Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

I’m not a tree hugger, but… June 2, 2014

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MY AUNT JEANETTE has been duly informed.

The ancient cottonwood stands on the north edge of Vesta, Minnesota.

The ancient cottonwood stands on the north edge of Vesta.

If she ever attempts to have the massive/towering/gigantic cottonwood in her yard cut down, I will be right there hugging that tree.

Now I am not a tree hugger in the true definition of a tree hugger. I would not scamper onto the limb of a tree to prevent its removal. For one thing, I am not agile like a squirrel. Secondly, I am not an outspoken, protesting type person, at least not in public.

But I did protest privately to my aunt when she mentioned cutting down that beautiful sprawling cottonwood gracing her yard.

The tree is messy, she explained, wondering then if I’d like to clean up the cottony seeds and sticky bud capsules dropped onto her lawn.

Point taken.

Yet, this cottonwood deserves special consideration given it’s likely the oldest tree in my southwestern Minnesota prairie hometown. It’s certainly the biggest in girth and the tallest tree in this community of some 320.

I can imagine the early settlers arriving in this mostly treeless land, wind-bent prairie grasses stretching for miles before them. And then, in the distance, the shimmering leaves of a cottonwood.

Or perhaps one of them brought a cottonwood seedling here, planted it on the north edge of this new prairie town.

Decades later, a tire swing looped by a rope to a limb, the sturdy cottonwood still stands strong against the vast prairie sky in my beloved hometown.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


What to do with a chicken sandwich & 200 pounds of cheese September 15, 2013

Imprinted on a paver near the Lake Harriet Bandshell in Minneapolis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Imprinted on a paver near the Lake Harriet Band Shell in Minneapolis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

TYPICALLY I DON’T READ obituaries, unless I recognize the name of the deceased.

But perhaps I should.

This week, thanks to a Michigan blogger (click here), I learned about 85-year-old Mary A. “Pink” Mullaney of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, who recently died. She left quite a legacy, as noted in her obituary.

For example, Pink advised going to church with a chicken sandwich tucked inside your purse. To feed the homeless.

Feed the hungry, kiss babies, visit those in nursing homes…the list of Pink’s empathy and care for others is lengthy.

She also offered practical advice on shoeing away possums (use a barbecue brush), reuse of panty hose (tie up the toilet flapper, for one) and a place to keep your car keys (under the front seat).

You simply must read Pink’s obit. Click here. I promise you will laugh and cry and reflect on how you live your life.

The second obituary to catch my attention, for Barry Corder, 58, of Cottonwood, Minnesota, was published in The Redwood Falls Gazette, the newspaper from my home county. He recently died unexpectedly.

When I read the paragraph about Barry making news at age 12 under the headline, “Local Boy’s Creation Responsible for Hundreds of People Reporting UFO Sightings,” I knew I was reading about an extraordinary man.

He was, like Pink, a generous person of faith, often bartering or giving away his family’s possessions, always helping others. You need only read the condolences to Barry’s family to understand the kind of man he was and the impact he made on others.

The obit paragraph that grabbed my attention, though, noted the problem of what to do with a 200-pound block of cheese that Barry made:

Survived by…his wife, Deanna, Cottonwood (who is trying to figure out what to do with 200 pounds of cheese), five sons, two daughters (who do not want the cheese) and four daughters-in-law: Antje, Nikki, Amanda and Susan (who cannot wait to sample said cheese), 16 grandchildren (who will end up eating much of the cheese) and numerous nephews and nieces (who will be getting cheese for Christmas).

In their grief, Barry’s family honors the husband/father/grandfather/uncle who made them laugh by sharing his wit in an obit laced with humor. What a suitable tribute.

You simply must read Barry’s obit. Click here. I promise you will laugh and cry and reflect on how you live your life.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


One family’s journey: Five years after the Cottonwood school bus crash February 13, 2013

SHE ASKS IF I REMEMBER “the cupcake thing.”

But I have only a vague recollection of lots and lots of cupcakes.

Traci Olson, though, remembers, like yesterday, the details of “the cupcake thing,” which she compares to the biblical account of the feeding of the 5,000.

First, the cupcakes started coming in, then more and more and more for her 9-year-old daughter Emilee’s funeral. There were enough left over to serve mourners at the funeral of the Javens brothers, Hunter, 9, and Jesse, 13. The cupcakes just kept coming, so the sweet treats were also offered at the funeral of Reed Stevens, 12.

Still, all the cupcakes had not been eaten. So whoever wanted the mini cakes could take them home.

Lakeview kitchen staff bakes cupcakes each February to celebrate the four students.

Lakeview kitchen staff bakes cupcakes each February to celebrate the four students.

“The cupcake thing” didn’t end in February 2008, when Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed, all students at Lakeview Public School in Cottonwood, died in the crash of their school bus and a mini van. Five years later, the tradition continues every February 19 (or the nearest date school is in session) at Lakeview. The cooks bake cupcakes and frost them in the students’ favorite colors—pink or purple for Emilee, red for Reed, green for Hunter and black for Jesse.

It is a way to celebrate the lives of the four, whom Traci describes as “fun, happy-go-lucky kids.”

“We don’t want the kids to be defined by how their lives ended,” she emphasizes.

Traci, who teaches early childhood special education at Lakeview, has, by default, she says, become the key organizer of Lakeview’s annual Journey of Hope, a community gathering to celebrate the lives of those lost and the healing that has taken place since that February 19 afternoon in 2008 when life forever changed in Cottonwood, a farming town of 1,200 in southwestern Minnesota.

Timberwolves mascot Crunch during an earlier appearance at Lakeview.

Timberwolves mascot Crunch during an earlier appearance at Lakeview.

This year’s celebration is slated for Valentine’s Day and starts with an afternoon presentation on bullying by Minnesota Timberwolves mascot Crunch followed by a community gathering in the evening. That includes serving of pulled pork sandwiches beginning at 5 p.m., photos with Crunch, a slam/dunk half-time show and three basketball games.

Traci says Journey of Hope has always focused on the positive, not on mourning the community’s loss.

Days before the five-year anniversary, Traci shared her thoughts with me, in an hour-long phone interview, about her daughter, life since the crash and the healing that has taken place. We did not discuss Olga Franco del Cid, who was driving the mini van that blew through a stop sign and slammed into the school bus. Franco del Cid was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and other charges and sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison.

Chun Wen (Emilee) in China

Chun Wen (Emilee) in China

TRACI REMEMBERS WITH CLARITY the first time she laid eyes on baby Emilee in China. Chun Wen, among about 20 babies, just sat and stared at her adoptive mom. “I picked her up and she was mine,” Traci says of her strong-willed, independent girl with the deep, raspy voice who came home to Minnesota at 10 months of age.

Emilee LaVanche, as Traci and Charlie Olson renamed their daughter after Traci’s grandparents Emil and LaVanche, fit right in with her older siblings, Bailee and Sidnee. She emulated Bailee’s piano playing, becoming an accomplished pianist, and eventually followed the family’s passion for showing horses. On her seventh birthday, Emilee got her own horse, Barbie.

“Everybody knew her,” Traci says of her outgoing and vivacious daughter who made friends wherever she went. She would light up a room or a show ring. And she was, most assuredly, Traci says, a blessing to her and Charlie’s family, which at the time of Emilee’s death included Bailee, 14; Sidnee, 11; and Rilee, 6.

Traci would later return to China for the third time (Rilee is also from China) to adopt seven-year-old Lucee. She makes it clear that Lucee is not meant to replace Emilee, noting rather her deep love of children: “I was meant to be with kids and to do stuff with kids.”

Emilee with her horse, Barbie

Emilee with her horse, Barbie

ON THE AFTERNOON OF THE CRASH, Traci, then a health and physical education teacher at Lakeview, told Emilee, “You need to ride the bus (home about two miles)… I love you.”

That marked the last time she spoke to her daughter.

A short while later her husband, a part-time school bus driver, phoned to tell Traci about a “bad bus accident” half a mile from their farm. Traci rushed to the crash site to help.  Then, upon realizing it was her children’s bus, she desperately began searching for her three kids riding the bus that day. She found Rilee, but could not locate Sidnee or Emilee.

As Traci recounts the aftermath of the crash which killed four and injured 17, she describes a chaotic scene, “a lot of hoping and praying,” racing to the hospital in nearby Marshall, helicopters coming and going, her desperate inquiries for information about “the only Chinese girl on the bus,” the family’s journey to Sioux Falls where Sidnee underwent emergency surgery for a lacerated eye, and the eventual visit to the funeral home to identify Emilee.

Traci recalls a phone conversation with her sister. “I can’t find Sidnee and Emilee. This is really, really bad.” In that moment, when she could not find her daughter, Traci says, “I knew right away.”

Emilee and Sidnee were sitting across from each other half way back on the bus, Emilee with Hunter. Jesse and Reed were behind them. Rilee was at the front of the bus.

Thinking back to that awful day, Traci says, “You never move on, but you’re forced to move forward. We can’t change it, we can’t make it go away.” But, she is determined that her surviving kids, now ages 9 – 19, not reference their lives “before and after Emilee.” And she is determined, too, to celebrate Emilee’s life.

For example, each year Traci celebrates Emilee’s November 2 birthday with her classmates. This past November, the now Lakeview 8th graders made and donated 30 fleece blankets to the Ronald McDonald house in Rochester. In the past, Emilee’s classmates have made Native American horse sticks and welcomed former WCCO TV news anchor Don Shelby in honor of their classmate’s birthday. Lakeview students got copies of Shelby’s inspirational book, The Season Never Ends.

The birthday party always focuses on honoring her daughter in an educational and memory-building way, Traci says. And it always ends with serving of Emilee’s favorite root beer floats.

Traci also coaches Emilee’s classmates’ basketball team.

“My saddest day will be when no one will remember who Emilie is,” Traci shares.

THAT IS NOT LIKELY to happen any time soon as Traci speaks of a caring community that continues to “wrap their arms around us and the other families.” Good friends before the crash, the Olson, Javens and Stevens families now lean on one another.

Not that there aren’t difficult days. Her family is open and honest enough, Traci says, to admit when they’re having a bad day. Sometimes that means stepping out of school for 20 minutes to cry in her car, or doing something with the horses or her family to deal with the grief. She’s especially grateful, Traci notes, for supportive school administrators and colleagues.

Losing a child “makes you totally rethink what’s important,” Traci says. And for her and Charlie, that’s being together as a family, participating in those competitive Ponies of America Club horse shows, celebrating Emilee’s birthday and more. “We’re not thinking coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

The Olsons also have adopted a new perspective on life as they’ve already endured the most difficult of losses. “If we lose a crop (the Olsons farm), we can live through that,” Traci says.

TODAY THE FAMILY CONTINUES to sense Emilee’s presence in their lives, whether in the pink and purple of a prairie sunset or someone mistakenly calling Lucee—now nine years old, the same age as Emilee five years ago—by her older sister’s name.

Traci tells me, too, “It is really hard to believe it has been that long.”

Five years.

But for this mother, the details of the day she lost Emilee remain as clear as the day she first locked eyes with her little girl in China.

Lakeview School graces the front of a thank you card I received a month after the bus crash.

Lakeview School graces the front of a thank you card I received a month after the 2008 bus crash.

FIVE YEARS AGO on February 19, I “knew” that an extended family member was on that same bus Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed rode.

My cousin Joyce Arends’ grandson, 8-year-old Bryce, suffered minor injuries in the crash. Wanting to show my concern, I mailed a book, teddy bear and candy to Bryce as well as a note and memorial gift to Lakeview School.

I received thank yous from Bryce and the school and I’ve saved both.

Bryce told me he’d named his bear Fluffy and was sleeping with him.

The school responded, in part, with this message:

The outpouring of response from across the state, the nation, and even the world has overwhelmed all of us at Lakeview School, but the power of that support has given us strength and has allowed us to begin the long process of healing. Please know that we are all grateful.

I expect on this, the five-year anniversary of the bus crash, that Lakeview School, the Olsons, Javens and Stevens families, and the community remain grateful for the ongoing support of those who remember their children, for Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed truly were all of their children.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Traci Olson


Reflections on the 2008 Cottonwood bus crash February 21, 2011

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THREE YEARS AGO Saturday, the small southwestern Minnesota community of Cottonwood suffered an unbelievable tragedy. They lost four of their children when a van ran a stop sign and slammed into a school bus, killing Jesse, Hunter, Reed and Emilee.

I intended to mark that February 19 anniversary date with a blog post. But I forgot. I am not proud of myself. How could I forget to honor these young lives, to remember a prairie town that mourned so deeply, to tell the families that I have not forgotten them or this horrible day?

The event touched me personally as my cousin Joyce’s grandson, 8-year-old Bryce, was riding in the front seat of that bus. He was OK, suffering only several small abrasions.

I’ve kept the emails Joyce and I exchanged after that February 19, 2008, tragedy because I never wanted to forget. And now I’ve gone and done just that.

So today, several days late, I want to remind all of you to hold your children close, to tell them how very much you love them. Treasure them. Every day.

My cousin told me back then, three years ago, about the terror she felt after learning of the crash and not knowing if her grandson was OK. Later, she would thank God for watching over Bryce as she prayed for the recovery of the injured, the families who lost their children and the community of Cottonwood.

I purchased a teddy bear, a bag of M & Ms and a book for Bryce, a voracious reader, and mailed the items to him along with a letter just days after the crash. I figured he could use a teddy bear to hug and words of encouragement.

I wrote, in part, “I hear that you were very brave, which is a tough thing to be when something so scary happens.”

I encouraged him to talk to God, his family or anyone else “when you feel scared and sad.”

Then I ended my letter: “Lots of people love you.”

Today as I reflect on the four children who died that Tuesday afternoon in February 2008 on the cold, wind-swept prairie in a tragedy that should never have happened, my heart aches for their families.

But I hope that through the grief and the pain and the healing they can hold onto the love, the love that will always be there, and the memories, the sweet, sweet memories of their precious children.

CLICK HERE TO READ a blog post I wrote on February 19, 2009, marking the one-year anniversary of the Cottonwood bus crash.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling