Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Dance, smile, toss confetti, spread joy… September 30, 2019

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THE BEST GIFTS cannot be bought. How often have you heard that cliché? It’s true.

We each hold the capacity to give gifts that hold value far beyond anything that can be purchased. For example, when I celebrated my birthday last week, I received several unexpected gifts that brought me profound joy. Joy as in crying and experiencing an overall feeling of being deeply loved.

 

 

 

The first arrived in my mailbox, by all appearances just a birthday card sealed inside an envelope. But when I opened the card, I discovered a clutch of colorful sticky notes. Upon those neon slips of paper, a friend and her family penned powerful words of encouragement and love. Exactly what I needed.

How could I not feel joyful when I’m told I’m loved and that God created me to do amazing things?

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

The simple word SMILE, written in an artsy font, prompted a smile.

Now I have that stack of uplifting notes to remind me that Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about dancing in the rain. I needed to read that perspective and my friend knew it.

Then several hours later my dear Aunt Dorothy called from New Jersey to wish me a happy birthday. She’s the aunt who lived in Minneapolis when I was a child and who gave me her old nail polish and lipstick and jewelry and made me feel so loved, especially with her endearing name for me, My Little Princess. All these decades later, Dorothy still calls me that sweet name. Not simply Little Princess. But My Little Princess. I feel so loved.

 

 

And then, just as Randy was preparing to cook dinner on my birthday (because I refuse to cook on my birthday), my niece Tara arrived with her sweet family. She held a box containing six fancy cupcakes from Cream of the Cakes in Lakeville. I never expected this. And that’s the sweetness of this act. This young mom took time out of her busy life to not only buy those delicious cupcakes but then to drive 20 some minutes to deliver them. And bonus, I got wonderful hugs from my great nephew who is, as he told me, three. Not two.

Add to that a bouquet of garden-fresh hydrangea from a friend earlier in the week and flowers from Randy and I feel pretty darned loved. Calls, emails and a video chat with the grandkids brought more birthday joy. The best gifts cannot be bought.

I challenge you this week to reach out to someone who needs the gift of joy—of uplifting words, of a simple act of love and kindness, of a surprise gift. As my friend printed on a sticky note: Be the reason someone smiles today!

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Food stories from Minnesota as I celebrate my birthday September 26, 2019

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Assorted hot dishes, salads, desserts and more fill several tables at the annual Kletscher family reunion held each July at the city park in my hometown of Vesta, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHAT FOODS AND FOOD TRADITIONS do you consider unique to the place you live?

 

Assorted bars. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Ask any Minnesotan and it’s surely not grape salad. Rather, the typical Minnesotan might respond with hot dish, walleye, chicken wild rice soup… Or bars. And we’re not talking the local watering hole here. We’re talking a sweet treat pressed or poured into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan. My favorite are peanut butter oatmeal bars.

 

Chicken Wild Rice Hot Dish with salad and bread served at an eatery in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Whatever your answer, food in many ways defines us. And food is the subject of a research project underway by a young Minnesota woman working on her Master of Fine Arts nonfiction writing degree from the University of New Hampshire. Lindsey phoned last week to ask about my food history, one rooted in my rural upbringing. We talked for an hour. I don’t envy Lindsey’s eventual task of condensing months of research into a succinct paper. But I do look forward to some day reading her findings.

 

My mother-in-law, who passed away in October 1993, often made Seven Layer Jell-O Salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I expect she will include Jell-O, once the queen of Minnesota salads. Make that red Jell-O laced with sliced bananas. It is a signature food of many an extended family gathering from my childhood. Many Baby Boomers from rural Minnesota could probably say the same.

 

A friend gifted me with a copy of the book my mom used to craft birthday cakes.

 

But there’s one story likely unique to me and my five siblings. We grew up on a crop and dairy farm in southwestern Minnesota. With little money, our parents could not afford to give us gifts on our birthdays. The thing is, we didn’t know to expect presents. We were that poor. But Mom found another way to make our birthdays special. Days before our birthday, she would pull out her Animal Cut-Up Cake booklet and allow us to thumb through the pages and choose an animal-shaped birthday cake. Simple two-page spreads showed, for example, how to create a lion from a 9-inch square cake. Mom would follow the instructions in the publication by General Foods Corporation and create the chosen animal cake.

 

The clown cake my mom made for me in one of the few photos I have of myself from my childhood.

 

I cherish those birthday memories. I’m convinced that, had I gotten childhood birthday gifts, I would have forgotten those long ago. But my mom’s homemade birthday cakes, no. Whether a turtle, terrier or teddy bear, those cakes equated love.

 

I can’t take credit for this cake. But my daughters crafted this PEEF cake for their brother the year he turned eight. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

When I became a mother, I followed the tradition of creating homemade birthday cakes—like Garfield the cat, a horse, a snowman—for my three kids. But they, unlike me and my siblings, also received birthday gifts.

 

Me with my mom. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2017.

 

Today I celebrate my birthday. I don’t expect a cake, because who will bake one for me? I’m the mom. Rather I’ll remember and honor my mom, who is on hospice in a care center 2 ½ hours away. I doubt she remembers today is my birthday. I’m simply thankful if she recognizes me. But maybe, if I prompted her, she would recall all those special birthday cakes she baked for me and my siblings. The tradition was a gift of love from the mom I love. And miss.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The excitement of turning three April 11, 2019

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THE EVENING BEFORE HER third birthday, she couldn’t sleep. Up and out of bed multiple times while the California grandparents babysat. Finally Izzy told them she was too excited to sleep.

This does not surprise me. Tell Isabelle something and she thinks it will happen now or soon. The week-long countdown to her birthday party upped the excitement level.

 

A birthday card handmade by one of Izzy’s friends.

 

Randy and I arrived at Izzy’s home shortly after lunch the next day with extra time to visit before heading out to a destination party at an indoor playland. I was not at all surprised to see our granddaughter in her favorite clothes, a white outfit flared with a tutu.

 

 

Ballet themed her party. Isabelle loves ballet. She’s observed professionals at the Landmark Center in St. Paul and at the Mall of America. And she dances ballet at home, at our house…leaping and twirling.

 

Izzy shows her birthday ballerina to Grandpa.

 

Now, thanks to Opa and Oma, she owns a pretty pink ballet dress, matching slippers and a beautiful ballerina doll. I added to the ballet costuming with a layered tutu skirt to wear over leggings or tights.

When the adoring grandparents aren’t around to watch, Izzy holds the attention of her adoring baby brother, Isaac. At three months, he’s watchful of big sister, entertained by her movement.

 

 

At her birthday party, friends and family circled Izzy in love with song and gifts and wishes. Too witness such love for Isabelle, her parents and brother swells my heart with happiness.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating my daughter on her birthday November 16, 2018

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Miranda. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

LOVE HOLDS MEMORIES. So many. And today I remember my second daughter, celebrating her birthday 265 miles distant in south central Wisconsin. I wish I could be with her, embracing her and telling her how much, how deeply, I love her.

But time passes and kids grow up and become adults and move on and celebrate birthdays without us. That is the reality of life. I wonder sometimes why some kids choose to stay in the place of their roots and some choose to leave. Mine left, although one daughter lives only an hour away, for which I am thankful.

Today, on Miranda’s birthday, I remember her entry into the world—on her timeline, not mine. She awakened me in the early morning hours of November 16, days before her scheduled delivery by C-section. She sent Randy and me scrambling to find someone to watch her 21-month-old sister so I could get to the hospital. I shall be forever grateful to my neighbor Cheri.

This launch into life set the tone for Miranda. She is her own person, not one who feels the need to follow the crowd. She has stood strong among bullies and strong through treatment for scoliosis and strong under administration fire as a co-editor of her high school newspaper many years ago. She stood strong through a mugging in Argentina. She stood strong while volunteering with Hurricane Katrina clean-up.

She’s compassionate and kind and loving. Miranda works in a profession that requires compassion. She is a Spanish medical interpreter. From birthing rooms to emergency rooms, she offers a calming presence to patients and their families. I admire her ability to handle whatever situation with professionalism and grace. I could not do what she does. But I appreciate that she is there for people both in moments of joy and in moments of crisis.

Miranda is also a woman of faith, of a gentle spirit. She is quiet, yet bold. Creative.

There’s so much I love about this girl of mine, who really is not mine in the sense of ownership. No one owns anyone. But the bonds of family connect us, hold us close in the infinite love of a mother for her daughter. Today my love overflows as I think of the sweet baby girl I welcomed all those decades ago. On her timeline, not mine.

Happy birthday, Miranda! I love you. Always.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts for my friend on a notable birthday September 12, 2018

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Smile, even when you’re turning sixty. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MY FRIEND, I’LL CALL HER JULIE, turns sixty today. I know she’s not particularly excited about that number because, as she says, “It sounds old (compared to 59).”

I remember feeling the same when I reached that landmark birthday. And to think I struggled with turning forty. I wish now that I was only four decades, rather than six-plus decades, old.

But there’s something to be said for this age. And I can summarize that in a single powerful, joyful word: grandma. Julie and I, who have been friends since our kids were in grade school, are both relatively new grandmas. Her grandson is 14 months younger than my almost 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter. We trade stories now about grandchildren and share images of the cute little ones who bring us much happiness.

Julie and I have been through a lot together. Joyful times and difficult times. We listen to one another and trust each other. With anything. What a blessing she has been in my life through rearing children and now into loving grandchildren.

On this her 60th birthday, I want Julie to realize that turning sixty is really not all that bad. Especially when you have a grandchild to spoil and love.

Happy birthday, dear friend! I wish you many more years of joyful living.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My granddaughter turns one: A celebration in images & words April 18, 2017

 

TO WATCH MY GRANDDAUGHTER gives me such joy. To hold her and hug her and kiss her swells my heart with such love. To watch my eldest care for and love her baby girl along with her husband swells my heart with even more love.

I’ve only been a grandma for a year. But it’s long enough to know just how much I love this new role.

 

 

 

 

This past weekend family and friends celebrated the first birthday of our darling Isabelle with a The Very Hungry Caterpillar themed party. It was a perfect theme for a baby girl who loves books, who just weeks earlier sat on my lap flipping through the pages of this timeless story by Eric Carle.

 

 

 

 

Her mama, my daughter Amber, confessed that she felt a bit pressured to pull off the birthday celebration given my history of throwing detailed themed birthday parties. Amber needn’t have worried. She did great and impressed me with everything from decorations down to the caterpillar cupcake birthday cake.

 

 

 

 

It was the birthday girl, though, who spotlighted the attention of those gathered to celebrate her first birthday. Izzy did great, going to everyone and, as expected, finding tissue paper, gift receipts and a water bottle sometimes more interesting then the gifts she was supposed to be opening. Give her another year.

 

 

But for now, we all delighted in Izzy’s smile and cheered her on as she walked across the living room. We declared that Isabelle is now officially walking.

 

 

I was reminded again of how much joy a baby can find in the simple things. A textured ball released from a gift bag brought the widest smile to Izzy’s face as she shoved it across the floor. The sighting of a dog and later a squirrel through windows sent my granddaughter nearly leaping from my arms in excitement. In the craziness of life today, it is good to witness such exuberance from the perspective of a one-year-old.

 

 

 

 

Life is good when you’re one. And good, too, when you are the grandmother of a baby girl whom you love and adore.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A new spin on carrot cake, four-year-old style March 9, 2017

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WHEN MY GREAT NEPHEW Landon turned four last week, he asked for a carrot cake. What preschooler chooses that flavor of birthday cake? A kid who loves vegetables and, as far as I have observed, every food. I’ve even watched Landon eat an ear of raw sweetcorn just pulled from the stalk.

His mom, Amber, makes one delicious carrot cake. She bakes and cooks from scratch. No boxed mixes or convenience foods for her or her family. Or guests. Lucky me.

I could end this story here by singing praises about the carrot-cake-baking mom and the boy who loves carrot cake.

Landon, with help from his nearly two-year-old sister Evelyn, sticks raw carrots into his carrot cake. And, yes, he chose to wear a Halloween shirt at his birthday party. When you’re four, you can do that.

But Landon is Landon and he took this carrot cake thing a bit further. As Amber finished prepping his birthday meal of spaghetti and meatballs, Landon pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter. He then reached into a container of raw carrots, celery, radishes and peppers and pulled out the carrots. As we watched, Landon poked the carrots, like candles, into his birthday cake. How’s that for a veggie loving four-year-old?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling