Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An obituary that needs to be shared January 18, 2023

This is a partial photo of Mark DeWitte’s obit published in The Gaylord Hub. I intentionally focused on the information in column two, middle paragraph. (Minnesota Prairie Roots edited photo January 2023)

HE LIVED THE BEST LIFE POSSIBLE.

That statement in the obituary of a 52-year-old Gaylord man may not seem extraordinary. He died on December 21, 2022, of cancer. But nowhere in Mark DeWitte’s obit does it state that he died after a courageous battle with cancer as is commonly seen in death notices. The only references are to a recent diagnosis and a move home to be with his family while in hospice.

Rather, the health diagnosis which led to that living the best life possible assessment is schizophrenia. Mark was diagnosed at the age of 16, which means he lived with this awful, debilitating brain disorder for 36 years.

DISPELLING THE MYTHS

That Mark’s loving family chose to publicly reveal his schizophrenia in print speaks to the depth of their love, their support and their courage. The misunderstandings attached to this disease all too often create fear and stigma, adding to the challenges of what is already an overwhelming health condition. Visions of violence, split personalities and other negative behaviors too often color schizophrenia with untruths. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines schizophrenia as “a serious mental illness that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. It is a complex and long-term medical illness.” (I encourage you to read more details about schizophrenia on the NAMI website by clicking here.)

It should be noted that schizophrenia manifests differently in individuals and, although incurable, can often be managed with medication, therapy and more. Managed. Not cured. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to live the best life possible. Mark clearly did that within the confines of his symptoms. But he didn’t do it alone. He had a family who loved him, a community that cared and professionals who supported him. For the past eight years, Mark lived at Aveyron Homes.

Mark’s obituary offers glimpses of what brought him joy: Music. Going out with his brother Mike for beer twice a week. But, most of all, his family brought him joy.

RIPPLING INTO THE FAMILY

Schizophrenia, like any other long-term health issue, affects the entire family. The DeWitte family acknowledges that, not in any specific statement but rather in their willingness to write about their loved one’s life-long disease. Too often, we fail to recognize or even acknowledge the challenges of a serious mental illness and how it affects those dealing with and touched by it. Generally, there are no meals delivered during a mental health crisis. No “how are you doing?” questions or offers of help. Minimal, if any, compassion. Rather, the reaction is often one of silence, as if not speaking about “it” negates the need to show care or attempt to understand. There are exceptions, of course, and we as a society are slowly shifting towards understanding and acknowledgment and reducing stigmas about mental illness. Still, mental illness remains mostly hidden.

BREAKING THE SILENCE

Mark’s family is breaking the silence via their openness about his schizophrenia. It’s clear from a follow-up public thank you published in their weekly newspaper, The Gaylord Hub, that the community supported them. Linda DeWitte (Mark’s mom) and Michael DeWitte thanked the community for food, cards, flowers, memorials and even for snow removal. I can only assume the community also supported them when Mark was alive.

That Mark lived the best life possible while living with a horrible horrible disease comforts me. His family may not have stated that he died after a courageous battle with schizophrenia. But in my eyes he did.

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FYI: I encourage you to visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website (click here) to learn more about mental health issues like schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and more. NAMI offers information, support and help, including online and in-person support groups. Check your state’s NAMI organization for specifics. NAMI is a valuable resource that can grow knowledge, compassion and understanding.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Missing mom… January 13, 2023

The cover of an altered book my friend Kathleen created for me following the death of my mom. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

THE CALL CAME SHORTLY after 6 pm on a Thursday evening one year ago. In that moment, when my youngest brother’s name flashed on my cellphone screen, I knew. Mom died. Not passed. Not was gone. She was dead.

The news was not unexpected. Yet it was. As much as we think we are prepared for a parent’s death in the light of long-time failing health, we are not. I was not.

One of my treasured last photos of my mom and me, taken on January 11, 2020. Because of COVID restrictions, I was unable to see Mom much during the final years of her life. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling)

A year after that January 13 call, I still have not fully-grieved. Part of that I attribute to the timing of Mom’s death during the height of omicron. For me, there was nothing normal about Mom’s big public funeral (which I did not support) during COVID. No standing in a receiving line beside my siblings. No hand shaking. No hugging. No crying beneath my N95 mask. Just tears locked inside. Feelings held inside. Emotions of feeling disappointed and disrespected in a church packed with unmasked mourners checked.

It is a struggle to let go of such hurt, such pain. But I’m trying. Mom would want me to focus not on her death, funeral and burial, but rather on her earthly life and now her glorious new life in heaven. She taught me well, leaving a strong legacy of faith.

A portion of a family-themed photo board I created for my mom’s January 22, 2022 funeral. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

That legacy is not one simply of beliefs and words, but also one of attitudes and action. My mom was one of the kindest, humblest, gentlest souls I’ve ever known. My five siblings and I would occasionally test her spirit, her patience, her fortitude. But seldom did she express her exasperation. Sometimes I think Mom just had too much to do in the day-to-day running of a household and mothering of six kids to get upset. Wash clothes with the Maytag wringer washer. Can a crate of peaches. Weed the garden. Bake bread. Make supper. Scrub the floor. Iron clothes. On and on and on the list of endless chores went inside and outside our rural southwestern Minnesota farmhouse. She never complained, simply pressed on in her own quiet, mothering way.

Another page of the altered book features a photo of my mom holding me. I love the quote. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2022)

Even with all that family-centered work, Mom found time for outside activities. She was active in St. John’s Lutheran Church, the Legion Auxiliary, Extension Club, Craft Club, Senior Citizens and helped at Red Cross blood drives. Some of this came many years into motherhood, when her responsibilities lessened. I was already gone from home. I once asked Mom if she missed me when I left for college in the fall of 1974. No, she replied. She was, she said, too busy with the other four kids still at home. While I didn’t necessarily appreciate her answer, I understood, and I knew she loved me. Mom was undeniably honest, a trait I hold dear also.

I am forever grateful for the loving sympathy cards, memorials and other gifts I received. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

Honesty. Integrity. Service to others. All were part of Mom’s life story. She lived her faith. These words from the hymn “Beautiful Savior,” sung at her funeral service, fit Arlene Anna Alma Kletscher: Truly I’d love thee, Truly I’d serve thee, Light of my soul, my joy, my crown. The hymn has always been my favorite for its message and its beautiful, poetic imagery.

On the Sunday before the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, “Beautiful Savior” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” were sung during the worship service at my church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault, some 120 miles from St. John’s in Vesta. The congregation also sang “Precious Lord” at Mom’s funeral. Because of illness, I missed Trinity’s worship service last Sunday. But I listened on the radio, thankful in many ways that I was not in the church pews. Trying to sing the hymns from Mom’s funeral may have proven a breaking point for me, unleashing a year’s worth of grief. Oh, how I miss my mom.

I miss her smile. I miss hugging her. I miss talking to her and remembering with her. I miss calling her every Sunday evening at the same time. I miss sharing photos of my grown children and her great grandchildren. I. Miss. Her. In the hard moments of life—and I’ve had plenty in recent years—I’ve turned to Randy and said, “I just want to be the kid again, to have my mom take care of me.” It is an impossible wish, a longing, a yearning, yet a verbal acknowledgment of my mother’s love.

I printed this message inside a handmade Mother’s Day card back in elementary school. Mom saved the card and I am grateful. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Now, in my year-old grief, I still feel Mom’s love. I see her love, too, in the memory of her lips curving into a slight smile when I saw her for the last time, when I said goodbye and I love you and exited her room at Parkview. That smile proved her final, loving gift to me, her oldest daughter. I’ve locked that moment in my heart to unlock when grief sneaks in, when the pain of missing my mom rises within my spirit.

I unlock, too, the comforting lyrics of “Beautiful Savior”: He makes our sorr’wing spirit sing.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on the life of Barbara Walters, from a Minnesota journalist’s perspective January 4, 2023

The cover of Walters’ book, published in 1970. (Photo credit: Amazon)

WHEN NEWS BROKE that broadcast journalist Barbara Walters died on Friday at the age of 93, I reacted with disbelief. I didn’t think she was 93, older than my mom would have been if she was still living.

Once I got over that surprise, I began to reflect on Walters’ career as a journalist. As an experienced journalist myself, albeit in print journalism, I connect on a professional level.

BLAZING THE WAY FOR WOMEN

I have always admired Walters, called “a trailblazer” in her field. The description fits. She blazed the way for women in a profession dominated by men. This was true for many women of her time, not just those in journalism. Even I, nearly 30 years her junior, experienced challenges as a female newspaper reporter in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I often felt the sense that men, especially those in positions of power, did not like me. They ignored me, tried to intimidate me, pressured me not to report what had been said at a public meeting. I never caved.

I felt fortunate to have a publisher/editor who backed me up every time, who supported, encouraged and mentored me in my first job at a rural Minnesota weekly. I hope, expect, Walters had the same behind-the-scenes support because some male co-workers didn’t hide their disdain for her. When I watched a clip of her co-anchor dismissively addressing her on the ABC Evening News, I cringed. That Walters maintained her composure is admirable.

SHE DID HER HOMEWORK

There are many reasons to admire Walters. She had a way with interviewees that prompted them to open up to her. Part of that came from being well-prepared. She did her homework—researched backgrounds and prepared questions (written on index cards) well in advance. I followed that same preparatory process for interviews. It works. I relied on my advanced list of questions, my listening skills, my copious note-taking (no recording an interview ever) and my observations to get a story.

Walters never backed down. She asked the tough questions. She perfected the art of the interview. To watch her interviews, especially those from her “The Barbara Walters Special(s)”, is to observe a gifted journalist. She ended each interview with an open-ended opportunity to add what may have been missed in her questioning. I did the same. We were thorough, an indication of the perfectionist trait we share.

THE LESSER-KNOWN FACTS ABOUT WALTERS

In recent days I learned other facts about Walters that reveal her personal side. She learned patience and empathy from her older sister Jackie, who had “a mental disability” (I’m uncertain what that means), Walters once said. She named her daughter Jackie (whom she adopted, following multiple miscarriages) in honor of her sister.

And one final thing. Walters sent handwritten thank you notes and other cards. I do, too. She understood, and I do also, the value in taking time to express gratitude, in the power of the word, whether written or spoken.

Walters leaves a legacy that stretches beyond her trailblazing the way for female journalists. She leaves a legacy, too, of kindness.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dealing with derailed plans & loss at Christmas December 26, 2022

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This photo, taken along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota in January 2010, illustrates how the wind blows snow across the land. Conditions were worse, much worse, in the recent blizzard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2010)

SATURDAY MORNING I OPENED the blinds to a winter landscape awash in brilliant sunlight. That’s not particularly unusual for December in Minnesota. But what proved different were the two pillars of light flanking the sun with a rainbow arcing between. Sun dogs glared stronger than the center sun and I couldn’t stop looking at the scene.

I’m no scientist or weather person, but the sun dogs and rainbow have something to do with the frigid temps and ice crystals in the atmosphere. They lasted for hours, a true gift on a morning when I welcomed brightness in my day.

Landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

PLANS UPENDED BY WINTER STORM

I needed that beautiful light in the midst of Christmas plans that didn’t quite unfold as hoped. I expect many of you experienced the same as this massive winter storm moved from state to state. My son, whom I haven’t seen in a year, had to rebook his canceled flight from Indianapolis. His plane lands early this evening at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and he arrives here Tuesday morning with his oldest sister and her family. I cannot wait to enfold him in a tight, lingering hug.

Yesterday Randy and I drove the 35 minutes to our eldest daughter’s house for a holiday meal and time together with the four of them, including our two precious grandchildren. We played space BINGO and watched a little artist paint and gave lots of hugs and then celebrated Christmas with a zoom call after our holiday meal. I am thankful for such technology bringing my family together from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Indiana.

For many families, Christmas together never happened, and not just because of canceled flights. All of southwestern (my home area on the prairie) and south central Minnesota were basically shut down by the multi-day blizzard. More than 2,000 miles of roadway were closed, including interstates. Snow gates were dropped into place, blocking access. The Minnesota National Guard was called up to rescue stranded motorists, who shouldn’t have been out in a storm that packed up to 40 mph winds whipping snow into concrete-hard drifts. I understand a blizzard, having grown up on the prairie. Not everyone does.

(Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo used for illustration only)

MISSING FAMILY/MOM

I understand the strong yearning to be with family. Being separated from loved ones during the holidays is simply emotionally challenging. I am sort of used to it given only one of my three adult children remains in Minnesota. But the missing never goes away.

This year brought an added dimension of missing. Missing Mom, my first Christmas without her. I thought I was doing fine until the final song at our Christmas Day morning worship service. Only moments earlier, a woman pushed her elderly father to the front of the church to receive Holy Communion. In that moment, my mind flashed to my wheelchair-bound mom. Within minutes, I was crying, trying not to sob. I removed my glasses, wiped the gush of tears with the backs of my hands. I felt Randy’s hand on my back, a loving and comforting gesture.

Later that evening, my friend Gretchen texted asking for prayers. Her mom died unexpectedly earlier in the day. After Christmas Day morning worship. After lunch and gift-opening at her sister’s house in Washington. Now Gretchen and her family are scrambling to book flights from southwestern Minnesota. This broke my heart. To lose one’s mama is hard enough. But to lose her on Christmas Day, even harder. My friend Beth Ann experienced the same two years ago. Christmas will now forever be connected to loss. Yet, Gretchen and Beth Ann are both strong women of faith. Like me, they know we will see our moms again. Together. Just not now.

TELL ME: Are you grieving this holiday season? Did your Christmas plans change due to weather? What’s the weather been like in your area? I’d like to hear your stories on any/all of these topics.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Missing Mom: Grief during the holidays December 22, 2022

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The photo of my mom and son which prompted my grief to surface. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 1994)

MY FOREFINGER SLID UP the photo toward her face, circling repeatedly as if I could somehow reach into the image and connect with my mom.

It was Sunday afternoon and I was filing through a stash of old photos given to me by a sibling at a family holiday gathering the day prior. I’d never seen the photo taken nearly 29 years ago of Mom cradling my chunky newborn son on her lap. She was 60 then, younger than I am now. The two would eventually form a special bond, despite the geographical distance. When Caleb headed off to college, he would call his grandma occasionally. She shared about the lengthy conversations and I felt thankful. Those phone calls benefited both of them.

Now here I was sitting at my dining room table, caressing that photo, missing the two of them. Mom died in early January. Caleb will, weather permitting, fly into Minnesota later this week for a short stay. I last saw him in early January, shortly before his grandma passed; he couldn’t return for the funeral.

Sunday marked about a year since my final visit with Mom in her long-term care center. That anniversary date and the photo, along with Randy asking me if I was familiar with the song “The Christmas Shoes” (I was) prompted my emotions to swell into full-blown grief. He found the lyrics for me, then played the song about a young boy buying shoes for his dying mother on Christmas Eve. That did it. The lyrics penned by Eddie Carswell and Leonard Ahlstrom in the song released by NewSong in 2000 moved me to tears.

The gingersnap cookies I baked for Mom in 2020. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo December 2020)

I sobbed, tears gushing down my cheeks. “I miss my mom,” I sputtered, the words emerging as my shoulders heaved in sorrow, my breath ragged. I miss her kindness, her smile, her gentle way. I miss baking gingersnap cookies for her, as I did each Christmas because they were her favorite. I miss hugging her and talking to her, even if she couldn’t respond as her health deteriorated. I miss the essence of her, simply being in her presence. I miss sharing with her about her grandchildren, including that baby boy she cuddled. I miss telling her about the next generation, my two grandchildren. I miss sharing about my latest writing projects. She was always my strongest supporter, happy to hear that I’d had another poem or short story published.

A sampling of the many sympathy cards I received when my mom died in January. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2022)

This will be my first Christmas without Mom. Those firsts can be tough. I recognize that I am not alone, that many of you have lost loved ones, too, within the past year. I’m sorry. Grief often has a way of erupting during the holidays when families come together, memories surface. Time softens the edges of grief, yet never fully erases it. And that’s OK. To grieve is to have loved.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Two friends, loss & resilience December 16, 2022

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Light, beautiful light, breaks through the grey as the sun sets. (Minnesota Prairie Roots edited & copyrighted file photo December 2017)

I READ A LOT. News. Books. Obituaries. And sometimes something touches me in a way that makes me want to cry at the cruelty of humanity. That happened this week when I read a tribute on an online obituary for a 45-year-old Faribault-born man.

I didn’t know Allen. I have no idea why he died. But he clearly was loved.

Yet, life wasn’t always easy for him, as his friend Rachel notes in her comment. She remembers the times they hung out on her front porch as teens “talking about nothing at all and everything.” I love the wordage of that remembrance. But then Rachel continues. “He always has (d) a smile and a kind word for everyone even though he was made fun (of) as much as I was.”

In that singular sentence, my heart simply broke. I know Rachel, enough to believe her truth. I admire her for writing that truth, not only about herself, but about the friend she says she will always miss.

Why were people mean to Allen and Rachel? And to me? I, too, was picked on as a child and pre-teen, sometimes even as an adult. Decades later the memories of those hurtful words still sting. Rachel’s comment reveals the same.

Yet, despite the teasing, Allen maintained a positive attitude with his always smile and kind words. That says something for his resilience, his ability to overcome, at least outwardly. He had a good friend in Rachel.

As I reflect on this, I follow the lead of these two friends. If you’ve endured meanness, I think you can go two ways—become just like the bullies or choose to be kind and empathetic. Allen, Rachel and I chose kindness. My compassion for those who are picked on/bullied/teased/made fun of, whether as children or adults, runs deep. In this moment of reading Rachel’s thoughts about Allen, my heart simultaneously breaks and swells with gratitude for these two friends who talked about nothing at all and everything.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focusing on gratitude from family to creativity November 23, 2022

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A reason to feel grateful, hung on a Gratitude Tree outside the Northfield Public Library. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2019)

EVEN IN A DECIDEDLY DIFFICULT YEAR, as 2022 has been for me, many reasons exist to feel grateful. I fully realized that upon putting pen to paper to compile a gratitude list during this, Thanksgiving week.

Me with my mom. Oh, how I miss her. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling)

The year started with the death of my mom on January 13, during the height of Omicron. It was, undeniably, a challenging time to lose her, not that any time is easy. But COVID compounded the situation, affecting my grief process. Memories from her funeral will always be really hard for me. Ten months later, my focus is one of thankfulness for my mom. She instilled in me care, compassion, kindness…and left a legacy of faith. What a gift. I will also forever feel grateful to the staff at Parkview, who so lovingly cared for Mom for many years like she was family. I am thankful, too, to the many friends who sent comforting sympathy cards and memorials and to my friend Kathleen, who created a memory book honoring my mom.

Wedding guests toss rice at Randy and me as we exit St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta following our May 15, 1982, wedding. (Photo credit: Williams Studio in Redwood Falls)

May brought a milestone wedding anniversary for Randy and me. Forty years. I don’t recall how we celebrated, but nothing splashy. I feel thankfulness every day for this man who loves me unconditionally, supports me and still makes me laugh.

Randy and our grandchildren, Isabelle and Isaac, follow the pine-edged driveway at the lake cabin in one of my all-time favorite family images. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2020)

My immediate family means everything to me. That my two young grandchildren live only 35 minutes away is not something I ever take for granted. From celebrating birthdays and holidays to picking strawberries and apples together to overnights at our house to being there in a crisis, this grandma is grateful for the geographic nearness. There’s nothing like the joy I hold in being a grandmother. The hugs. The snuggles. Reading books. Baking together. Getting down on the floor to play. Scooping the almost four-year-old off the floor and into my arms, little lips pressing a moist kiss upon my cheek.

Twice this year I also embraced dear uncles and an aunt whom I haven’t seen in awhile. I hosted Aunt Rachel and Uncle Bob, visiting from Missouri, for lunch. And I met Uncle John and his son Justin and family for lunch in Northfield. Oh, goodness, the happiness I felt in those hugs from extended family I love dearly.

Flying into Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo December 2015)

Soon my son, who lives in Indiana, will be back for a short Christmas stay. I cannot wait. I haven’t seen Caleb in a year and I miss him so much at times that it almost hurts. But before then, my second daughter and her husband arrive from Madison, Wisconsin, to celebrate Thanksgiving in Minnesota. You bet I feel grateful for the time we will have together. I miss my girl.

Randy and Isabelle on the dock at the lake cabin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2022)

As I write this thanksgiving list, I realize that most gratitude centers on family. That includes time together at a lake cabin owned by a sister-in-law and brother-in-law who open their guest cabin to extended family. Their sharing of this blessing shows such love and generosity of spirit and I feel forever grateful for this place to escape, to enjoy nature, to rest and relax, to rejuvenate, to make memories.

Following a gravel road in Rice County, near Dundas. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo autumn 2022)

I am thankful also for (in no particular order), country drives with Randy; gathering around a bonfire with friends; writers and journalists and poets and artists; vaccines; medical professionals who provided emergency and extended care this year for those dearest to me; democracy…

My two poems, far left, and center, in an exhibit at the Lyon County Historical Society Museum. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

Lastly, I am grateful for my creative abilities. To write and photograph bring me incredible joy, and some side income. I appreciate that my creative work is valued, published. My creativity came full circle this autumn when I traveled back to my native southwestern Minnesota to view an exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home,” at the Lyon County Historical Society Museum in Marshall. Two of my poems, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” and “Hope of a Farmer,” are posted in the exhibit along with a four-generation family photo and my mom’s high school graduation portrait. After touring that exhibit, I visited Mom’s grave site in my hometown. I stood there atop the hillside cemetery surrounded by corn and soybean fields under a spacious prairie sky feeling overwhelmed by sadness, yet grateful for the love we shared.

TELL ME: What are you especially grateful for this Thanksgiving? I welcome specifics, especially.

© Copyright 2022 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