Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From flowers to cayenne peppers, a birthday celebration October 1, 2021

A beautiful birthday bouquet from my eldest daughter and her family. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I RECENTLY CELEBRATED a milestone birthday and I’ve never been happier to turn another year older. Gone is my absurdly high monthly health insurance premium of $1,245 (with a $4,250 deductible), replaced by affordable (and usable) Medicare coverage. And now I’m also eligible for the Pfizer booster vaccine. Yeah. Here’s to turning sixty-five.

Walking through the prairie at River Bend toward the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I didn’t celebrate my birthday with great fanfare or the usual birthday treat of dining out. (Even though vaccinated, I continue to be cautious and careful in these days of COVID-19.) Rather, Randy and I hiked across the prairie and woods at River Bend Nature Center, a treasured place to connect with nature in Faribault.

Omelet and hashbrowns, along with watermelon from the Faribault Farmers’ Market, comprised my birthday brunch. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Afterwards, I enjoyed a delicious brunch prepared by Randy. We dined al fresco on our patio at a card table draped in one of my many vintage tablecloths.

Then, in the afternoon, we spent time with our eldest daughter, her husband and our precious grandchildren at their home. I appreciated the grilled burger and vegetables with my favorite, cheesecake, for dessert. A wonderful way to celebrate.

The only thing that would have made my birthday even better would have been the presence of our second daughter, her husband and our son. But they called from southeastern Wisconsin and northwestern Indiana and that brought me joy.

Thank you to those who sent cards, this one from my second daughter and her husband. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Some friends and extended family also texted wishes. I got greeting cards, too.

Gladioli from The 3 Glad Girls. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

And flowers. Randy purchased a clutch of gladioli at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. And when he presented them to me with a “Happy birthday!” while I was chatting with Andy Webster of MEG’S Edible Landscapes, Andy took note. “It’s your birthday?” he asked.

“Well, not today, but tomorrow,” I told him.

Smoked cayenne peppers gifted to me by Andy of MEG’S Edible Landscapes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Then he scooped a baggie of smoked cayenne peppers from the table. “Happy birthday!” Andy said with a smile. Now if that wasn’t the sweetest gesture from a young man who lives on his dream rural acreage in the Sogn Valley, runs his business and is working on a horticulture degree from Oregon University.

Andy’s genuine passion for MEG’S Edible Landscapes showed in his pitch and his personality. He is a genuinely warm and engaging person. To summarize, Andy sells a mobile system for growing vegetables like peppers, basil, beans, lettuce, carrots and more in bags that you can easily pick up and move. It’s ideal, he said, for someone like me without garden space. If enthusiasm and knowledge make for business success, then Andy is certain to succeed.

His unexpected birthday gift of those smoked cayenne peppers touched me in a way that resonated deeply. In these challenging times, I needed that affirmation of an unexpected act of kindness. What a great way to begin my next year of life.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Visiting Mom as the pandemic wanes July 12, 2021

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My mom. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

EVERY VISIT WITH MY MOM in her care center proves emotional for me. I always leave in tears. I cry at the gratitude I feel for seeing her one more time. I cry at the thought that this may be the last time I see her this side of heaven. I cry at her declining health. I cry at the time lost with her during the COVID-19 pandemic when care centers shuttered, and rightly so.

This last visit on July 3 was different, though. Not because I didn’t cry upon departure. I did. But rather, I was able to remove my face mask once inside Mom’s room (since I’m fully-vaccinated) and then hug and kiss her for the first time in 16 months. To do that brought me joy almost beyond words. There’s such healing power in touching someone you love. I can only imagine how Mom felt.

The moment Mom saw me as staff wheeled her into her room, her face lit up. I could see the light in her eyes, the smile hidden by her face mask. For her to recognize me as her eldest daughter started our 9 AM visit in a joyful way.

With our masks removed, I moved a folding chair close, then reached under Mom’s fleece throw to grasp her right hand. Mom pulled back, my hand too cold. Then I leaned in, kissed her forehead, wrapped my arms around her, careful not to displace the oxygen tubes which enable her to breathe.

Those first minutes together felt overwhelmingly emotional in the way that only a mother and daughter can respond to one another. This is the woman who loved and nurtured me, who raised me in the faith, who taught me that kindness and compassion and serving others are more important than prestige and wealth. What a blessing to be raised by her. I shall be forever grateful.

As I settled in for our visit, I pulled a stash of vintage photos from a cloth bag. I’d emailed the care center social worker in advance, asking what I could bring that would make Mom happy. Jessie suggested old photos. She was spot on. Mom reacted in such a positive way to photos of herself at age four, of her parents in 1956, of Dad (“That’s my husband,” Mom said), of my oldest brother and me as preschoolers… Mom identified family in the photos and smiled and talked. Our visits aren’t ususally this engaging. Typically I’m the one talking with minimal response from Mom. Clearly her memories of long ago are much stronger than recent and short-term memories. I promised to bring more old family photos next visit.

All too soon, our time together ended and I was hugging Mom goodbye, tears edging my eyes well before I exited her room. I expect by afternoon, she’d forgotten that Randy and I stopped by. But that’s OK. This isn’t about me. Rather, this is about my 89-year-old mother, who is in hospice. This is about her and her needs, about bringing her joy and love on a Saturday morning through hugs and kisses and a clutch of old family photos.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections on my mom’s birthday May 24, 2021

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My sweet mom, featured on the Parkview Facebook page in May 2020.

THIS POST CELEBRATES my mom, who turns 80-something today. She likely will never read this. She can’t see well enough to read nor would she likely fully comprehend. But, none-the-less, I feel compelled to honor her with my words.

She’s proven such an inspiration to me. In my writing. In the way I live my life. In who I am. Her name, Arlene, is even part of my identity as her first-born daughter.

I recognize that, as time passes, our memories often skew and we see loved ones through rose-colored glasses. But my view of my mom remains consistent, unchanged. She is the definition of kindness. Of the mindset, “if you don’t have anything good to say about someone, then don’t say it.” Those weren’t just empty words. She followed them and advised us, her six children, to do the same.

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

Mom, as busy as she was with raising three sons and three daughters on the farm, always found time to serve. In church. In the American Legion Auxiliary. At Red Cross blood drives. Wherever she was needed. Her selflessness is admirable.

I sometimes wonder what dreams she gave up. She attended business college in Mankato and worked for awhile before marrying and then settling into her role as farm wife and mother. I know the six of us occasionally tested her patience. I know she worked hard—washing clothes in a Maytag wringer washer, tending a large garden, preserving food, endless cooking and baking…

The old farmhouse to the left, with the “new house” in the background. That’s my sister Lanae standing on the front steps.

And I also know of one particular dream which became reality for my mom in 1967. For years I watched as she paged through house-building plans printed in booklets procured from the local lumberyard. She dreamed of more space for her growing family. Space expanding beyond the 1 ½-story wood-frame farmhouse with three small bedrooms, an oil-burning stove in the middle of the living room, a dirt cellar and no bathroom. Eventually, my parents built a new house and I can only imagine my mom’s relief and gratitude.

It’s not that Mom really cared all that much about material possessions. But having more room and something like an indoor bathroom made life easier. More comfortable.

The birthday cake booklet from which we chose animal cake designs. This copy was gifted to me by a friend.

We didn’t have much growing up. But, because of Mom, we didn’t realize that. On our birthdays, she would craft an animal-shaped cake design chosen from General Foods’ BAKER’S COCONUT ANIMAL CUT-UP CAKE booklet. There were no gifts. Not until I grew older did I understand our poverty. But we didn’t experience poverty in love. Even though this was an era when parents didn’t openly express love in hugs, kisses or words, I felt loved. Cherished. Cared for.

Today, as I reflect on my childhood, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my mother and how she raised me to value faith and family. To respect others. To speak kindly. To serve.

Arlene’s 1951 Wabasso High School graduation portrait.

I feel grateful to still have her in this world, even as aging and health have changed her. Many times, beginning with a viral infection of the heart nearly 40 years ago, followed by open heart surgery, we wondered if she would make it. Too many times we, her family, were called to her bedside when she was not expected to survive. During uncontrollable bleeding, pneumonia, a fall that broke her neck and landed her in a trauma unit. I recall her comment after one hospital stay. “I guess God wasn’t ready for this stubborn old lady yet.” She was right. There’s a reason Mom is still here, even while wheelchair bound, tethered to oxygen, fading before our eyes.

She is still here to love. To cherish. And, on this her birthday, to honor with words of gratitude.

© Copyright 2021 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