Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Valley Grove: In loving memory of Bjorn September 19, 2022

On the east side of the Valley Grove Cemetery, massive oaks rise next to a restored prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

HE APPROACHED ME inquiring whether I was the official photographer. I was not. But I was photographing the Valley Grove Country Social on Sunday afternoon in rural Nerstrand.

The beautiful historic churches stand next to the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

That unexpected encounter proved powerful, revealing why this hilltop location of two historic churches and a cemetery holds such deep personal meaning for many. From the Norwegian immigrants who built the stone church in 1862, replaced by a wooden church in 1894, to today, this land keeps stories and memories and provides a place to grieve.

The hilltop cemetery provides a sweeping view of the prairie and distant treeline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

For Brett Norgaard, Valley Grove is the final resting place of his beloved son, Bjorn Erik Norgaard, struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on February 20, 2011, while skiing on frozen Lake Superior. He was only 23. Bjorn’s gravestone, imprinted with a ballad he penned, sits near the site of a massive oak felled in a September 2018 tornado. That tree, in the southwest corner, was a cemetery landmark, the spot where many baptisms occurred.

Memory boxes crafted from a landmark fallen oak at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Mementoes honoring Bjorn Norgaard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A photo of Bjorn rests between two poems he wrote. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Now, in this chance meeting, I learned of Bjorn’s connection to that tree. His father held it—two boxes crafted from that fallen oak, the larger one holding a passport, an American Birkebeiner pin and other mementos of a dearly loved son.

Brett Norgaard asked me to take this family photo. I was happy to do so after hearing his son’s story. Shortly thereafter, rain began falling so I was unable to photograph Bjorn’s gravestone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But it was Bjorn’s poems that expressed to me the creative spirit of this outdoorsman, environmentalist, cross country skier, Alaska fly fishing guide, 2006 Northfield High School graduate, son, grandson, friend…

This cemetery is rich in history, in stories and in natural beauty and peace. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The second verse of his poem, “Oak Leaves,” seems almost prophetic. He wrote:

New season coming, you must change,

but please remain, not yet time to fade away.

For one day we will cease to be,

will you drop your leaves and cover me?

Today Harold Bonde, 94, will be buried at Valley Grove, not far from Bjorn’s grave, not far from the site of the fallen landmark oak. His burial space was marked off during Sunday’s Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

After Bjorn died, his father found 80 poems in his son’s journals. I understand why he cherishes them. These are the words of a soulful, introspective, nature-centered, sensitive spirit. And although the oak tree no longer stands, unable to drop leaves onto Bjorn’s gravestone, there’s a sense that the tree remains. Strong. Sheltering those who lie beneath the soil and those who walk upon the earth, come here to visit, embrace and remember loved ones. Only days earlier, on September 15, Bjorn would have turned 35.

Many families meandered and conversed in the cemetery on Sunday afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

On this day of a Country Social, Bjorn’s family remembered him, honored him. I saw love in a father’s hands wrapped around oak boxes, in watery eyes and precious stories. Here at Valley Grove, atop a hill edged by prairie, woods and farmland, and centered by two historic churches, humanity comes in moments like this, when a father shares his grief with a stranger. Compassion rises. A connection is made. Comfort comes. A loss is shared.

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Please check back for a follow-up post featuring the Valley Grove Country Social in its entirety.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Howard Mohr, author of “How to Talk Minnesotan” September 8, 2022

Image source: Goodreads

MINNESOTA SEEMS, TO ME, a hotbed for writers. And five days ago we lost one of our most beloved, Howard Mohr. He was perhaps best-known for his wildly popular, at least in Minnesota, book, How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide, published in 1987. The book was later updated and adapted into an equally popular musical.

Many years have passed since I read my copy of this entertaining, humorous, and, yes, truthful, summary of Minnesota life. In honor of Mohr, who died September 4 of Parkinson’s at Fieldcrest Assisted Living in Cottonwood, I pulled my book from the shelf and reread it.

A corn field in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That Mohr, 83, recently moved from his Lyon County farm home of 52 years to a facility called Fieldcrest seems especially fitting. He lived in farming country, my native southwestern Minnesota, the place of small towns defined by grain elevators and land defined by fields of corn and soybean. He understood the people and place of the prairie. So when I read the sentence in his book declaring the produce of Minnesota writers to be as valuable as a crop of soybeans and corn, I felt he nailed it.

A harvested field and farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’ve long celebrated writers rooted in the prairie like Mohr, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred, Leo Dangel… My friend Larry Gavin of Faribault, too, poet and writer who studied under those writers and lived for 15 years on the prairie. Some shared their knowledge, their talents, by teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. That’s near Cottonwood. Mohr taught English at Southwest State. He also penned Minnesota Book of Days, How to Tell a Tornado (poetry and prose) and wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion,” also appearing on the show.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’m most familiar with How to Talk Minnesotan. The content reflects my rural upbringing. The dairy and crop farm of my youth lies a mere 15 miles to the south and east of Cottonwood, thus rereading Mohr’s book is like traveling back home, a reminder of that which defines me as a native of rural Redwood County. Even after nearly 40 years of living in Faribault, in town, I still call the noon-time meal “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” My adult kids don’t, so I/they, always clarify when invitations are extended to a meal. To me “lunch” will always come mid-afternoon or in the evening before guests leave.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our Redwood County farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I’m standing next to my mom in the back. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Mohr’s references to the noon whistle, Jell-O (once popular, not so much now) winter survival kits, snowbirds (those who leave Minnesota in the winter and return in the spring), hotdish (casserole), pancake feeds, seed corn caps, lutefisk, Lutherans, bullheads (smaller versions of catfish), the “long goodbye” all resonate. I especially understand his point that Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather. We are.

Bars made by Lutherans. ( Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Some 10-plus years ago, when my now son-in-law moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles after falling in love with my eldest daughter, I gifted him with Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. I figured this would help him adjust to our language and state. Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t know. But Marc hasn’t moved back to his native California. And he never commented on Mohr’s statement that Californians struggle to adapt to life in Minnesota. Marc fits in just fine. I do recall, though, his comment on “bars,” a word with duo meaning here in our state. “Bars” are both a place to gather and drink alcohol and a baked or unbaked sweet treat (made with lots of sugar and often topped with chocolate) pressed or spread into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

Maybe I really ought to make a pan of bars, cut them into squares, plate and serve them with coffee for “a little lunch” as a way to honor Howard Mohr, writer, satirist, humorist. He yielded a mighty fine crop of writing.

FYI: I encourage you to read Mohr’s obituary by clicking here. Be sure to read the insightful and loving comments. And if you haven’t read How to Talk Minnesotan, do. If you’re Minnesotan, it will be a refresher course in our life and language. If you’re not from here, you’ll better understand us upon reading this guide.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A crisis: In memory of all the Jordyns & Kobes August 12, 2022

A rural Rice County, Minnesota, cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo used for illustration only)

NOT AGAIN. My reaction zipped in a flashpoint of disbelief over yet another young Minnesota man shot and killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis.

The latest to die is Jordyn Hansen, 21, formerly of Faribault. He recently moved to Otsego in the northwest metro to live with an aunt and uncle. There, according to his aunt who was interviewed by a reporter from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, they hoped Jordyn could recover away from a previous lifestyle that amplified his mental health challenges. He had a history of mental illness and substance abuse and had been in treatment.

When Jordyn experienced another crisis early Sunday morning, his family members called police. Narratives of what happened after law enforcement arrived are vastly different. The police say one thing, the family another. In the end, the family seeking help for their loved one is now attending a funeral, which will be held this morning at my church in Faribault.

I didn’t know Jordyn or his family. Nor do I know the family of Kobe Dimock-Heisler, a 21-year-old man on the autism spectrum who was shot and killed by Brooklyn Center police in 2019.

Both cases involved families seeking help in a crisis. Both involved police response. Both involved knives and tasers and six gunshots that killed two young men. Each only 21 years old, with families and friends who loved them.

I could cite many similar cases, but I’ll leave it at that as I process how upset I feel about the deaths of Jordyn and of Kobe. I can’t put myself inside the heads of responding police officers. Nor was I there to witness what unfolded during each emergency. But I can, as a mother and community member, express my deep concern for this ongoing loss of life among those experiencing a mental health or other crisis. Why does this keep happening? And how can we “fix” this so no family member has to worry about their loved one being shot and killed when they call for help?

Jordyn’s family has started a gofundme fundraiser to help cover his funeral expenses. The goal is $10,000. Jason Heisler, Kobe’s father, donated $21 to the cause. I assume he chose that amount because both his son and Jordyn were 21 at the times of their deaths. It should be noted here that the National Alliance on Mental Illness defines autism as the following: Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental condition that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate with others. Consider that when you think of Kobe, who was on the autism spectrum.

Jason Heisler left (in part) this powerful comment on Jordyn’s gofundme site: …preventable should of never happened to this beautiful boy and his family. A mental crisis is not a crime.

Let me repeat that: A mental crisis is not a crime.

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I am grateful to the many professionals, individuals and organizations (like the National Alliance on Mental Illness) that are working hard to improve mental healthcare and the response to those in a mental health crisis. Through education, training, advocacy, understanding, awareness, compassionate response and intervention, change is happening. Yet, the pace of change feels too slow. A key component in all of this is listening and communication. The approach to individuals in a mental health crisis needs to be thoughtful. A shift in attitudes to recognize that mental health is health should be the standard, not the exception.

I encourage you to help cover Jordyn’s funeral expenses by donating via his gofundme page or giving directly to his family. Thank you.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering the 35W bridge collapse 15 years later August 1, 2022

This photo shows the opening spread of the feature article published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Casey McGovern of Minneapolis shot the bridge collapse scene. To the far left is Garrett before the collapse, to the right, his rescuer. The next photo shows his Ford Focus which plummeted into the Mississippi River. And to the right are newly-engaged Garrett and Sonja, before the collapse.

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO THIS EVENING, 13 people died and 145 were injured when the 35W bridge collapsed during rush hour in downtown Minneapolis. Vehicles plunged into the Mississippi River. Others clung to the tilted, broken span of roadway. Lives were forever changed at 6:05 pm on August 1, 2007, when faulty gusset plates gave way and the bridge broke.

Garrett with his mom, Joyce Resoft, about a month after the bridge collapse. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2007. Photo courtesy of Garrett’s family)

Among those most seriously injured was then 32-year-old Garrett Ebling, former managing editor of The Faribault Daily News. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, severed colon, broken left arm and ankles, a spinal injury and more after his Ford Focus nosedived 110 feet, the equivalent of an 11-story building, into the river. That he survived seems miraculous. He spent weeks in the hospital, where he underwent multiple surgeries. A lengthy rehab followed. His life, physically, mentally and emotionally, was forever changed.

Within months of the collapse, I penned a feature story about Garrett for Minnesota Moments, a now-defunct magazine. Mine was one of the few initial interviews Garrett granted and I was both humbled and honored to share his story as a freelance writer. Prior to his departure from the editorial job in Faribault, we had connected. I remember Garrett’s kindness and compassion toward me after my son was struck by a hit-and-run driver in May 2006. I took great care in writing his story, recognizing that another journalist was trusting me to get it right.

Garrett Ebling’s book.

In 2012, Garrett wrote about his experiences and life thereafter in a book, Collapsed—A Survivor’s Climb From the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge. I reviewed that revealing and emotional book in which this survivor held nothing back.

A section of the then now wow exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul features the 35W bridge collapse. This image shows the collapsed bridge and the emergency exit door from a school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed. All made it safely off the bus (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

Since then, I’ve lost track of the “author, father and 35W bridge collapse survivor,” as Garrett labels himself on his Twitter account. But I expect today, the anniversary of the bridge collapse, is difficult for him as it is every survivor and every single person who lost a loved one 15 years ago in downtown Minneapolis when the unthinkable happened. When a bridge fell.

All the children and adults on the bus signed the door on display at the Minnesota History Center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

There are moments in history that we never forget and, for me a Minnesotan, August 1, 2007, is one of those dates. When I heard the breaking news of the bridge collapse, I worried first about extended family who live in the metro. They were not on the bridge. While that diminished my personal angst, it does not diminish the tragedy of that day for those who were on that bridge. Like Garrett Ebling, the 144 others injured and the 13 who died. It is a tragedy, too, for those who loved them and for us, collectively, as Minnesotans.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When violence touches your life June 2, 2022

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I see grief in the grey tile, part of a “Love Remains” mosaic displayed on the exterior of the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office. Barb Larson, a Chamber employee, was murdered there in 2016, shot to death by her ex-husband, a former Faribault police officer. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I HAD A MUCH DIFFERENT POST planned for today. But then the identity of a homicide victim was released by the Rice County Sheriff’s Department and my focus shifted. I knew the 41-year-old man shot to death in neighboring Morristown early Tuesday morning. A suspect was arrested at the scene and has been charged with second-degree murder.

The victim, Brian, grew up two blocks away, where he and his sister lived with their grandparents. The siblings attended the same Christian day school as my children. The pair were older. On the occasional days the school bus didn’t run, their grandpa would stop to pick up my girls and all four kids rode to school together.

Much time has elapsed since then. Yet, I remember Brian, his short, slim frame and reddish hair. Many years have passed since I’ve seen him out and about walking around Faribault, always wearing a backpack. I have no idea what he did in life, but that connection to him and his family all those years ago means something. My heart hurts for his sister.

WITHIN MY CIRCLE OF CONNECTIONS

This isn’t the first time homicide has indirectly affected me. In May 2004, the father of a close friend was murdered. In May 2010, the sister of a blogger friend from Duluth was murdered by her ex-husband. In May 2013, a former neighbor’s daughter and unborn baby were killed by their husband/father.

Violence has touched my life too many times.

IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD

In May 1999, a SWAT team swept through my neighborhood searching for a knife used in the stabbing death of a 19-year-old some two blocks from my house.

On another occasion, a breathless young man showed up on our doorstep one evening, pleading for us to let him inside. Randy and I refused, not wanting to put ourselves or our family in danger. Instead I called 911. As I begged the police to hurry, a group of men rounded the corner of our house obviously looking for the guy at our door. That they didn’t dash up our front steps and attack him still surprises me all these years later. The potential for violence was real. Eventually law enforcement arrived and left with the young man safely inside a squad car.

And then there was the middle-of-the-night awakening to a woman across the street screaming for help. Screaming for someone to call 911, which I did. Again, I urged officers to hurry. Eventually police arrived as did an ambulance. I never learned what happened on that night all those years ago, only that no one died.

When I count all of these violent acts to which I have been indirectly exposed, I consider the number high. I expect most of you have never known a murder victim (or a murder victim’s family) or had to call 911 to report a crime in progress. I’m thankful if that fits you.

HOW I’VE REACTED

I’ve learned a few things through these experiences. I’ve learned that, no matter who you are or where you live, violence can touch you personally. And when it does, you find the strength, the resolve, the ability to do something. That may mean making a 911 call. That may mean showing up with food and a hug and doing anything you can to support a friend. That may mean mailing an encouraging card, phoning, texting, emailing. Remembering. For those families who’ve lost loved ones to acts of violence, remembering is vitally important. Their lives are forever changed and they need our love and support.

These are my thoughts today as I consider how violence has, once more, indirectly entered my life.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focusing on the true meaning of Memorial Day May 28, 2022

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

THIS HOLIDAY WEEKEND, as you fire up the grill, perhaps gather with family and friends or head Up North to the lake cabin, please pause to remember the reason for Memorial Day.

Helmet on rifle in boots is the universal symbol honoring fallen soldiers, this one at the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

It’s not about the unofficial start of summer or a day off work or whatever. Rather, Memorial Day is a day for honoring those military men and women who died in service to their country. It is a day to reflect on that sacrifice of life, to honor, mourn, remember.

Printed on the back of a Memorial Day program folder in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

As the daughter of a Korean War veteran who served as an infantryman with the US Army on the frontlines in Korea and decades later received the Purple Heart, I grew up understanding the significance of Memorial Day. I attended the annual Memorial Day program in my hometown of Vesta, publicly read the poem, “In Flander’s Fields,” multiple times, went to the cemetery afterwards, listened to the haunting playing of taps.

A story about my dad’s Army buddy, Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, killed in action and published in the July 23, 1953, issue of The Wolbach Messenger. Dad witnessed Ray’s death and was forever haunted by that awful memory. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

My heart holds those Memorial Day memories which prompt me, to this day, to attend a local event honoring fallen soldiers.

A veteran plays taps at the conclusion of the 2016 Memorial Day program in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

Yet it is not the pageantry of a parade, the flying of flags, the singing of patriotic songs, the delivery of speeches or even a poppy pinned to a lapel that moves me the most. Rather, it is the singular playing of taps. Mournful and heartwrenching in a way that grips my soul with grief. For those who died in service. For those left behind.

A paver at the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial notes the tragic death of Sgt. Donald E. Ponto, killed in action. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

Memorial Day is, to me, a profoundly powerful day. It brings not only emotions of sorrow, but also of gratitude.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My thoughts following the Uvalde school shooting May 27, 2022

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My tears spill in a fountain of grief at the deaths of 19 beautiful children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2015)

Eliahana

Annabelle

Jackie

Amerie

Xavier

Rojelio

Uziyah

Tess

Alexandria

Jose

MaKenna

Alithia

Miranda

Maite

Nevaeh

Ellie

Jailah

Jayce

Layla

Eva Mireles

Irma Garcia

I SHARE THE ANGER. The outrage, too. The frustration, sadness, grief… Feelings of hopelessness and “not again” and disbelief over yet another mass shooting in this country, this time at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

If the deaths of 19 children and two teachers are not enough to effect change, what will? How often, how many more times will this happen—whether in a school, a church, a grocery store, a movie theater—before lasting change happens to prevent such tragedies? I will never understand why assault rifles are available (and accessible) to the public, why they are “needed” in the United States. There is so much I don’t “get” when it comes to the politics and rights and money that factor into this ongoing lack of action against gun violence.

I share these sentiments expressed by elected officials and other public figures:

  • I am sick and tired of this.—President Joe Biden
  • What are we doing?—Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut (2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting)
  • Stop saying that mental illness is behind this.—Joy Behar, “The View”
  • I’m so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families that are out there. I’m tired of the moments of silence. Enough.—Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr (whose father was killed by gunmen in Lebanon)

When I heard the breaking news of the school shooting on Tuesday in Texas, I thought of my own precious granddaughter, a kindergartner at a Minnesota school. I thought of all those grandparents and parents and siblings and other family members who loved those 19 young children and two teachers from that Texas elementary school. I cannot even fathom the depth of their grief, how their lives are forever changed. How their loved ones went to school that Tuesday morning and never came home.

If the initial outcry and anger remain, then I hold hope that perhaps, finally, something will happen. Something that ends this senseless loss of lives. Something that shows we care more about human beings than money and gun rights and politics and power.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thinking of Mom on her birthday May 24, 2022

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My mom celebrates her 82nd birthday at Parkview Home in Belview, Minnesota, in May 2014. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2014)

THE FIRSTS ALWAYS prove the hardest. And today marks a first. Today would have been my mom’s 90th birthday, had she not died in January.

I miss her. Sometimes believing she is truly gone feels impossible. A lot of that has to do with COVID—of seeing so little of her during the pandemic and then attending her funeral in the absolute height of omicron. Like so many other families with elders in long-term care, with loved ones who passed during COVID, the loss is compounded. Closure seems elusive in the absence of community comfort.

But I don’t want to dwell on that. I want to focus instead on my mom, a woman of deep faith, humble, kind…and such a gift to me.

I think back on her birthday in May 2014, shortly after she moved into the long-term care center which became her home for the remainder of her life. Randy and I drove the 2.5 hours to visit her, bringing with us a homemade chocolate cake and several jugs of lemonade. A few extended family members joined us to celebrate.

I took a photo of Mom as she gazed upon that rectangular cake, nine candles blazing, sprinkles scattered atop the homemade chocolate frosting. She looks content, pleased. That I could bring her joy on her 82nd birthday still makes me smile.

On Monday I smiled, too, as Mom’s sister Rachel and her husband, my Uncle Bob, stopped to see me en route back to their Missouri home after a visit to Minnesota. As Rachel and I stood in the driveway wrapping our arms around each other in the tightest hug, I felt a moment of fleeting sorrow mixed with comfort. None of my mom’s siblings attended her funeral due to COVID concerns, health issues and/or distance. I was thankful for their decision, although I knew it had to be difficult for them not to say goodbye to their sister. As my godmother and I hugged upon her arrival, I felt Mom’s presence. There was an undeniable moment of shared grief.

Later, after I served lunch, I grabbed a bag of gingersnap cookies from the kitchen counter to pass around. Mom’s favorite. I’d baked a batch awhile ago and froze some. When Mom lived at Parkview, I made gingersnaps for her every Christmas.

Today, May 24, I think of gingersnaps and birthday cakes and multiple memories that remind me of the mom I loved, still love. And miss. Oh, to sing “Happy birthday!” one more time.

© Copyright 2022 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

 

Grieving in Minnesota, three tragedies April 23, 2022

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:01 AM
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Third grader Henry Johnson of Nerstrand Charter School created this vivid work of art for a Student Art Exhibit at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault. Published with this post for illustration purposes only. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I CONTEMPLATED WHETHER I should write about the tragic deaths of four Minnesota children recently. But it’s important for me, in some small way, to pause and share that which imprints sadness upon my heart. To lose a child is perhaps life’s deepest sorrow.

The first tragedy happened on April 15 in rural Wabasso—I graduated from Wabasso High School—in southwestern Minnesota. Braxton Welch, 20 months, died after being struck by a vehicle driven by his dad. I cannot even begin to fathom the grief this family is experiencing. This is personal to me because I know the Welch family back a few generations. I knew Braxton’s deceased great grandfather Gary, who lived in my hometown of Vesta and worked as a mechanic at my Uncle Harold’s service station. And I babysat Braxton’s grandfather (Gary’s son), Troy, and siblings a few times as a teen. Now Troy has lost his grandson, a sweet little boy with the brightest blue eyes. Braxton loved dancing and giggling and his big brother. And I expect so much more.

To the west, in rural Lynd, a 9-year-old girl (not yet identified) has died after being shot in the head on April 18. Authorities are classifying the shooting as “accidental.” Again, an unfathomable tragedy. UPDATE, April 26, 2022: The Lyon County Sheriff’s Department has identified Caitlin Renee Demuth as the young girl who died as a result of this tragic shooting. A public visitation will be held from 5 – 7 pm Friday, April 29, at the Hamilton Funeral Home in Marshall.

And then way up north, in the port city of Duluth, the Barry family was found shot to death in their beds on April 20. The victims include mom, Riana, 44; dad, Sean, 47; and their daughters, Shiway, 12, and Sadie, 9. The identified shooter, their 29-year-old nephew/cousin, also died, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police continue their investigation into the motive while publicly stating the shooter struggled with mental health issues. This murder-suicide, resulting in the deaths of two children and three adults in a single family circle, is undeniably tragic. It is almost too much to bear and my heart absolutely breaks for everyone touched by this tragedy, especially family and friends but also the greater Duluth community and responding law enforcement.

Friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help extended family pay for the Barrys’ funerals and for travel and other expenses. I encourage you to visit that site, donate if you can and pause to read the comments written by those connected to the Barry family. You will read of a kind, loving and generous family who welcomed newcomers, of two little girls who sold Girl Scout cookies, of guinea pigs and bike riding and all those ordinary life events that, in death, take on new meaning.

Tears flow. I feel emotionally drained. My heart hurts. Yet, I recognize that what I feel is nothing compared to the friends and families of Braxton; the little girl from Lynd; and the Barry family. To experience their loss and grief seems incomprehensible. Tragic beyond words.

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FYI: A public vigil for the Barry family will be held on Sunday evening, April 24, outside the family’s home at 715 E. 12th Street in Duluth. A short program begins at 8 pm with the lighting of holiday lights on the home. Christmas was one of the family’s favorite holidays. Attendees can also share stories at the event. The public is also invited to bring new children’s books to be donated in the family’s honor. The Barrys had a Little Free Library outside their home to share their love of reading and of books.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling