Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In the midst of aging, the joys of a walk in the park May 24, 2018

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WE’D PLANNED, ALL ALONG, to wheel her outdoors, into the sunshine of a mid-May afternoon in rural southwestern Minnesota. She embraced the idea with a hint of concern. She worried about the wind, always the wind. So I searched the drawers in her room for her stocking cap, even though she didn’t need it on this 80-some degree day. I couldn’t find the cap she wanted to protect her ears.

Soon Mom forgot about the wind in the busyness of preparing for her excursion. Staff rolled a wheelchair into her room, attached a portable oxygen tank, helped her move from easy chair into wheelchair. Mom noted how good it would be to get outside. And it was. Too many months have passed since her last wheel around the care center and into the adjoining city park.

 

The tree I can’t identify. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

As Randy pushed her wheelchair along the sidewalk fronting Parkview, Mom noted the brightness of the afternoon. I started to view the world through her eyes, cloudy with the age of 86 years. She can’t see much at a distance. Thus I became her eyes. I described the pink splash of a blossoming crabapple tree, the rough bark of a tree I couldn’t identify. I doubt Mom saw the American flag stretched straight by the wind when we paused on the sidewalk.

 

A feature in the mini golf course in the city park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

Just writing this, I feel a certain sadness that comes in observing how age steals the person you love, diminishing vision and memory and mobility. Yet, aging counters that loss with a return to the simple delights of life. I tried to remember that as we wound around the care center, past the mini golf course, to the park shelterhouse, past the aged log cabin and the barn swallows swooping.

 

Apple blossoms on an evening in May. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Occasionally we stopped, once so I could stride across the grass to an apple tree. I picked a twig of blossoms, took it back to Mom. She lifted the fragrant petals to her face, told me she couldn’t smell their sweetness. Yet, she clutched the flowers in her left hand, between thumb and forefinger. I checked my emotions in the poignancy of the moment. I wanted Mom to breathe in, once more, the intoxicating scent of spring.

On our way back to the care center, Mom noted dandelions popping yellow through the greening grass. I wish now that I had paused to pick a bouquet for her, to bring back those memories of a little girl gathering dandelions in her fist, of Mom plunging the sticky stems into a jelly jar to set upon the farmhouse kitchen table.

 

The log cabin in the park is a reminder of the passage of time. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

This aging of parents is difficult. Roles reverse. I feel a mix of sadness and anger and then, because I have to, thankfulness that my mother is still here for me to hug and to kiss and to hear the words, “I love you.”

 

TELL ME: Do you have an aging parent? If so, how are you handling this stage of life?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Another Christmas with Mom December 20, 2017

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I pose with my mom for a photo during our extended family Christmas gathering several days ago at her care facility.

 

MORE AND MORE I am cognizant of the passage of time, of aging, of the realization that I am now in the demographic of senior citizen. I need only look at my ever graying hair and my multiplying age spots and feel the aches and pains of arthritis. I am growing old, which is a good thing if you consider the alternative.

But with my own aging comes more frequent grief. More and more I am writing sympathy cards and attending funeral home visitations and comforting friends at the loss of parents.

While my dad died in 2003, my mom is still living. I find myself more and more making sure I photograph her during our visits. She lives 2 ½ hours away. Often I ask my husband to photograph my 85-year-old Mom and me together, too. We almost lost her last winter to pneumonia, one of many critical health challenges Mom has faced during her lifetime.

But she shares the story that God told her he wasn’t ready yet for that stubborn old lady. I believe her. Mom doesn’t lie.

And so I am blessed with another opportunity to celebrate Christmas with Mom. I am thankful.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bea’s Thanksgiving Day blessings November 26, 2017

Kids create festive placements like this one for the Faribault Community Thanksgiving Dinner.

 

Go to the back door and walk in, the slip noted. Despite the instructions, I felt uncomfortable simply walking into a stranger’s home without first knocking. So I knocked, eased open the door and entered the galley kitchen. There Bea (not her real name) shoved her walker toward me, smile bright with greeting on this Thanksgiving morning.

Randy and I carried Styrofoam containers—one holding in the heat of a traditional turkey dinner, the other a slice of pumpkin pie.

Bea’s face flashed joy in seeing us. She directed me to place the containers on the seat of her walker. But I set them on the counter instead, advising her I would carry them to the dining room table. First, though, Bea peeked at the pie, which drew her praise.

“Would you like to see the dinner?” I asked. I lifted the lid to reveal shreds of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, green beans, a dab of cranberries and a dinner roll. Bea’s smile widened wider.

The petite senior pulled silverware from a drawer and I followed her to the table with the dinner and the dessert, depositing both onto her directed spot. And then I bent close, spontaneously wrapping this dear woman in a hug. She held on and cooed and I nearly cried for the joy of the moment, of holding Bea close in a prayer of thanksgiving.

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Note: This is the second year Randy and I have delivered meals for the Faribault Community Thanksgiving dinner. We donated about two hours of our time to wait in line, pick up 10 meals and take them to five homes in Faribault. It continues to be a humbling, joyful and meaningful experience.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Aging, up close & personal July 17, 2017

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MORE AND MORE I am experiencing the difficulties of watching a parent age. My husband likewise along with many of our friends.

Bodies are failing, memories fading, personalities changing as our parents move further into their eighties. I feel at times a profound sadness in all of this. Yet, I understand from an intellectual perspective that this is the natural progression of life. I feel in my own body the changes that occur with advancing age.

I want to turn back time to the days when Mom took care of me, to the days when my father-in-law would walk into a room. Roles are reversed, mobility now diminished. Walker and wheelchair. Dinner in a care center dining hall. BINGO and rare days out.

If I would allow it, melancholy would seep into my thoughts in their presence. But I shove it aside, replace it with a smile and encouragement.

On a recent visit with my father-in-law, I observed my husband pick up a toy truck and fiddle it in his hands. Before him rested his dad’s vacant wheelchair. I snapped a few quick photos with my smartphone because I saw something in that moment. I observed a depth of sadness my quiet husband would never share in words. But it was there, lingering in the silence, in the flood of sunlight through spacious windows, in the sparse room made homey by a recliner and a collection of replica small-scale vintage tractors and trucks.

 

TELL ME: Are you in a similar place of watching parents age and decline in health? What are your thoughts and how are you coping?

Note: My father died in 2003 at the age of 72. Randy’s mother died in 1993 at the age of 59. His dad remarried. My mom did not.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Especially grateful this Mother’s Day May 12, 2017

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Me with my mom in her assisted living room in 2014. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo by Randy Helbling.

 

THERE WAS A THURSDAY about two months ago when fear gripped my heart. Our mother, my middle brother texted, was being rushed via ambulance to the hospital and might not survive.

I exited his message, scrolled to my favorites in my contacts and pressed the green phone icon that would link me to my husband. “You need to come home now,” I ordered as I fought to suppress my emotions. He needed to finish a job and then would be on his way.

As I threw clothing into a suitcase—uncertain whether we would be staying overnight—I worried that we might not reach the hospital in time. We had a two-hour drive to Redwood Falls.

 

I printed this message inside a handmade Mother’s Day card in elementary school.

 

We arrived to find Mom settling into a room after her transfer from the ER. That afternoon I said my goodbyes to a mother in such obvious physical discomfort and distress that she wanted to die. And I was OK with that. I couldn’t bear to watch her struggling to breathe.

 

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

 

Many hours later, I hugged Mom for what I thought would be the last time and left her room in tears. In the hallway, I attempted to compose myself before reconnecting with family in the downstairs waiting room. As we left, the next family members rotated in.

Once I’d expelled that initial grief, I didn’t cry. I managed, an hour later, to stand before an audience in a Mankato art gallery and read my prize-winning poem about detasseling corn. I find more and more in difficult situations that I am able to establish an emotional roadblock. Perhaps that’s inner strength. Or denial. Or self-preservation.

I fully expected that we would be heading back west in a few days with black mourning clothes packed. But once again, as she has multiple times in her nearly 85 years, my mom surprised us all by recovering from a major health crisis. Her condition improved overnight and days later she was released back home to a care center.

I am grateful this Mother’s Day to still have my mother on this earth. I am grateful, too, to be the mother of three and the grandmother of one.

 

My mom saved everything, including this Mother’s Day card I made for her in elementary school. I cut a flower from a seed catalog to create the front of this card.

 

If your mother is still living, express your love to her via a visit, a phone call and/or a card. If your mother has passed, I hope, rather than grieve, you will remember her with love.

And someone, please remind my son that Sunday is Mother’s Day.

 

TELL ME: How do you honor the women in your life who are mothers on Mother’s Day?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The joys of grandparenting continued May 4, 2017

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Isabelle, my granddaughter.

 

WHEN I BECAME A GRANDMA just over a year ago, my definition of love broadened.

I discovered a new love so profound, so deep, so undeniably wonderful that it nearly defies explanation. Those of you who are grandparents understand.

 

At bedtime, Izzy did not want me to stop reading books. Her mom (pictured here) warned me she would do this. This baby girl loves books. When she awakened, Izzy pointed toward her closet and her stash of books.

 

I am re-experiencing the simple joys of life through my granddaughter. A squirrel scampering across the yard never looked so intriguing. A children’s picture book never appeared more interesting. A first step never seemed more applause worthy. A small body curved against mine never felt more comforting.

It’s not like any of this is new to me. I birthed and raised two daughters and a son and cared for many children in between. Endless memorable and loving moments imprinted upon my heart. But there’s a difference. I was a mother, not yet a grandmother.

 

Isabelle claims her grandpa’s heart and hand.

 

Grandparenting stretches love in a wider way, across and connecting generations. I find incredible joy in watching my eldest daughter with her baby girl. I find incredible joy in seeing how deeply my granddaughter loves her mama (and daddy). I delight in observing my husband as a grandfather, his grease stained fingers clutched by those of his one-year-old granddaughter.

 

On the last two visits to our home, Izzy has been drawn to the stairway. For her safety, we blocked access with a gate. But then Randy decided it was time to teach Izzy how to navigate the stairs. Once the gate was removed, she lost interest and abandoned the stairway.

 

I’m at the age when I am cognizant of time, wondering how the years of raising children—feeling sometimes overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood—slipped by, zip, just like that. Now I have an opportunity to reclaim that period of my life. If my granddaughter wants to page through the same book repeatedly, I will oblige her. If she stretches out her arm, pointing toward whatever she wants with fingers clenching and unclenching, I will “listen.” I will parcel Cheerios onto her high chair tray. I will carry her to the window to watch the neighbor’s dog. I will do what grandparents do best—I will love her with a love that is deep and tender, consuming and wonderful.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Two birthdays February 9, 2017

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Amber and Caleb. Minnesota Prairie Roots cell phone photo December 2016.

Amber and Caleb. Minnesota Prairie Roots cell phone photo December 2016.

TODAY AND TOMORROW, two of my three children turn another year older.

Now that they are adults (the daughter an hour away, the son in Boston), birthday celebrations have changed. I will celebrate belatedly with Amber by babysitting my 10-month-old granddaughter while she and her husband dine out. We’ll have a chocolate tofu pie upon their return, my contribution to the mini party.

As for Caleb, I hope to connect with him via Skype or a phone call. He’s young and single, less inclined to understand the need his mother has to talk to him on his birthday. At his early twenties age, friends take priority. No surprise there. I was once young.

Amber in 1986, sometime during her first year of life. The photo is not dated. A friend told me she looked just like the baby on the Gerber baby food jars.

Amber at six months.

Not that I was a young mother. I wasn’t, having given birth to my first daughter at age 29 ½ and to my son eight years later with another daughter in between.

Motherhood shifts behavior and thoughts to a primeval need to nurture, protect and love our children. And as the years pass, that never changes.

For his eighth birthday, Caleb's sisters created a PEEF cake for their brother.

For his eighth birthday, Caleb’s sisters created a PEEF cake for their brother.

My children’s birthdays bring now a certain melancholy in that I miss them and birthday dinners out followed by the ritual of singing “Happy Birthday!” and then eating the homemade dessert of their choice, not always cake.

But this is the logical progression of parenthood—this move of our children toward independence, beginning at birth.

Today and tomorrow, I will honor my youngest and my oldest by thinking of them, their lives and the blessings they have given me as their mother. I love them deeper than the ocean, higher than the skies. I will always love them and encourage them. They are of me and that connection binds us always on their birthdays.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Aging in Minnesota May 26, 2016

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This billboard along the northbound lane of Interstate 35 just north of Faribault prompted this post about aging. FaceAgingMN is "a statewide campaign to raise awareness about the issues of aging that accompany the reality of a rapidly aging society." The group's goal is "to create a conversation about aging.

This billboard along the northbound lanes of Interstate 35 just north of Faribault prompted my post about aging. FaceAgingMN is “a statewide campaign to raise awareness about the issues of aging that accompany the reality of a rapidly aging society.” The group’s goal is “to create a conversation about aging.”

One day, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to be old.

That single statement from the FaceAgingMN website emphasizes the positive side of aging. If we weren’t getting older every day, well, we wouldn’t be here. I remember how, when I turned 40 years old, I lamented that I was so old. My friend Jenny reminded me of the alternative. That put everything in perspective. Now, 20 years later, I wish I was only forty.

I often wonder these days, with more of my life behind me than ahead—although none of us knows the length of our days—how time passed this quickly. How can it be that I am an empty nester, now a new grandma? Where did the years go?

When I look at myself in the mirror, I see the crow’s feet lines around my eyes, the sagging chin line, the creases etched deep into my skin. I see the graying hair, the added pounds, feel the aches in my back and hip.

And, most recently, when my husband and I met with our financial advisor, we thought about retirement. How much money will we need to survive? Will we have enough? What do we envision for our retirement? How did we get this old? By living, obviously.

We are at the top end of the sandwich generation with a son about to graduate from college and parents in their eighties. Financial concerns thread through all three generations.

A dear aunt sent me a letter the other day. The golden years, she wrote, are not so golden. She then listed her husband’s health woes. I wish I could make things better for her and my uncle. I wish, too, that I could bring back my friend’s husband who died of a heart attack five weeks ago at age 59. I wish my mom would be the same mom I remember before she face planted in the floor of her assisted living apartment breaking her neck and suffering a concussion some two-plus years ago.

But I can’t change these things. I can’t change aging. But I can choose to handle aging with some sense of grace and gratitude that I get to be old.

Tell me, how are you handling aging?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections on graduation & time passages June 11, 2015

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ON THE AFTERNOON MY HUSBAND and I dined at Teluwut in Lake Mills, Iowa, family and friends were filtering into Jayde Thompson’s graduation reception across the street at the Senior Citizen Center.

 

Lake Mills Iowa grad reception signs

 

The juxtaposition of that reception venue was not lost on me. Young and old. Beginnings and endings.

Not that senior citizen is an end. But it’s nearer ending than beginning. And although those of us who qualify for senior citizen status may sometimes feel young at heart, we no longer fit the physical definition of young.

All too many days now I wonder how the years vanished. I was once a Jayde Thompson, albeit not a cheerleader, embarking on life, eyes focused on the future. Today it’s not as much about the future as about yesterday. Or perhaps it’s that I think more now about my children’s futures.

May and June mark periods of transition for many families. Passage of time. Ceremony and applause and tears. Moving forward and standing still. Time gone. Youth beginning that all too quick movement of days, weeks, months and years that propel into the future, to wondering where yesterday went.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

October reflections from the St. Croix River valley October 15, 2014

Driving toward Taylors Falls, Minnesota, from the east.

Driving toward Taylors Falls, Minnesota, from the east provides an especially scenic view of this river community.

TWENTY-ONE YEARS AGO in October, my husband and I planned an overnight stay at a bed-and-breakfast in Taylors Falls. We anticipated gorgeous fall colors and rare time alone without the responsibilities of parenting three children.

But then my mother-in-law died unexpectedly a week before the booked get-away and we never rescheduled the trip.

Heading toward St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, and Taylors Falls, Minnesota, along U.S. Highway 8.

Heading toward St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, and Taylors Falls, Minnesota, along U.S. Highway 8.

This past week, we finally made it to the twin St. Croix River valley communities of Taylors Falls on the Minnesota side and St. Croix Falls in Wisconsin, staying at a chain hotel rather than a B & B. We found the glorious autumn colors we had hoped for and the freedom that comes with being empty nesters.

Shops in downtown St. Croix Falls.

Shops in downtown St. Croix Falls.

Hop in the van and go. Stop when and where we want. Drive along a winding river road. Hike without worry of kids trailing off the trail or plummeting over the edge of a rocky ledge. Eat late. Sleep in.

My husband on a dock at St. Croix Falls Lions Park along the St. Croix River.

My husband on a dock at St. Croix Falls Lions Park along the St. Croix River.

There’s something to be said for this season of life, this nearing age sixty that causes me to pause, to delight in the view, to reflect and appreciate and yearn for the past while simultaneously appreciating the days I live and those which lie before me.

"River Spirit," a bronze sculpture by local Julie Ann Stage, embodies the poetry and natural beauty of the St. Croix River Valley. The artwork was installed in 2007 and stands at a scenic overlook in downtown St. Croix Falls.

“River Spirit,” a bronze sculpture by local Julie Ann Stage, embodies the poetry and natural beauty of the St. Croix River Valley. The artwork was installed in 2007 and stands at a scenic overlook in downtown St. Croix Falls.

Perhaps I think too deeply, too poetically sometimes.

Reflections, like watercolor on water.

Reflections, like watercolor on water. A scene photographed at St. Croix Falls Lions Park.

But like the trees buffeting the banks of the St. Croix, I see my days reflected in the river of life.

Beauty along the St. Croix River.

Beauty along the St. Croix River as seen from Lions Park.

Blazing colors mingling with green.

Leaves upon rock, reflect the unchangeable and the changeable.

Leaves upon rock, reflect the unchangeable and the changeable.

Changed and unchanging.

Days of simply enjoying life.

Days of simply enjoying life.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow.

Life is like a river, sometimes calm, sometimes raging.

Life is like a river, sometimes calm, sometimes raging. A view of the St. Croix River shoreline from Lions Park.

Life.

FYI: Click here for more information about the Taylors Falls and St. Croix Falls area.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling