Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Another birthday party missed… April 4, 2020

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My granddaughter, Isabelle (“Izzy” for short). Photographed when she was about 17 hours old in April 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MY CELLPHONE PINGED YESTERDAY with a notification. For my granddaughter’s fourth birthday party. Today. At an interactive indoor play area in the northern Twin Cities metro. The party was canceled a few weeks ago, but I’d forgotten to delete the notice from my phone.

So today, instead of celebrating with my darling Isabelle, her parents and little brother, and a whole bunch of Izzy’s friends, I am home. Separated from the ones I love because of the COVID-19 crisis. I have no reason to complain. Everyone in my immediate family is healthy and in the extended family, too, although we had a bit of a scare recently. My mom remains on hospice in a care center 120 miles distant.

We are all making the best of this pandemic which now shapes our lives. We do what we must to stay healthy and to keep others healthy. While out grocery shopping earlier and then on to a Big Box store to buy a garage door because, you know, the garage door just had to break right now, I saw some people with masks. Not a lot. But I noticed more social distancing signs and the larger retail store banning anyone under age 16 from entering. I also saw too many folks not heeding social distancing. I steered clear of them, including employees at one local grocery store which has no COVID-related signs, nothing.

 

Izzy’s first birthday cake. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016.

 

Yes, I should have been hugging my granddaughter today instead of grocery shopping and buying a garage door. I should have been watching Izzy blow out candles while singing happy birthday to her and celebrating with gift-opening and cake. The year before last, I missed her party because of a blizzard. In retrospect, that is nothing compared to missing a birthday party due to coronavirus.

Isabelle, in a video chat earlier this week, seemed unfazed by the change in plans. She excitedly shared, “I’m celebrating with my family!” She told me about the planned pink birthday cake—her favorite color—frosted and decorated with unicorn sprinkles. I inwardly thanked her parents for stressing to their daughter what she will still have, not what she’s lost in the postponed (until October) party.

 

One of my favorite photos of Isabelle is this one I took of her in September 2019. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I decided to add to Izzy’s celebration by reaching out to friends and family with a request to send birthday cards to my granddaughter. Many responded and for that I am grateful.

This afternoon, while returning home with the $470 garage door strapped to the top of our van, I saw a family celebrating what appeared to be a birthday. A clutch of colorful balloons decorated the front stoop and people stood in the yard. Social distancing. The scene made me think of my sweet Isabelle and how much I miss her. Especially on her birthday. And I wonder just how long it will be until I can hug her again.

© Copyright 2020 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

 

Happy birthday to my daughter Miranda November 16, 2016

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WORTHY OF ADMIRATION. WONDERFUL.

Look up the definition of Miranda and those are the words that define the name derived from Latin.

Miranda, five days old

Miranda, five days old

But to me the name is much more personal. Much more meaningful. Much more precious. Miranda is the name my husband and I chose for our second daughter. Today our Miranda celebrates her birthday.

She fits the definition of admirable and wonderful. And here’s why:

Our daughter is incredibly caring, kind and compassionate. Not only in the loyalty of her friendship but in her care for others. While still a high school student, she went on mission trips to help hurricane survivors. She also modeled good choices, resisting peer pressure and more through theater and outreach at her high school.

She’s well beyond those years now. Still her compassion prevails in her work as a Spanish medical interpreter, in service projects at her church and in simply caring deeply about others.

Miranda in Valles Calchaquies, near the town of Cafayate in the Salta province.

Miranda in Valles Calchaquies, near the town of Cafayate in the Salta province during one of her trips to Argentina.

But there’s much more to Miranda. Beneath her external gentleness, she is incredibly strong. Rock strong. At age four, she walked with a nurse toward a hospital operating room, Big Bird in hand, neither crying or afraid. As a teen, she powered through wearing a back brace 24/7 for a year with focused determination. While traveling in Argentina, she fought off an attacker and come through stronger than ever. Not much rattles her.

As a little girl, Miranda was all girly girl, wearing only skirts and donning ribbons in her hair. She also loved horses, including her stick horse, shown here in a photo taken when she was 5 1/2.

As a little girl, Miranda was all girly girl, wearing skirts and donning ribbons in her hair. She also loved horses, including her stick horse, shown here in a photo taken when she was 5 1/2. She still has beautiful curly hair, although no longer blonde.

She has always been her own person. Independent and spirited in the way that she’s OK with following her own path. I admire that quality in her. At an amusement park, you’d find Miranda rocking the roller coaster, hands up. She’s that kind of adventurous. Seemingly unafraid.

Miranda and me. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2016.

Miranda and me. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2016.

I don’t see Miranda nearly as often as I would like; she lives 300 miles away. But I think of her daily, holding her close in my heart and my prayers. I love her with the same fierceness as the day she was born, even before she was born. The kind of love so strong it locks your heart forever to your child. The kind of love that can’t be defined by words, but rather by emotions and feelings and an overwhelming need to always be there for your child. No matter their age. To want the best for them—to be safe and happy and well.

Miranda is an adult now, has been for more than a decade. But that doesn’t change how I feel about her, how deep my motherly love.

She is beautiful in so many ways. And on this day, her day, I wish my daughter a most beautiful birthday. And I want her to know how very much I love her. Always.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on my husband’s 60th birthday October 12, 2016

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helbling-siblings-in-n-d-1963

 

IN THE PHOTO, one of the few from his childhood, he is a slim blonde-haired almost 7-year-old standing in front of three of his four sisters.

 

Grandfather and granddaughter.

One of my favorite photos of Randy: holding his 10-day-old granddaughter, Isabelle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016.

Fast forward 53 years and he is a 60-year-old father of three and a new grandfather. He is my husband, Randy. And today he turns sixty.

We’ve known each other for more than half our lives. I often wonder how those decades have passed, snap, just like that and we are each now sixty.

Birthdays for me today are more reflective and less celebratory. Not that I don’t appreciate another year of life. Rather, I find myself thinking about the past.

I have heard through the decades stories from Randy’s past. He was born in North Dakota and moved with his family to central Minnesota in his early elementary years. As he tells it, in the one-room country schoolhouse he attended in North Dakota, students were kept in from recess one day due to coyotes roaming the schoolyard. I love that story.

While attending a Catholic school in Minnesota, he apparently misbehaved and was punished by a nun drilling her thumb into his skull. I don’t love that story.

And then there’s the story about the day my husband saved his father’s life. On Saturday, October 21, 1967, my father-in-law’s left hand was pulled into the spring-loaded roller of a corn chopper. Blades sliced off his fingers. The roller trapped his arm. Randy was with him. As his father screamed, the 11-year-old disengaged the power take-off and then ran along cow pasture and across swampland to a neighbor’s farm for help. Randy saved his dad’s life. I love that example of courage and calm exhibited by a young boy, my husband.

That trait of quiet, reassuring strength has continued throughout Randy’s life. Not much rattles him. It’s an admirable quality, especially in times of stress and difficulty. And, as we all know, life brings many struggles and challenges.

He is strong. Strong in his work ethic, his faith and his love of family.

Today I celebrate and honor the man I’ve loved for some 35 years. Happy birthday, Randy! And many more!

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling