ASH WEDNESDAY PASSED yesterday not without my lack of awareness of this special day in the Christian church. Rather, I experienced the day with an acute awareness rooted in a recent personal loss—the death of my father-in-law.
Now, a day after the Wednesday symbolizing death and repentance and the beginning of Lent, I am thinking of my husband’s father, his funeral and burial only one week ago.
…for dust you are and to dust you will return—Genesis 3:19.
I doubt any words can better describe the reality of death. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. That’s basic. Understandable. Maybe uncomfortable for some. But it’s truth. We’re all going to die, whether at age 90 like my father-in-law or age 19 like my nephew Justin in 2001. Sometimes death takes our loved ones way too soon.
Last Thursday, as we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for Tom and heard the priest speak those familiar words of dust to dust, grief and reality descended. Yet, as a woman of faith, hope balances that in the belief that I will see my loved ones again in heaven. Dad Helbling. Justin. My dad and grandparents and many aunts and uncles…and others I’ve had the joy of loving. For to love is to also open one’s heart to grief. And to hope.
It was an unusually frigid February day in central Minnesota with the temp hovering around zero as we gathered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Over the course of more than three hours, memories imprinted upon me. Memories shaped in part by a global pandemic, which affected the ways in which we could be comforted. Randy and I declined hugs and handshakes. There would be no luncheon, the time of one-on-one visits. No getting together with siblings, at least for us, either before the funeral or after.
Yet, simply being together in the same building brought comfort. Comfort came, too, in flowers and music and Scripture. Like the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, read by my sister-in-law Rosie. When she read a time to embrace and a time to refrain, I thought, how fitting for a funeral during COVID-19.
Images seared into my mind—like the lowering of the casket lid over my father-in-law. Or the surprise of seeing my then preschool-aged son in an image atop the casket spray. He was perched on the seat of his grandpa’s Ford 9N tractor in a photo I took decades ago.
Many times throughout the service—especially during the farewell chant and song of angels welcoming Dad into heaven—I focused on the heavenly angels painted on the ceiling high above the altar. What a gift the artists and craftsmen of this aged church left for mourners. Art comforts.
So does music, especially music. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and many other songs filled this massive church with the most beautiful, heavenly music performed by musicians in the balcony. St. Michael’s has incredible acoustics. Randy and I suggested to his classmate Janel prior to the service that perhaps the musical team could play a polka or waltz in honor of Dad, who so enjoyed both and who also played piano, organ and accordion (not the concertina, as the priest noted). My sister-in-law Vivian shared with me later that the hymn “Whispering Hope,” played before the casket closed, was a popular waltz at wedding dances in the area and was a favorite of her parents. I love nuances like that which personalize a funeral.
As I sat through the service next to Randy on an uncomfortably hard straight-back pew, physically-distanced from family, I determined not to cry. I didn’t want to cry into my mask. I considered how surreal this felt to experience a funeral during a global pandemic. And how surreal also to experience a funeral during Minnesota’s longest cold snap in nearly three decades.
We dressed for the weather, wearing long johns under our dress pants. Randy told me his dad wore long johns often back on the farm so this extra layer of warmth seemed another fitting tribute. Before heading to the cemetery, we slipped out of dress shoes into snow boots.
And then, once grandchildren slid their grandfather’s casket into the hearse for the short drive to the cemetery, mourners followed by foot, crossing Minnesota State Highway 25. A church officiant stood half-way into the traffic lane, bundled for warmth, purple mask covering his face, holding a pole with crucifix atop as traffic waited out of respect for us to cross the road. It was a strong visual moment for me. The red pick-up truck parked curbside contrasting with mourners dressed in black. Waiting vehicles. Masks and stocking caps and bald heads (among those who chose to brave the elements minus head coverings). The priest in his, oh, so Minnesotan red buffalo plaid coat and matching ear flapper cap. An icy parking lot with occasional welcome patches of gravel. And then, the final steps across the snow to the burial site.
As my nieces and nephews carried my father-in-law’s casket, I felt the heaviness of grief. The cold of death, balanced by the promise of eternal life. Grief and joy.
And then, in one last act of love, we each stepped up to pull flowers from the casket spray to lay upon the casket. I chose a red rose, not yet blackened by the cold, placed it on the shiny grey surface. And then, with my mittened hand, I patted the lid twice in a final farewell to my father-in-law.
HE DIED PEACEFULLY Friday morning, two of his daughters by his side.
He is my father-in-law, Tom. Age 90. His death came quickly after a short hospitalization, discharge, sudden change in health, admittance to hospice, then gone the next day.
Now we are preparing to say goodbye in the deep of a brutally cold stretch of weather here in Minnesota in the midst of a global pandemic. Both add to the challenges.
Today, though, I want to focus on Tom and my memories of the man I’ve known for nearly 40 years. A man with a large and loving family, whom he loved, even if he didn’t often openly show it.
Tom has always been surrounded by a large family, beginning with his birth into a blended family in rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in December 1930. After farming on the Helbling homestead, Tom and his wife, Betty, moved in 1963 with their young children to a central Minnesota farm. Their family grew to nine children, 18 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.
As a young child, Tom briefly attended Catholic boarding school, which leads to one of my favorite stories about him. Apparently oatmeal was often served for breakfast. And Tom disliked oatmeal. One morning he stuffed the cooked grain in his pocket rather than eat it, so the story goes. I expect it wasn’t long before the nuns discovered the oatmeal mess and meted out punishment.
Yes, Tom could be particular about the foods he ate. He liked, in my opinion, the strangest foods—Braunschweiger, summer sausage, pickled beets, herring… And, yes, his son, my husband Randy, also likes herring. Shortly before his health declined, Tom enjoyed a few of those favorites delivered to his care center room by a daughter.
Visitor restrictions due to COVID-19 were hard on Tom, as they have been for most living in congregate care centers and their families. But my father-in-law has overcome much in his life, most notably the loss of his left hand and forearm following an October 1967 farming accident. The accident happened when Tom hopped off the tractor to hand-feed corn into a plugged corn chopper. The rollers sliced off his fingers and pulled in his hand, trapping it. As Tom screamed for help, Randy, only 11 years old, disengaged the power take-off, then raced across fields and swampland to a neighbor’s farm. It’s a harrowing story that could have easily turned tragic.
Despite a missing limb, Tom managed to continue milking cows and, in later years, to run a small engine repair business. He also grew and sold strawberries and pumpkins. I remember harvesting pumpkins with him one cold October evening, rain slicking the field with mud. We were drenched and miserable by the time we’d plucked those pumpkins.
It is the creative side of Tom which I especially appreciated. He was a multi-talented life-long musician who played the piano, organ and accordion (until he lost his hand). He could play music by ear and had a piano tuning business. At age 81, he took refresher organ lessons and in 2012 gave an impromptu concert for Randy and me in the small St. Cloud apartment he shared with his second wife, Janice. His first wife, Betty, died in 1993. He treated us to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Somewhere My Love” from the movie Dr. Zhivago. What a gift to us.
Tom also painted, a hobby he took up late in life. Randy and I have two of his original oil paintings and several prints. They are a reminder of my father-in-law, of his history, of his rural upbringing, of his creative side. I consider these a legacy gift. Valued now more than ever at his passing.
I learned of this honor only recently via Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. A gifted poet and tireless promoter of poets and poetry, he submitted the collection to the debut contest sponsored by the Minnesota Library Foundation, Minnesota libraries and Bibliolabs.
According to the MN Reads MN Writes website, the new contest is designed “to recognize community-created writing and to highlight the central role that libraries play in providing support for local authors and the communities they serve.”
I crafted my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” in response to Hardy’s 2018 call for submissions to an anthology of “poetic living wills.”
The content of the poetry collections is summarized as “poems (that) deal with death and dying, with the things that make life meaningful in the face of death, and with the legacies that the poets hope to leave behind or have received from others before them.” My poem, about hanging laundry on the clothesline, focuses on the legacy passed on to me by my grandmothers.
The winner of the first-ever Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest will be announced later this month at the annual Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference. No matter the outcome, I feel honored to stand in the “finalist” category with 15 other gifted poets from Northfield and nearby (like me from Faribault).
SHE IS STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL, the young woman in the long-sleeved simple white dress with eight decorative buttons and a corsage accenting the bodice. Her thick black hair is pulled back in a pony tail held in place by a white ribbon and a sprig of flowers. Next to her stands a tall, lean man dressed in suit and tie, a single carnation pinned to his lapel.
On May 14, 1968, this couple—my Aunt Sue and Uncle John—married. Today would have been their 52nd wedding anniversary. Except Sue died last week of pancreatic cancer. Although we all understood that Sue’s cancer, diagnosed some six months ago, was terminal, her death is still difficult to accept. Her husband of nearly 52 years is heartbroken.
That heartbreak has been compounded by COVID-19. For the week Sue was hospitalized prior to her May 8 death, John could not visit her. Until the end—the day prior and the day of. And now he and his grown children and their families are left to grieve alone. The usual ways in which we comfort and support one another have vanished. You know that if you’ve lost a loved one during this global pandemic.
I wish I could be there for my uncle and cousins, to hold them close and tell them how deeply sorry I am for the loss of their wife and mother, my aunt. Instead phone calls, texts, emails, cards and flowers must suffice…until we can gather at some time to honor Aunt Sue.
She was such an incredibly beautiful woman. And also outgoing and engaging. When John and Sue would drive from Minneapolis to rural southwestern Minnesota with their two kids for family gatherings, Sue was right in the thick of conversation and always eager to play board games. During those games, we threatened to use a timer because she often took too long taking her turn. At Christmas one year, I nearly convinced her that I sharpened a candy cane with a pencil sharpener. Laughter filled the farmhouse and Sue laughed right along.
Sue loved her kids and grandkids, cats and good Italian food and life. And she loved my uncle.
Today I will call Uncle John, to offer my support, but mostly to listen. Maybe he will tell me about the beautiful young woman with the thick dark bangs and her hair pulled back. The lovely bride in the above-the-knee simple white wedding dress and his wife of not-quite 52 years.
Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo, March 2019.
THE ROUTE TOOK US along a twisting river road past decaying and broken trees in dense woods. I worried a limb might drop atop our van as we drove north out of Lucan in southwestern Minnesota.
Then we reached a spot abuzz with people—campers and anglers mostly—stopping at a store to stock up on supplies. We decided to stop, too, and explore this rustic place in the middle of nowhere. Randy parked. Then we, with kids in tow, crossed a narrow walkway over a stream as we hiked toward the store some distance away.
Once inside, a maze of rooms awaited us at this lakeside property. People swarmed the shop. We browsed.
I decided, at some point, that I needed photos of this unique rural general store. But I’d left my camera in the van, a choice I sometimes make when I opt to simply enjoy being in the moment.
But once outside, I couldn’t find the van among the vehicles jammed into parking spaces scattered through the woods. By that time the rest of the family had exited the shop and we began, in earnest, to search for the van. I remembered then, as I crossed the narrow walkway over the stream, that we’d parked on the other side of the waterway. Near an ice cream shop I hadn’t initially noticed. How could that be?
After searching to no avail, I inquired about the missing van. They had it towed, the dispenser of ice cream said. I understood none of this. Sure, we’d experienced problems with the van, but nothing tow-worthy. We needed our vehicle to get to our niece’s 3 p.m. wedding and to visit my mom prior. By this time I was crying, sobbing really, frantic words pouring forth. “My mom is in hospice. She’s dying,” I wailed. “We need our van.”
And then I awakened from my nightmare. Partially. The setting, the general store, the ice cream shop, the story-line are all fictitious—part of a dream I experienced a few nights ago. But snippets are real. Too real.
On the rare occasions when I recall my dreams, I can connect them to thoughts and emotions. My mom is in hospice. For real. I thought I was mentally and emotionally prepared for her ongoing decline in health. I am not. And our 2003 van, just days ago, was in the repair shop, causing me additional angst.
We have places to go, family to see, goodbyes to say…
Elsie making German potato salad, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.
Inside the church kitchen, that’s Elsie standing next to her stool at a Lenten Soup Luncheon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.
Elsie next to The Last Supper painting given to St. John’s in honor of her husband, Arnold. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
I’ve attended many functions at St. John’s from the annual Germanfest to Lenten soup luncheons to ice cream and pie socials to the yearly The Last Supper Drama. And every time I set foot inside that aged limestone church, Elsie was there. Most often behind the scenes—plating pie, stirring German potato salad, operating spotlights and much more.
Elsie poses with family at the 2017 Germanfest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.
If I didn’t spot her, I sought her out to hug her diminutive frame, to see her sweet smile, to catch up a bit. She was that kind of woman. The grandmother you miss. The mother who lives too distant. The friend who cares. The churchgoer who lives her faith in service to her church and to God. Singing. Coordinating Vacation Bible School for 51 years. Teaching Sunday School for more than five decades.
Elsie, hard at work in the Pie Room. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.
A member of St. John’s Youth Fellowship waits, plate in hand, for a slice of pumpkin pie scooped up by Elsie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.
By the end of the day, Elsie had blisters on her hand from cutting pies. Here she scoops a slice of apple pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.
To know Elsie was to love her. I loved her smile, her demeanor, her humility, her kindness, her devotion to church and family, her work ethic. I remember, especially, the time I found her working in the St. John’s pie room sliding pieces of homemade pie onto plates with her gnarled arthritic hands.
Elsie takes a break from kitchen work to enjoy a bowl of ham and bean soup. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.
Back at the farm, Elsie still gardened. She canned green beans on Thursday evening. The night before her death.
Elsie in The Pie Room, a space so small that this petite woman can barely fit her stool between a counter and refrigerator. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.
I still cannot believe my friend is gone, even though she was nearly 94 years old. There are people in life who seem ageless, whom you always expect will be there. For me, that was Elsie. If only you could have known her. For those of you who did, you understand why I will miss her. Her smile, her kindness, her positive and giving spirit…
IT’S BAD ENOUGH when parents lose a young child. But to endure such a tragedy shortly before Christmas deepens the pain.
This is the reality for a Faribault couple whose almost 4-year-old son, Casimir, died on December 13. On his first birthday on December 27, 2015, Casi aspirated a small object and stopped breathing. According to a Facebook page entry, he lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest. The object was removed surgically. He then suffered seizure-like convulsions and was placed on life support. About two months later, Casi left the hospital and has since needed 24/7 health care. Now he’s gone.
But there’s more. Nate and Jackie Howells’ 10-year-old son, Xavier (known as Iggy), is battling metastasized cancer (rhabdomyosarcoma) diagnosed a year ago. He’s undergone surgery and continues with chemo. He’ll likely need another eight months of treatment.
Nate quit his job teaching children with autism at Jefferson Elementary School in Faribault to better care for Iggy. The Howells have four other children.
As I consider all of that, I am overwhelmed by the immensity of the situation. How can one family possibly endure so much? Loss. Grief. Pain. Uncertainty. Worry. It’s a lot to handle.
Iggy’s soccer team wore these shirts honoring their goalie.
While none of us can remove the emotional pain the Howells feel, we can pray for, support, encourage, uplift, help and care for them. Nate’s friend and former co-worker Lisa (also my friend) has established a gofundme page, Iggy Strong. She’s set a $43,000 goal, meant to replace Nate’s lost paycheck and cover daily living (think gas, groceries, etc.) and other expenses. Thus far donors have contributed nearly $8,500.
The $43K is a lot of money to raise. But I know people, when they see a need, rise to meet it. I am grateful to Lisa for initiating this effort, for reaching out to others (including me) who in turn can share this need. If you can give, please do so by clicking here. You’ll also find more details on Iggy’s battle with cancer.
There’s such sweetness in that freckled face. Such a signature boyish look that just makes me, as a mom, want to wrap my arms around Iggy. And his family.
The beautiful handcrafted LFL donated to my hometown of Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.
I met him briefly in July 2012 when he drove three hours from Hudson, Wisconsin, to my hometown on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. He delivered a Little Free Library, fulfilling my life-long dream for a library in Vesta.
The team that worked to bring a Little Free Library to Vesta includes Dorothy Marquardt, left, and Karen Lemcke, representing the sponsoring Vesta Commercial Club, LFL co-founder Todd Bol and me (holding a copy of a poetry anthology I donated). Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012 by Randy Helbling.
I shall be forever grateful to this visionary’s gift of a mini library and books. My mom used that LFL. So did extended family and others in and around the small farming community. Folks operating the Vesta Cafe expanded the library, placing shelves inside the restaurant for more books. Locals tended the outdoor library Bol installed near the cafe entrance.
The LFL Todd and Susan Bol installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.
Now, all these years later, the founder of the Little Free Library leaves a world-wide legacy of literacy with 75,000-plus officially registered libraries in 88 countries.
The books Todd Bol and I placed inside Vesta’s LFL on July 1, 2012. He brought books donated by several Twin Cities publishers and I brought books from my personal collection. I have since collected and donated an additional 40 books. A retired librarian from nearby Wabasso donated eight bags of books, primarily mysteries and the cafe managers also donated books. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.
And one of those is in my hometown because one man cared enough about a small town in the middle of nowhere to deliver the seed plant for the Small Towns Minnesota LFL Movement. Because of Todd’s generosity, his kindness, his love of books, my hometown has a library. As a lover of books, of the written word, I am grateful.
One of many Little Free Libraries in Faribault, where I’ve lived since 1982. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
TELL ME: Are there Little Free Libraries in your community? I’d like to hear your LFL stories in honor of Todd Bol.
CHOCOLATE MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER, right? Or at least it helps.
Chocolate lifted my mood recently following the death of my friend and pastor, the Rev. Dr. Michael Nirva. He died June 9 in Sweden from complications related to cancer. His unexpected death while traveling with family hit me, and our congregation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault, hard.
From across town, First English Lutheran Church reached out, gifting Trinity with a basket of hugs and kisses. Of the Hershey’s chocolate variety. The congregation’s act of Christian love and sympathy touched me and many others. How thoughtful and kind and caring.
Likewise, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church sent a plant to honor Pastor Nirva at a celebration of life service last weekend. What a blessing to live in a town where such grace is extended to a faith family grieving the loss of its senior pastor.