Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

January grief January 11, 2018

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I TRAILED MY HUSBAND as he wheeled his dad through double doors and across door mats, guiding him between a duo line of young men waiting outside the care center.

Just moments earlier the group carried their grandmother’s casket, grey as the January skies that matched the mood of this Wednesday afternoon in central Minnesota.

Randy veered his dad’s wheelchair to the left, behind the coffin, behind the hearse that would carry my father-in-law’s wife two hours west to her burial plot in Montevideo. There she would be laid to rest in the cold soil beside her first husband.

Earlier we gathered inside the care center chapel to remember Jan and to seek comfort in words of Scripture, song, prayer and memories. I learned of my step mother-in-law’s fondness for Tator Tot Hotdish and doughnuts as my own memories surfaced of a woman who always looked lovely with nails painted, hair done, and clothes and jewelry just so. Twenty-two years ago I photographed her marriage to Tom, Randy standing beside him then just as he was now.

Now, with her family preparing for the 100-mile funeral processional westward, my wheelchair bound father-in-law had his final moments with his second wife. It took one heave of Tom’s shoulders for Randy to place his hand upon his dad’s shoulder in a loving and tender act of comfort. I did likewise as the funeral director slid the grey casket, brightened by a lovely spray of red flowers, inside the hearse, then shut the doors.

In that act of finality, grief for my father-in-law surged through me. To see him lose a second wife 24 years after losing his beloved Betty hurt my heart.

Yet, we are people of faith, confident that Jan, like Betty, is now in heaven, and no longer suffering. That comforted us as we headed back inside the care center to sip coffee and to eat ham sandwiches (made with homemade buns), chips and bars (baked by the hands of those who loved Jan). Absent, though, were my step mother-in-law’s favorite doughnuts and Tator Tot Hotdish.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Thoughts as my son heads back to Boston after the holidays January 3, 2018

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Caleb and I pose for a Christmas Eve 2017 photo.

ON THE FINAL EVENING before he left, I leaned across the sofa to wrap my arms around him. He closed his laptop, stretching his long arms up and around me.

“I want to hold onto this moment,” I said, gripping him tighter.

“I’m not going to take it away from you,” my son answered.

 

The downtown Minneapolis skyline. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

He was right. Only my mind could keep or release the sweet memory of our hug. After 10 days with Caleb home for the holidays from Boston, I was struggling with his departure. Hints that perhaps he could relocate to Minneapolis or St. Paul were met with a firm “no.” At least for now. So I widened the geographic range to Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis. Still no interest.

 

The 2016 commencement ceremony begins at The School of Engineering, Tufts University. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I am resigned, for now, to the fact that my son loves the East Coast. He’s in a place where, after more than four years, he feels comfortable and at home. I never thought my youngest would move the farthest from Minnesota. He started college in Fargo, but soon found the flat and windy North Dakota city and the college a less than ideal fit for him and his insatiable desire to learn, to be challenged. So, shortly after he turned 19 and following his freshman year, he flew to Boston, toured three colleges and gained acceptance to all three. He transferred into Tufts University, a stellar college that offered the challenges (and financial aid) he needed. And now he works in the computer science field in greater Boston.

 

I zoomed in on the Boston skyline from the patio roof of Tisch Library at Tufts University. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo spring 2016.

 

He’s never really said why he prefers Boston over Minnesota. Not that he owes me an explanation. I understand how a metro region with a strong tech base would hold appeal for Caleb. The area seems to me the Silicon Valley of the East Coast. Caleb has found plenty of like-minded techies in groups like Boston Indies. Several times he’s demoed his soon-to-be-released video game, Blockspell. And he’s presenting at the 2018 BostonFIG (Festival of Indie Games) Talks on January 20 at MIT Stata Center. I’m not saying similar opportunities don’t exist in Minnesota. But he’s found his fit in Boston. I need to be good with that. And I am.

Yet, a selfish part of me still yearns for geographical closeness.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A wonderful Christmas December 27, 2017

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My granddaughter, Isabelle, all fancy in her Christmas dress, decides she’s going to open one of her gifts before church services. Rules are rules, though. You have to wait until after church and dinner. She was stopped after pulling tissue from the bag. No crying occurred.

 

HOW WAS YOUR CHRISTMAS? I expect the question will repeat itself numerous times in the next week.

Mine was wonderful. Wonderful because nearly all the people I love most in this world celebrated Christmas with me. I missed my sweet second daughter, absent because she was on-call as a Spanish medical interpreter in eastern Wisconsin. And, yes, she was called into a Green Bay ER on Christmas Day. I’m used to her absence on holidays. I don’t like it. But I know that I am not the only mama without all of her grown children back home.

 

Izzy and Grandpa look at one of her many new books on Christmas Day. She’s sitting in her Izzy-sized chair from her grandparents in California.

 

Unless you’re fortunate enough to have all of your children (and grandchildren) living nearby (and by that I mean in the same state), you understand. We can’t always celebrate holidays together. This year while I enjoyed Christmas with my adorable 20-month-old granddaughter, her Opa and Oma in California were missing her. I know how difficult that had to be for them.

 

Isabelle studies the packaging from her “Daniel Tiger” character set while Uncle Caleb uses his smartphone. I love this photo, which also includes a hand-crocheted monkey I gave to Isabelle.

 

My son flew in from Boston, arriving in the late evening the day before Christmas Eve. Icy conditions canceled more than a dozen flights out of Logan, thankfully not his. I hadn’t seen him since August, not all that long ago. But still too long for this mama. He’ll be around until shortly after New Year’s.

 

Izzy and her mama (my daughter, Amber) read Good Night Minnesota one of the many new books Isabelle got for Christmas. She loves to read. Uncle Caleb gave Izzy the Curious George sweatshirt she’s wearing.

 

I carry now sweet Christmas memories—of gathering around the table and the Christmas tree, of worshiping together, of wrapping my arms around my lanky son, of cuddling my granddaughter, of laughing and talking and loving.

 

Give Izzy a book and she’s a happy girl. This Christmas book came from Kathleen in Washington. Aunt Miranda and Uncle John sent the “Mommy’s Favorite Elf” shirt from Wisconsin.

 

My heart is happy, brimming with memories of family love.

TELL ME: How was your Christmas?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Another Christmas with Mom December 20, 2017

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I pose with my mom for a photo during our extended family Christmas gathering several days ago at her care facility.

 

MORE AND MORE I am cognizant of the passage of time, of aging, of the realization that I am now in the demographic of senior citizen. I need only look at my ever graying hair and my multiplying age spots and feel the aches and pains of arthritis. I am growing old, which is a good thing if you consider the alternative.

But with my own aging comes more frequent grief. More and more I am writing sympathy cards and attending funeral home visitations and comforting friends at the loss of parents.

While my dad died in 2003, my mom is still living. I find myself more and more making sure I photograph her during our visits. She lives 2 ½ hours away. Often I ask my husband to photograph my 85-year-old Mom and me together, too. We almost lost her last winter to pneumonia, one of many critical health challenges Mom has faced during her lifetime.

But she shares the story that God told her he wasn’t ready yet for that stubborn old lady. I believe her. Mom doesn’t lie.

And so I am blessed with another opportunity to celebrate Christmas with Mom. I am thankful.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Passing a love of books onto the next generation November 30, 2017

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My granddaughter with a book.

 

I HAVE ALWAYS loved books. Always. They have taught, inspired, uplifted, entertained and challenged me and so much more.

 

I didn’t have many books as a young child because my parents couldn’t afford them. But I had this one, which I recently spotted (and should have bought) at a Pequot Lakes antique shop

 

A favorite childhood storybook, Three Billy Goats Gruff, instilled in me a fondness for goats and for fairy tales. And a beginning reader book, Joey the Kangaroo, endeared me to kangaroos. As my reading skills advanced, I treasured my hardcover copies of Little House on the Prairie, The Bobbsey Twins, Little Women and The Five Little Peppers.

Somewhere in that time-frame I discovered Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Those series led to a life-long love of mysteries, my favorite genre.

I thrilled in bringing home book orders from school and ordering a paperback or two to add to my bedroom bookshelf. Even though money was tight in our family, Mom allowed me to select books like Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse.

 

When Izzy visits, she often heads straight for this basket crammed with 14 books (current count) and a few toys. While I washed dishes one morning, she pulled the books from the basket one-by-one and “read” each one.

 

When I became a mom in 1986 and birthed more children 21 months and six years later, my time to indulge in leisurely reading vanished. Instead, I found myself with a baby or child on my lap or snuggled next to me on the couch with hardboard and picture books in hand. When my eldest turned six, I was already reading The Little House and Betsy-Tacy series to her and her four-year-old sister.

 

When Izzy opened an I Spy book, I showed her how a matchbox bus matched the photo. I said the word “bus,” then repeated myself. At 20 months, she’s learning new words at a rapid pace.

 

I hold dear those memories of reading to Amber, Miranda and Caleb. All three of my kids love to read. Miranda fixated on horses for awhile, our local librarian Mary Jane always on the watch for new equine books.

 

I love this photo of Izzy “reading.” She didn’t even notice me with my camera, so engrossed was she in her book.

 

Reminders of those youthful passions for reading linger in bookshelves packed with science fiction and fantasy books in Caleb’s former bedroom. My son also frequented the nonfiction section of the local library seeking out books to teach himself juggling, magic tricks, computer programming and more. He loves to learn and never wanted to wait for a teacher to teach him. Today, with a computer science degree, he works in that field and continues to pursue learning. He holds an innate desire and passion for knowledge.

Both of my girls worked in the local library while in high school and later at their respective college libraries. They have never been far from books—whether listening to stories read at home or at library story hour, participating in summer reading programs, filing books on library shelves or simply just reading on their own.

 

One of Izzy’s favorite books to read at my house is All Year Round With Little Frog. When she pushes on the plastic frog, it squeaks. I read this book to Izzy’s Uncle Caleb more than 20 years ago.

 

My kids are grown and gone now. But the importance of reading remains, circling back now to the next generation. My granddaughter, Isabelle, loves to page through books and to be read to by her parents and others who love her, including me. She’s already completed her first summer reading program, attends storytime at the library and has a significant collection of books.

 

My husband, Randy, reads to his granddaughter during an overnight stay at our house several months ago.

 

Izzy has received, says my librarian friend Kathleen, “the gift of generational literacy.” I’ve never thought of the continuum of loving books in that way. But I love that phrase. “Miss Izzy loves books because you instilled that love in her mom (and her sister and brother)…and now, another generation benefits…and on and on,” Kathleen observed. Izzy’s daddy, too, enjoys reading, a gift of generational literacy also passed from his family.

 

Izzy pages through her mama’s childhood book, Moo, Moo, Peekaboo.

 

To watch Isabelle page through books I once read to her mama, aunt or uncle brings me much joy. The words I read some 30 years ago tumble from my memory as I hold Izzy close and recite from memory Moo, moo! Peekaboo, we see you, cow!

 

TELL ME: Have you received the gift of generational literacy and/or passed that gift along?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Wheeling Township, Part IV: A not-so-perfect perfect portrait October 5, 2017

 

WHEN I OBSERVED a family gathering for photos during the St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township Germanfest, I raced to join the photographers. I expected to get a classic posed group shot. But what I got proved better. Much, much better.

 

 

I witnessed six women and a sister focused on getting their brother/son/nephew/grandson to join the group for a portrait. I didn’t hear the little guy object. Loving attention from all those family members likely curtailed any negative behavior.

 

 

I adore this series of photos. In each frame I see the deep love this family holds for one another, especially for that sweet little boy.

 

 

The best portraits are not always the perfectly posed, everyone smiling shots. Rather, they are the ones that tell a story, that snapshot a moment of interaction, of emotion, of love. Those are the best photos.

 

BONUS PHOTO:

 

 

 

This concludes my four-part series from Germanfest.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What a joy to watch Izzy grow September 15, 2017

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My granddaughter Isabelle.

 

I WONDER SOMETIMES HOW I, a woman who has birthed and raised three children, can find such novelty in the transition of a baby girl into her own person.

 

Izzy stole Grandpa’s lawn chair and settled in for a few seconds.

 

But every time I see my 17-month-old granddaughter, I delight in the new things she can do. Her personality is emerging with each skill learned, each developmental stage reached, each step of independence. And it’s a joy to watch.

 

And then Grandpa found an Izzy sized lawn chair in the garage, saved from when our kids were little.

 

I’ve seen it all before. Thrice. But this is different because I’m not the mom. I’m the so-in-love grandma.

 

My eldest, Amber, helps her daughter with a bubble blower because Isabelle wants to blow bubbles all by herself.

 

This time the let me do it attitude charms.

 

Grandpa stands nearby just in case Izzy needs help. She didn’t.

 

The climbing onto and off an adult-sized lawn chair is not dangerous, but applause worthy.

 

I love this sweet photo of two of my three children (Caleb and Amber) and darling Isabelle back in Faribault for a recent family reunion. Caleb flew in from Boston for a long weekend. Our other daughter, who lives in northeastern Wisconsin, was already gone when I shot this portrait.

 

In my eyes, I see only a sweet little girl whom I adore with a love I never imagined.

 

Getting a 17-month-old and her uncle to sit still is not always easy. But I find the photo still endearing.

 

I love being a grandma.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling