Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Missing mom… January 13, 2023

The cover of an altered book my friend Kathleen created for me following the death of my mom. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

THE CALL CAME SHORTLY after 6 pm on a Thursday evening one year ago. In that moment, when my youngest brother’s name flashed on my cellphone screen, I knew. Mom died. Not passed. Not was gone. She was dead.

The news was not unexpected. Yet it was. As much as we think we are prepared for a parent’s death in the light of long-time failing health, we are not. I was not.

One of my treasured last photos of my mom and me, taken on January 11, 2020. Because of COVID restrictions, I was unable to see Mom much during the final years of her life. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling)

A year after that January 13 call, I still have not fully-grieved. Part of that I attribute to the timing of Mom’s death during the height of omicron. For me, there was nothing normal about Mom’s big public funeral (which I did not support) during COVID. No standing in a receiving line beside my siblings. No hand shaking. No hugging. No crying beneath my N95 mask. Just tears locked inside. Feelings held inside. Emotions of feeling disappointed and disrespected in a church packed with unmasked mourners checked.

It is a struggle to let go of such hurt, such pain. But I’m trying. Mom would want me to focus not on her death, funeral and burial, but rather on her earthly life and now her glorious new life in heaven. She taught me well, leaving a strong legacy of faith.

A portion of a family-themed photo board I created for my mom’s January 22, 2022 funeral. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

That legacy is not one simply of beliefs and words, but also one of attitudes and action. My mom was one of the kindest, humblest, gentlest souls I’ve ever known. My five siblings and I would occasionally test her spirit, her patience, her fortitude. But seldom did she express her exasperation. Sometimes I think Mom just had too much to do in the day-to-day running of a household and mothering of six kids to get upset. Wash clothes with the Maytag wringer washer. Can a crate of peaches. Weed the garden. Bake bread. Make supper. Scrub the floor. Iron clothes. On and on and on the list of endless chores went inside and outside our rural southwestern Minnesota farmhouse. She never complained, simply pressed on in her own quiet, mothering way.

Another page of the altered book features a photo of my mom holding me. I love the quote. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2022)

Even with all that family-centered work, Mom found time for outside activities. She was active in St. John’s Lutheran Church, the Legion Auxiliary, Extension Club, Craft Club, Senior Citizens and helped at Red Cross blood drives. Some of this came many years into motherhood, when her responsibilities lessened. I was already gone from home. I once asked Mom if she missed me when I left for college in the fall of 1974. No, she replied. She was, she said, too busy with the other four kids still at home. While I didn’t necessarily appreciate her answer, I understood, and I knew she loved me. Mom was undeniably honest, a trait I hold dear also.

I am forever grateful for the loving sympathy cards, memorials and other gifts I received. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

Honesty. Integrity. Service to others. All were part of Mom’s life story. She lived her faith. These words from the hymn “Beautiful Savior,” sung at her funeral service, fit Arlene Anna Alma Kletscher: Truly I’d love thee, Truly I’d serve thee, Light of my soul, my joy, my crown. The hymn has always been my favorite for its message and its beautiful, poetic imagery.

On the Sunday before the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, “Beautiful Savior” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” were sung during the worship service at my church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault, some 120 miles from St. John’s in Vesta. The congregation also sang “Precious Lord” at Mom’s funeral. Because of illness, I missed Trinity’s worship service last Sunday. But I listened on the radio, thankful in many ways that I was not in the church pews. Trying to sing the hymns from Mom’s funeral may have proven a breaking point for me, unleashing a year’s worth of grief. Oh, how I miss my mom.

I miss her smile. I miss hugging her. I miss talking to her and remembering with her. I miss calling her every Sunday evening at the same time. I miss sharing photos of my grown children and her great grandchildren. I. Miss. Her. In the hard moments of life—and I’ve had plenty in recent years—I’ve turned to Randy and said, “I just want to be the kid again, to have my mom take care of me.” It is an impossible wish, a longing, a yearning, yet a verbal acknowledgment of my mother’s love.

I printed this message inside a handmade Mother’s Day card back in elementary school. Mom saved the card and I am grateful. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Now, in my year-old grief, I still feel Mom’s love. I see her love, too, in the memory of her lips curving into a slight smile when I saw her for the last time, when I said goodbye and I love you and exited her room at Parkview. That smile proved her final, loving gift to me, her oldest daughter. I’ve locked that moment in my heart to unlock when grief sneaks in, when the pain of missing my mom rises within my spirit.

I unlock, too, the comforting lyrics of “Beautiful Savior”: He makes our sorr’wing spirit sing.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering Mom on my first Mother’s Day without her May 6, 2022

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One of the last photos I took of my mom. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021)

IN RECENT YEARS, as my mom’s health declined, I considered how I would feel when she was gone, when Mother’s Day would come and go without her. Now, four months after her death, I understand. I feel a deep sense of loss, but also thankfulness for the mother I loved and who loved me.

I love this sweet photo of Mom at age seven. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

Who was my mom? She was the oldest of five. (Her sister Deloris died in infancy.) She was valedictorian of her high school graduating class. She completed a short business college course thereafter and worked in an employment office before marrying my dad. Within a year of their marriage, the first of six children was born. I came next. And within two months of my birth, Mom’s mother died. Mom was 24, her mother only 48.

The Bode siblings, left to right: John, Rachel, Dorothy and Arlene. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

When I consider Grandma Josephine’s premature death, I wonder how Mom handled that. To lose her mother at such a young age is a profound loss. If only I had asked.

A portrait of Mom. I’m unsure of her age here, but probably around 20. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

Mom left behind a collection of notebooks in which she wrote daily entries. Journals begun in high school and continuing into her senior years. The short entries are documentations of her life from student to full-time mother/southwestern Minnesota farm wife and, finally, a grandmother.

The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my brother Doug. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I wish her writing held personal thoughts and observations. But that is mostly missing, along with journals from around the years she met Dad. Not a surprise given that generation’s aversion to expressing emotions. I don’t recall either of my parents ever telling me they loved me, or hugging me, during my growing up years. It just wasn’t done. Yet, I inherently knew they loved me. Only in later years, long after I’d left home, did love-filled words and hugs come.

Entries from one of Mom’s earliest journals. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2022)

Since my mom’s death, I’ve dipped into some of her journals as has my eldest daughter. Mom’s one-paragraph daily entries about the weather, everyday farm life and the occasional trips into town and social outings reveal a hardworking woman. I never doubted just how hard Mom worked to keep our family fed, the house clean and six kids in line. I read of gardening, harvesting, preserving. I read of doing laundry (in a Maytag wringer washer), ironing, folding clothes. I read of endless baking, including occasionally making her favorite Sour Cream Raisin Pie. To this day I have never developed an appreciation for that pie. But I loved when she baked homemade bread, shaping tiny buns just for us kids to eat hot from the oven.

This page in an altered book created by my friend Kathleen focuses on the animal-shaped birthday cakes Mom made for me and my five siblings. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I also appreciated that Mom made birthdays special by creating animal-shaped birthday cakes from homemade chocolate cake and seven-minute frosting. Those cakes, selected from a cake design booklet, defined our childhood birthdays. Because my parents couldn’t afford gifts, Mom’s cake was our gift. Oh, the memories.

This shows family photos on a board I created for Mom’s funeral. The card at the bottom is a Mother’s Day card. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2022)

That I never realized our family was poor is a credit to my mom. There was no emphasis on material possessions, but rather on self-sufficiency and contentment with what we had—each other and land, our land, all around us. Sure, I occasionally longed for rollerskates (like my friends Jane and Robin had), for shopping clothing racks other than the sales rack, for getting whatever toy I wanted from the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog. But, in the end, I didn’t care all that much. I had enough. I still do. And I still don’t get gifts on my birthday.

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. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Mom’s gifts to me stretch well beyond anything tangible. She exuded a spirit of kindness. Soft-spoken, except when we kids occasionally overwhelmed her, Mom always encouraged us to speak well of others, to serve with humility. She did. At church, in the community. I’ve been told she was much like her sweet and loving mother, my Grandma Josie.

Me with my mom during a January 2020 visit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling)

This Mother’s Day I hold onto the memories. The photos. The stack of journals. The lessons and qualities passed along to me that speak to a legacy of faith and kindness and love. Mom’s love. A love that endures in how I choose to live my life. A love that rises above grief to remind me how blessed I was to have my mother as my mother.

I printed this message inside a handmade Mother’s Day card for my mom back in elementary school. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

In my last visit with Mom before her January 13 death, I said my goodbyes, told her it was OK to go. She was mostly unresponsive then, heavily-medicated. But when I spoke the words, “I love you,” for the final time, her lips curved into a smile so slight I wondered if I imagined it. I didn’t. That was her final gift to me—an expression of love I will forever remember and cherish, especially today, my first Mother’s Day without Mom.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My “farm wife” mother inspires my winning poetry February 28, 2014

MY 81-YEAR-OLD MOM inspires me.

She inspires me to live my life with the same positive outlook, grateful heart and kindness she’s exuded her entire life.

And she inspires my poetry. In recent poetry writing endeavors (click here and here), she has been the subject of my poems. This surprises her.

When I informed Mom that my poem, “The Farmer’s Wife, Circa 1960,” had been selected for inclusion in Poetic Strokes 2014, a regional poetry anthology published by Southeastern Libraries Cooperating, she responded with a humbleness that truly reflects her character.

“I didn’t know I led such an interesting life,” Mom said.

To most, she likely hasn’t. She grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, attended Mankato Business College after high school, then worked at a government office in Marshall until marrying my father shortly thereafter and settling onto a farm near Vesta.

My parents holding my older brother, Doug, and me in this January 1957 photo.

My parents, Elvern and Arlene Kletscher, holding my older brother, Doug, and me in this January 1957 photo. Rare are the photos of my farm wife mother.

There she assumed the role of farm wife, the title given rural women long before stay-at-home mom became a buzzword. She no longer lives on the farm, having moved into my paternal grandmother’s home in Vesta decades ago.

As an adult, I now understand that her life as a farm wife was not particularly easy—raising six children on a limited income; doing laundry with a Maytag wringer washer; tending a garden and then canning and freezing the produce; doing without an indoor bathroom…

I sometimes wonder how her life would have unfolded
had she not locked eyes with my father on the dance floor…

–Lines one and two from “The Farmer’s Wife, Circa 1960”

Although I’ve never asked, I expect she dreamed of time just for herself. On rare occasions she and my dad would go out on a Saturday evening.

With those thoughts, I penned “The Farmer’s Wife, Circa 1960.” As much as I’d like to share that poem with you here, today, I cannot. That debut honor goes to Poetic Strokes, a copy of which will be gifted from me to my mom, the woman who has led an extraordinary life. Not extraordinary in the sense of great worldly accomplishments, but rather in the way she has treated others with kindness, compassion and love. Her depth of love for family, her faith and her empathy and compassion have served as guiding principles in my life.

I am proud to be the daughter of a farmer’s wife.

The cover of Poetic Strokes/Word Flow. Image courtesy of SELCO.

The cover of Poetic Strokes/Word Flow. Image courtesy of SELCO.

I AM HONORED, for the sixth time, to have my poetry published in Poetic Strokes, a Library Legacy funded project (through Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund) that promotes poetry in southeastern Minnesota and specifically in SELCO libraries. Each library will have a copy available for check out near the end of March or in early April, National Poetry Month.

This year my county of Rice joins Winona County with the highest number of poets, six from each county, included in the Poetic Strokes section of the anthology. I am the sole Faribault poet with five from nearby Northfield.

Twenty-three poems from 21 poets in five of SELCO’s 11 counties will be published in Poetic Strokes 2014.

There were 196 poems submitted by 112 poets. Two published poets with PhDs in English literature and a third poet who is a former English teacher, fiction writer and contributor to the League of Minnesota Poets judged the entries.

Says SELCO Regional Librarian Reagen A. Thalacker of the judging process:

The general sense I received when the poems came back is that our judges felt that there was a great variety in subject matter and skill and that they were impressed with many of those that were submitted. There was also the overwhelming sense of having enjoyed thoroughly the opportunity to read the works submitted.

Additionally, the anthology includes 28 poems penned by youth ages 14 – 18 (or in high school) residing within SELCO counties. Twenty-eight poems chosen from 111 submissions will be featured. What an encouragement to young poets to be published in the Word Flow portion of this project.

For me, a seasoned poet, selection of “The Farmer’s Wife, Circa 1960” encourages me to keep writing in a rural voice distinctly mine, inspired by the land and the people I love.

FYI: Click here to read a full report on Poetic Strokes/Word Flow 2014, including a list of poets selected for inclusion in the anthology.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling