown of Vesta. I was well-treated, well-paid for then, and simply happy to have a job—even if I had to scrub the toilet, wax the linoleum and wipe the bottoms of the legs on the kitchen chairs, all while the teenaged son slept upstairs.

My experience as a maid/cleaning girl can’t compare, not by any stretch, to that of the black women portrayed in “The Help.” They are treated more like slaves, as second-class citizens, as human beings without rights.

Especially troubling for me are the scenes involving bathroom usage—blacks prohibited from using the same bathrooms as whites.

I cried when one of the main characters, the maid Aibileen, spoke of her son’s death and how the white women continued playing bridge like nothing had happened.

Aibileen also repeats, through the course of the movie, this line which stands out for me among all the others: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

After the movie, which is a lengthy 2 ¼ hours, my husband and I and others in the theater sat through the credits. Typically we would leave as soon as the movie ended. But “The Help” calls for sitting in quiet contemplation in a darkened theater, pondering the story and hoping, hoping, that life for blacks in the South today does not at all resemble life there in the 1960s.

HAVE YOU SEEN “The Help” or read the book? If you have, please share your thoughts. I’d like to hear your opinion, positive or negative, on the movie and/or book.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling