Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Visiting Mom as the pandemic wanes July 12, 2021

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My mom. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

EVERY VISIT WITH MY MOM in her care center proves emotional for me. I always leave in tears. I cry at the gratitude I feel for seeing her one more time. I cry at the thought that this may be the last time I see her this side of heaven. I cry at her declining health. I cry at the time lost with her during the COVID-19 pandemic when care centers shuttered, and rightly so.

This last visit on July 3 was different, though. Not because I didn’t cry upon departure. I did. But rather, I was able to remove my face mask once inside Mom’s room (since I’m fully-vaccinated) and then hug and kiss her for the first time in 16 months. To do that brought me joy almost beyond words. There’s such healing power in touching someone you love. I can only imagine how Mom felt.

The moment Mom saw me as staff wheeled her into her room, her face lit up. I could see the light in her eyes, the smile hidden by her face mask. For her to recognize me as her eldest daughter started our 9 AM visit in a joyful way.

With our masks removed, I moved a folding chair close, then reached under Mom’s fleece throw to grasp her right hand. Mom pulled back, my hand too cold. Then I leaned in, kissed her forehead, wrapped my arms around her, careful not to displace the oxygen tubes which enable her to breathe.

Those first minutes together felt overwhelmingly emotional in the way that only a mother and daughter can respond to one another. This is the woman who loved and nurtured me, who raised me in the faith, who taught me that kindness and compassion and serving others are more important than prestige and wealth. What a blessing to be raised by her. I shall be forever grateful.

As I settled in for our visit, I pulled a stash of vintage photos from a cloth bag. I’d emailed the care center social worker in advance, asking what I could bring that would make Mom happy. Jessie suggested old photos. She was spot on. Mom reacted in such a positive way to photos of herself at age four, of her parents in 1956, of Dad (“That’s my husband,” Mom said), of my oldest brother and me as preschoolers… Mom identified family in the photos and smiled and talked. Our visits aren’t ususally this engaging. Typically I’m the one talking with minimal response from Mom. Clearly her memories of long ago are much stronger than recent and short-term memories. I promised to bring more old family photos next visit.

All too soon, our time together ended and I was hugging Mom goodbye, tears edging my eyes well before I exited her room. I expect by afternoon, she’d forgotten that Randy and I stopped by. But that’s OK. This isn’t about me. Rather, this is about my 89-year-old mother, who is in hospice. This is about her and her needs, about bringing her joy and love on a Saturday morning through hugs and kisses and a clutch of old family photos.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on North Morristown’s July 4 celebration July 7, 2021

Pork and roast beef sandwiches were sold at this stand along with beverages. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

NORTH MORRISTOWN on the Fourth of July suits me and my rural roots. Not that I’m rooted to this place in the middle of farm country in southwestern Rice County. But the down-to-earth basics of this nearly 130-year-old Independence Day celebration appeal to the raised-on-a-Redwood-County-farm girl in me.

A look toward the fest grounds from the parking area early Sunday evening. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I appreciate how this event, held annually on festival grounds in a rural Minnesota landscape, remains basically unchanged. Just like North Morristown, which is not a town, but rather farm sites, fields, a Lutheran church and school, and the grassy, shaded celebration site.

A grain truck drives through the festival grounds, I believe to pick up garbage. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

The rural character of July Fourth here prevails. In tractors and grain trucks. In barns, machine sheds and farmhouses. But it stretches beyond that to the people, to families rooted in North Morristown for generations. In many ways, Independence Day here is as much a celebration of our nation’s birthday as it is one big family reunion. With guests, like me, welcomed.

The next generation sells tees in the novelty shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

The event feels friendly and comfortably homey. I recognize that doesn’t come without a lot of planning, time, effort and hard work on the part of volunteers. I’ve coordinated and led events much smaller than this and fully realize the work and commitment.

There’s nothing high tech about the vintage rides. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

So to those who spearheaded this year’s Fourth of July in North Morristown, thank you. And to those who have led in the past, thank you also. You are bringing joy to a lot of people. You are preserving the past. You are bringing people of all ages together from all over, this year from as far away as the Philippines. You are strengthening families and building memories. You are offering an alternative to high tech everything.

One of the many vintage kiddie rides. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

In a fast-paced world, we need a place and event like North Morristown on the Fourth to remind us to slow down, to sit for a spell. To listen to the music. To savor a slice of homemade pie or a pork sandwich. To visit with friends and family and strangers. To watch babies toddle in bare feet and kids climb onto vintage horses. To play BINGO or hunt for a hidden medallion. To feel grateful for faith and family and health and country.

The kiddie games are simple, like the duck pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

At its core, North Morristown on the Fourth represents so many things I hold dear. I expect others feel the same.

The countryside near North Morristown. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

TELL ME: Did you attend the North Morristown July 4 celebration or one similar? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Family connections in the berry patch & beyond June 25, 2021

Picking berries at Straight River Farm on a Saturday morning in 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

JUNE PROMPTS MEMORIES of Junes past, when our then family of five headed south of Faribault to Straight River Farm to pick strawberries.

We made a game of it, seeing who could harvest the most berries. It added an element of fun as we collectively picked 20-plus pounds of sun-ripened strawberries.

Years have passed since the kids left home and Randy and I picked berries. But now our eldest daughter continues the family tradition by taking her two children to a berry patch. Together the three of them (the kids are two and five) recently picked close to four pounds. While that’s not a lot of strawberries, it’s not all about the quantity. It’s also about time outdoors. About being, and working, together. About learning that strawberries come from fields, not just the produce section at the grocery store.

My grandchildren are a second-generation removed from the land. I want them to understand the origin of their food and to appreciate that their maternal grandparents grew up on family dairy and crop farms. Agriculture is part of their heritage.

Our granddaughter zooms along on her scooter last year at North Alexander Park in Faribault. This past Saturday we shared a picnic lunch near the shelter in this image. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

As their grandmother, I hold a responsibility to continue that connection to the land. This past weekend, when Isabelle and Isaac stayed overnight, we enjoyed the stunning summer weather with lots of time outdoors. That’s one simple way to link to the land. We packed a picnic lunch, with the kids “helping” to make their own sandwiches. Then it was off to North Alexander Park, where they learned to side step goose poop on the paved trail before we finally found a picnic table in a goose-poop-free zone. (Note to City of Faribault: Please place more picnic tables in the park among all those shade trees.)

While eating our picnic lunch, being in nature spurred conversations, which prompted questions, observations and more. Grandma, how many oak trees are there in the world? Leave that grape on the ground; the ants will eat it. The airplane is in the blue sky. Oh, how I love viewing the world from the perspective of my grandchildren. Life is so uncomplicated and simple and joy-filled.

Randy and the grandkids follow the pine-edged driveway at a family member’s central Minnesota lake cabin last summer. This is one of my favorite photos from that time in the beautiful outdoors. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2020.

Later that day, Randy and I took the kids to Wapacuta Park near our home. Rather than follow the most direct path up a steep grassy hill, we diverted onto a narrow dirt path that winds through the woods and leads to a launching point for disc golf. The kids loved that brief adventure into the woods, where we found a broken park bench (Note to City of Faribault: Please repair or replace.) and art flush to the earth. Exposed tree roots and limestone provided insights into the natural world and local terrain.

Randy also posed the kids next to a gigantic boulder near the playground while I snapped photos with my cellphone. Our three adult children responded with enthusiasm to the texted images. Wow! It looks the same as 30 some years ago! It has barely eroded. Amber and I will have to climb it the next time we are in Faribault.

A second trip to Wapacuta the following afternoon led to a lesson about storms as thunder banged, rain fell and we hurried home. Not through the woods this time.

I love every moment with my grandchildren. The time making cut-out star cookies for an upcoming July Fourth celebration. The time in our backyard blowing up a bubble storm. The time at the playground. The time reading and laughing and building block towers and putting dresses on the same Little Mermaid dolls Izzy’s mom and aunt played with some 25-plus (or less) years ago. These are the moments which link generations, which grow family love, which I cherish.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cabin memories, May 2021 June 10, 2021

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Isabelle by the beach. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

SHE RACED BACK AND FORTH along the beach, arms outstretched.

“I’m flying,” she said. “To the moon and into the pink sky.”

My heart brimmed with infinite love as I watched, the moon a pale orb in a sunset sky tinged with streaks of pink. On the far earth below, my 5-year-old granddaughter ran, her imagination flying.

This singular scene defined a recent stay at a family member’s guest lake cabin in the central Minnesota lakes region. For Randy and me, it’s all about enjoying time with those we love most. Connecting. Building memories and bonds that we hope will last a life-time.

Shortly after that stay, Isabelle mailed a picture she’d drawn. It included a rainbow and characters from Frozen inside a pink shape. I thought it was the pink sky of Horseshoe Lake. She clarified that it was simply a pink path. But in my eyes, I see the pink sky.

Horseshoe Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

Memories of days at the lake with our eldest daughter, our son-in-law and our two grandchildren continue to bring me joy. This stay I recruited Izzy to dry dishes while I washed. I also taught her to make s’mores. She counted and cracked graham crackers, then broke Hershey bars to fit. I expect she will assist me again next time we’re at the cabin.

We all sat around the campfire, Randy and Amber roasting marshmallows for s’mores. Sticky faces and fingers added to the memories.

One evening we shared bear stories, starting with Marc’s experience from a childhood camping trip. I added mine. And then Amber brought humor into the mix with her version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Randy tossed in bits about Smokey the Bear and the Hamm’s beer bear. At least the bear tales didn’t scare the grandkids.

A trail winds through Mission Park near the cabin. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

But masses of dragonflies bothered Izzy. Our cabin stay coincided with dragonflies and mayflies invading like a biblical plague. Isaac just walked right through them and didn’t notice when I plucked several dragonflies off him. Yellow jackpine pollen also clouded the air. Because of that, I kept my Canon 20-D mostly tucked inside my camera bag.

The lake temp at the time of our late May visit was still too cold for swimming. So we waded only. Randy fished, hooking a few fish too small to keep. Two warm and sunny days allowed for sunning on the beach for the adults and playing for the kids. Izzy opened Sand Pie Bakery on the afternoon her parents left for a brief jaunt into town. Oh, what fun to order an assortment of fruit pies crafted by Izzy and her brother.

Isaac and I grew closer as we interacted. He now clearly calls me Grandma in the strong voice of a 2 ½-year-old. He also learned to love sliding after we went to a playground in town. I felt exhausted just watching him run up steps, slide and repeat.

Izzy plays with figurines one morning at the cabin. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2021.

All of these family moments I hold precious. Time on the beach. Time inside the cabin—dining together, doing dishes, playing “school” with the kids. Time outside the cabin on nature walks—gathering treasures of stones, shells, pine cones. Watching loons near the dock. There’s nothing quite like viewing the natural world through the eyes of a child. Time outside the local ice cream shop, eating our treats as the afternoon sun and strong wind dripped ice cream onto our hands and the ground.

I cherish these memories. Every. Single. One. Some day perhaps my grown grandchildren will sit around a campfire and reminisce about cabin stays with Grandma and Grandpa. Stories of mayflies and dragonflies, of ice cream and sand pies, and of pink streaking the sky over Horseshoe Lake.

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TO MY BROTHER-IN-LAW Jon and to my sister-in-law Rosie, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for opening your guest lake cabin to extended family. We feel incredibly blessed by your generosity, by our time at the lake and by the family moments we are sharing and the memories we are building.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Expressing gratitude in Northfield May 28, 2021

Thankful for… Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

GRATITUDE IS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE. Feeling grateful takes effort. If you disagree, that’s OK. Maybe gratitude comes naturally for you. But, for most of us, I don’t think that’s true.

Rocco, The Gratitude Tree, just outside the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

That’s why I appreciate projects like The Gratitude Tree. Outside the Northfield Public Library, colorful tags sway in the wind on the branches of a small tree. The Gratitude Tree. And on those slips of paper, people have answered the question, “What are you grateful for?”

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I paused to read the responses, which seemed mostly focused on thankfulness for family, friends and others. That doesn’t surprise me, especially after this past year of separation due to COVID-19. Most of us crave human connection. We’ve missed our families, friends, co-workers…

A plastic container at the base of the tree holds tags and a Sharpie for writing notes of gratitude. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

It’s important to acknowledge that. To say it. To write it. To embrace this feeling of longing to be with people.

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I’m grateful we’re at a point in the pandemic where those of us who are vaccinated can reclaim our lives. It feels good. Really good. I can hug my second daughter now. I can feel comfortable being out in public among other vaccinated individuals. I feel grateful for that.

The Gratitude Tree, outside the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

And I feel grateful for The Gratitude Tree, an ongoing project of Nika Hirsch of This Life Rocks. Nika is a young girl from Northfield who deals with social anxiety and selective mutism. Despite those challenges, or maybe because of, she chooses to connect with her community in positive ways. She’s previously hosted The Gratitude Tree and also The Giving Tree (a collection point for winter gear). She also paints stones with uplifting messages.

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

We can all learn from Nika, a role model for community service and positivity. She inspires. She uplifts. She causes us to pause and think. To focus on the good in life. To see the reasons to smile, to feel happy, to give thanks.

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

TELL ME: What are you grateful for?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Of bugs, fiddleheads & anthills April 22, 2021

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Grandpa and grandchildren follow the pine-edged driveway last summer at a Minnesota lake cabin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2020.

HE BENT LOW, SQUATTING, trying to peer into the pinprick of a hole centering the mound of black dirt.

“Bug. Bug,” my 28-month-old grandson repeated. Three of us circled him—me, Grandpa (whom he calls Buddy) and Sister. In that moment, the anthill focused our attention. In that moment I realized, once again, how much I love being a grandma. How much I love seeing the world through the eyes of Isaac and his five-year-old sister, Isabelle.

This past weekend the pair stayed overnight with us, minus the parents. Randy and I love this special time with our grandchildren. Time to hug and cuddle and read and play. And explore nature.

With warm and sunny weather, we spent much of our weekend outdoors. Blowing bubbles. Playing Posy Pitch. Chalking cement. Climbing playground equipment and pushing swings and running after a little guy who moves incredibly fast.

We enjoyed nature in our yard and those anthills along the sidewalk. Isaac delighted in the ants and then did what seems innate—demolished the hills with his shoes. We never showed him.

The bugs that intrigued Isaac.

Bugs and worms enthralled him when Grandpa/Buddy flipped flat slabs of limestone to expose both. I can’t recall how many times Isaac asked to see those bugs.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

He loved the tulips, too, two red and two yellow blooming on the south side of the house. “Match,” he said. He’s big in to matching, just like he’s big in to letters of the alphabet. And he loves the sun and moon, imagining both in our overhead dining room light. At least this visit Isaac didn’t awaken early enough to see the sun and the moon simultaneously as he did during his last overnight stay.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I showed Isaac and Izzy the bird nest I found lying in the grass a few weeks ago, small blue egg still cozied inside the circle of dried grass. They listened, too, to the shrill whistle of a cardinal and heard Grandpa whistle in reply.

Our granddaughter zooms along on her scooter last year at North Alexander Park in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

When you pause to think like a child, listen like a child, see like a child, the natural world opens wide to awe and new-ness and delight. And that’s worth remembering, especially today, Earth Day.

Fiddleheads in my backyard.

I showed the pair fiddleheads—tightly coiled fern fronds destined to unfurl in the warmth and sunshine of an April day.

Even a pine cone holds wonder in the hands of a two-year-old. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2020.

While walking and playing at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, we pocketed pine cones. And a smooth flat stone. Treasures.

Time with our grandchildren is treasured. Isaac loves watches and clocks. “Tick tock,” he says, when pointing to clocks in our house or carrying around the vintage alarm clocks I have in a small collection. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But the true treasure is time. Time with Isabelle and Isaac. Time to love on them and teach them and learn from them. Time to grow our love for one another and strengthen that special bond between grandparent and grandchild. A bond unlike any other.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reuniting after a year of separation March 15, 2021

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The main street through Belview, Minnesota.

WE ARRIVED NEARLY A HALF HOUR early in the small southwestern Minnesota community. But I didn’t want to be late for my scheduled 10:30 am visit. So, after a brief tour around Belview and stopping for several photo ops, Randy pulled the van into the parking lot next to the low-slung building adjoining the city park.

I slid the back passenger side door open, camera secured over my shoulder, and grabbed a cloth tote bag from the seat. Inside I’d stashed several family photos, my bible, a devotional and two pictures colored by my nearly 5-year-old granddaughter. Randy eased out a vase of flowers secured in a bucket.

Our destination. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Then we headed across the parking lot on this Saturday morning in March, aiming west a short distance to the front entry. I looked for the doorbell I was told to ring. I pushed the button. We waited, the cold prairie wind sweeping around the care center. I shivered. Randy punched the button again. Peering through the double glass doors, I saw figures at the far end of the hallway. Soon a woman approached and invited us inside. I leaned into the heavy interior door, barely able to push its weight inward.

Once in the building, staff checked us in, took our temps, asked if we were experiencing any symptoms of illness. Apparently I didn’t answer. “If you were, you wouldn’t be here, right?” the young aide prompted. I nodded. Then I grabbed the goggles I was told to take and slipped them over my prescription eyeglasses with some hesitancy.

AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT

That’s when I saw her. My mom. Staff wheeling her across the carpet toward me. A short distance from her room to our designated meeting spot in the day room. In that moment, profound emotions overtook me and I cried. Not uncontrollable crying. But crying that represented a year of separation. One year had passed since I last saw Mom face-to-face. “Are you OK?” a staffer asked with concern.

I was. And I wasn’t. I understood that I needed to pull myself together, that this was not about me and how I felt, but about my mom. My arms ached to reach out and hug her, to hold her hand, to touch her and never let go. To kiss her cheeks.

RECONNECTING

Staff wheeled Mom to the end of a table in the day room. Randy and I were advised to keep a six-foot distance. We knew enough to keep our masks on. A screen provided some privacy. But I was cognizant of people occasionally moving on the other side. Yet, it really didn’t matter. I was here. In the same room with my sweet mom. Randy and I would have 15 minutes with her together before he had to leave and I could move into her room for a compassionate care visit. Mom is in hospice.

Mom’s health is such that conversation with her is one-sided. Us talking. Her listening, if she could hear us over the whir of her oxygen machine. Randy and I talked in raised voices. And when I showed her photos of my grandchildren, her great grandchildren, the skin around her eyes crinkled, indicating a smile beneath her face mask. There were more smiles and moments of connection, of understanding, of recognition. And those were enough to bring me joy. And her, too. I could see it in her reaction.

When Randy told Mom goodbye, she didn’t understand why he had to leave. Mercifully, her cognition and memory are such that she doesn’t comprehend COVID and all that entails, including the reason we haven’t seen her face-to-face in exactly one year.

CURIOUS GEORGE AND GOOD SAMARITANS AND A SMILEY FACE

Mom holds her Curious George.

We moved to her room, me carrying the vase of vivid flowers. Once there, I asked the aide to switch off the Curious George DVD playing on the TV. Mom was already fixated on the cartoon, which she loves. A stack of DVDs featuring the mischievous monkey rested on a table below the television and a stuffed animal Curious George sat on a recliner in the corner. I picked it up and gave it to her and Mom cuddled the monkey on her lap.

I looked around her room, bulletin boards crammed with family photos. I commented on the picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd that graced her bedroom wall on the farm. And I admired the bright over-sized smiley face posted on the bathroom door and felt gratitude to my aunt and uncle, who live just blocks away, for making this for Mom. Below, I saw a picture of a dog fish colored by my granddaughter in a rainbow of hues.

I talked with Mom about cream cheese roll-out cookies and my older brother sneaking ice cream from the freezer and eating it atop the haystack. She laughed. I talked about how she worked so hard to raise a family of six children and that now it was time for her to rest. Occasionally her eyes fluttered shut and I could tell she was growing tired. I continued to talk on other topics, although I’m uncertain how much she heard or comprehended. Yet, I have to think my mere presence, the sound of my voice, comforted her.

A staffer popped in for a moment, praising Mom for eating her pancake and drinking her juice and milk at breakfast. “Good job, Mom,” I said, feeling like I was the mom and she the child. And, in many ways, that would be accurate.

Soon the staffer returned and handed me a sheet of paper and said Mom might like it if I read some of the information thereon. My eyes landed on a story about Neil Sedaka, then quickly shifted to an article about National Good Samaritan Day on March 13. I scanned the piece, chose tidbits to share about the Good Samaritan parable from the bible. To show kindness. To help others. It seemed fitting for this day, in this small town care center where staff show great compassion. I will always feel grateful to the healthcare workers and other staff who have cared for my mom like a family member.

SAYING GOODBYE

The smiley face poster, from Mom’s in-laws, on the exterior bathroom door.

As time ticked toward 11:30 and lunch and the end of my hour-long allotted visit, I knew I needed to leave. “I have to go. Maybe next time I can take you outside so you can hear the birds, see the trees.” Mom smiled beneath her face mask. “I love you, Mom.” Tears brimmed.

“I love you,” she replied. Her words felt like a hug, a kiss. Bringing us together after a year of separation caused by a pandemic.

In the doorway I stopped, turned for one final look at Mom. “I love you,” I repeated, then crossed the lobby to the staffer monitoring the front door. “I’ll need you to sign out,” she said. By then I was already crying, barely able to find a pen to note my departure time. I thanked her, observed the compassion in her eyes.

Then I walked into the sunshine of an incredibly beautiful Saturday in March in southwestern Minnesota. I turned left toward the parking lot where Randy waited. I opened the van door, swung onto the seat, removed my face mask and then sobbed uncontrollably, shoulders heaving, face in my hands. Emotionally-exhausted.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Grateful for time with my grandchildren March 12, 2021

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Isaac works on his favorite alphabet puzzle shortly after waking up last Sunday morning.

AS I WATCH NEWS FOOTAGE of grandparents and grandchildren reuniting after a year of separation due to COVID-19, tears flow. I cry at the unbridled joy and love of these families. I cry at all that has defined this unbelievably difficult year. I cry at the loss due to temporary and permanent separation. And I cry in relief that soon, as more and more people are vaccinated, we can be together again. Friends. And family.

I long for the day soon when I can wrap my second daughter in my arms, hold her close, feel her spiraling curls brushing my face. I long, too, for the day when I can kiss my mom, hold her hand and hug her in her long-term care center.

Yet, I feel fortunate that, throughout this past year, I’ve still seen my grandchildren. Randy and I discussed early on with our eldest and her husband the risks and the efforts we were each taking to stay as safe as possible. The biggest COVID exposure risk comes from Randy, who works as an automotive machinist, with some customers still half-masking or not masking. Our granddaughter did not attend preschool this year, her mom opting instead to purchase a curriculum and teach her daughter (and son) at home. I feel grateful for that choice.

In the middle of this pandemic, our eldest and her family moved into a new home in the south metro, placing them much closer to us, just a half-hour away. Now it’s easier to buzz up there or them down here for a short visit. Or an overnight.

Last weekend, Isabelle, almost five, and Isaac, two, stayed overnight with us, giving their parents a break and time alone. We love having the kids here. Saturday evening I made homemade pizza with both littles working the rolling pin across the dough. They ate a lot of pizza.

Isabelle and Isaac play with toys in our living room during a previous overnight stay. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2020.

Every visit, after the initial hugs and kisses, Randy heads to the basement with Izzy and Isaac to pull toys from the shelves. Toys their mom and/or aunt and uncle played with while growing up. The Fisher Price school bus and Little People. The Disney castle and accompanying characters. The BRIO train set. The Little Mermaid. Matchbox cars. A toy piano and typewriter. Yes, typewriter. And so many more toys that our living room looks like a toy store from 30 years ago.

Isaac, focused on completing the alphabet puzzle.

At some point, I also pull out the puzzles for Isaac, who loves puzzles, especially the alphabet one. He knows his letters and numbers (he recently turned two) and is fascinated by clocks. When I read My First Counting Book, Isaac’s more interested in the numbers on each page than the pictures of animals. He likes to carry around a vintage alarm clock from my small collection.

And Isaac likes to get up early. At 5:45 a.m. Sunday. He peered through the curtains, out the front picture window to see the sliver of moon between trees, then the pink sky and, finally, the golden morning sun. Somehow I didn’t mind the early rising to experience sunrise through my grandson.

Isaac, in his sister’s hand-me-down boots, seeks out another puddle during our Sunday afternoon walk.

This visit, we also spent time outdoors, not an option when the grandkids stayed with us during an arctic blast in early February. With the much warmer temps, the kids played at the playground. Then we walked, with Isaac pausing often to splash in puddles. We also stopped to see Faribo Frosty, a gigantic snowman built annually by the Hoisington family.

Grandpa and grandkids check out Faribo Frosty.

In this year of challenges, of giving up so much, my grandchildren remain a true source of joy. For those grandparents reading this who have not seen their grandkids in a year, or only from a distance, my heart hurts for you. I hope soon that you can be reunited with those you love and that tears of joy will flow.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In loving memory of my father-in-law February 9, 2021

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Tom and Betty Helbling, photographed in 1988.

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.

Mass of Christian burial for my father-in-law will be celebrated in St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman.

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 and Betty Helbling, circa early 1950s.

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.

Ripened corn field. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

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.

My father-in-law’s prosthetic hand. Tom put a band-aid on his hand after he burned a hole in it while frying potatoes in 2009. I laughed so hard. Prior to getting his hand, Tom wore a hook to replace his amputated limb. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

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.

One of my favorite photos of Tom giving an impromptu concert on his Lowrey organ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

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.

Threshing on the home place in North Dakota, a painting by my father-in-law, Tom Helbling.

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.


© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing winter in Minnesota January 6, 2021

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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My two-year-old grandson with his new snow shovel.

WHEN YOU LIVE IN A NORTHERN state like Minnesota, where winter defines at least half the year, preparation for cold and snowy weather is a necessity, not an option.

It’s a lesson taught from early on. Snowsuit, waterproof mittens and snow boots for the kids. Check. Check. Check. Sled. Check. Snow shovel. Check.

No matter your age, dressing properly to protect from the elements and then having the right tools to deal with the snow are essentials. So we’ve equipped our grandchildren, Isabelle and Isaac, with snow shovels and sleds. Izzy got her mama’s childhood snow shovel and Lion King sled. Isaac got a new shovel purchased at the local hardware store. And we bought bright new sleds for both at a regional retailer.

Then it’s up to the parents, or the grandparents, to bundle the kids and get them outdoors. It’s a process. But important in teaching the little people that winter can be fun.

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

I loved winter as a child growing up on the wind-swept southwestern Minnesota prairie. There snow drifted into rock-hard mountains around the house and farm outbuildings. There Dad shoved snow with the John Deere tractor and loader into more mountains, where my siblings and I played for endless hours. We carved out snow caves and raced on a vintage runner sled. Such is the stuff of memories. And of winter in Minnesota.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo, rural Vesta, Minnesota. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse.

While my grandchildren’s memories will be different—they live in a new housing development in the south metro—I hope they continue to embrace winter with joy and enthusiasm. Just as their mom (Dad grew up in warm and sunny California) and maternal grandparents did before them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling