Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A mother’s gift to her writer daughter May 11, 2018

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The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my oldest brother.

 

I SOMETIMES WONDER how my mom did it? How did she raise six kids and manage a household without the modern conveniences of today? No microwave. No bathroom or telephone or TV or automatic washing machine (for many years). An endless list of “no” whatever.

She planted a massive garden, canned and froze fruits and vegetables. Baked bread and assorted sweets from scratch. Mended clothes. She could do most anything.

 

Mom’s journals stacked in a tote.

 

And she wrote. Daily. Mom documented the happenings of farm life in southwestern Minnesota, even before she became a wife and a mother. I have those journals now, stacked inside a plastic tote. Musty-smelling spiral bound stenographer notebooks filled with her words. History inked in her beautiful signature flowing cursive.

They are my most treasured tangible part of her, a collection of information that is not personal, yet is. She writes not of feelings, but of weather and work, going to church and town and to relatives’ homes. She writes, too, of illness and new babies and skinned knees. While I’ve only read bits and pieces of assorted journals, I know that eventually I will read every word. Her single-paragraph daily entries of three to six lines or so document rural life. From her perspective as a wife and mother.

She became a mother in mid-July of 1955, two months shy of celebrating her first wedding anniversary. She writes:

Got to the hospital at 1:15 a.m. & baby was born at 3:20 a.m. He weighed 8 lb. Has a lot of hair. Folks visited me.

On her first Mother’s Day—months before my birth—Mom visited her parents, noting that her mother had gone to the Heart Hospital two days prior. Seven months later her mother died of a heart attack. I was only months old. I will always hold a certain sadness in my grandma’s early untimely death, knowing her only through the memories of others who spoke of a woman with the kindest of hearts. Just like my mom.

Through all the challenges of life, Mom has maintained a positive and cheerful attitude. She’s kind and compassionate and uncomplaining. That has been part of her gift to us, her six children, born between 1955 and 1967. Three girls. Three boys.

 

My mom and I at our extended family Christmas gathering in late December 2017.

 

Eight days before my birth, Mom put up 32 jars of grape jelly and 18 ½ quarts of tomato juice with her sister Dorothy. “Sure was tired,” she wrote. If I was about to give birth, I’d feel tired, too. But she never complained.

On my birthday, Mom writes:

Woke up at 3:00 a.m. Got to hospital at 4:20 & baby was born at 4:56 a.m. She weighed 8 lb. 12 oz.

Talk about cutting it close. But then the hospital was a 20-mile drive and my parents had to find someone to watch my oldest brother. Dorothy stayed on for several days after my birth to help with washing, ironing, cleaning and other tasks while Mom recovered and adjusted to having two kids under two.

 

My mom saved everything, including this Mother’s Day card I made for her in elementary school. I cut a flower from a seed catalog to create the front of this card.

 

And so the years passed with more babies birthed. I wondered if Mom had any special memories of Mother’s Day. I paged through several journals from the 1960s to find entries about Mother’s Day programs at Vesta Elementary School. She noted the gifts we three oldest kids gave her—tomato plants, a hammered dish and on May 8, 1964, a writing pad. From me.

 

I took this photo nearly two years ago of my mom holding my granddaughter’s hand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.

Now more than ever, as age steals my mom’s memory and she no longer keeps a journal, I appreciate her writing. Her words reveal a hardworking woman who valued her family and faith and farm life. That Mom took the time to write shows her deep appreciation, too, for the written word. She passed that along to me. I am grateful. But most of all I am grateful for a mom who loved me and my siblings with such depth. She was, and remains even in her advancing octogenarian years, an example of kindness and compassion and goodness that I strive to emulate. She is my mother. And I love her.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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My award-winning water story publishes April 8, 2017

 

 

“Water Stories from a Minnesota Prairie Perspective” has published in southern Minnesota based River Valley Woman’s April issue. My story won the nonfiction category in the “We Are Water” writing contest sponsored by Plum Creek Initiative with the support of The League of Women Voters and River Valley Woman. That honor includes a $250 prize.

I don’t have a hard copy yet, but I viewed the story online. And so can you by clicking here and advancing to page 50 of the April issue. The piece is lengthy per submission guidelines requiring 5 – 12 pages of copy.

No matter how many times I’ve been published, I still thrill in seeing my words out there for others to read and perhaps appreciate. You can find print copies of the magazine in many locations like Mankato, St. Peter, New Ulm, Redwood Falls and surrounding smaller communities. Click here for a complete list.

In reading my story, you will learn of my growing up years on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm, the place that shaped me into the person, writer and photographer I’ve become. Farm life as I remember it from the 1960s – 1970s no longer exists. So this story, while written for a competition, was also written for me and my family. There’s an importance in reclaiming memories through written words, in telling the stories that define a place, in sharing my roots with you, my readers.

FYI: Click here to read my first blog post about winning this writing competition.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Summer showers in the sweltering heat July 19, 2011

A hose was for more than watering the garden or cattle when I was growing up on the farm. Read on.

WITH THE CURRENT HEAT WAVE we’re experiencing in Minnesota, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather of yesteryear. And here’s what I’ve concluded. Unless the weather impacted some major event in my life or ranked as exceptional, I really can’t specifically remember one summer to the next or one winter to the next. Fall and spring sort of get lost in the mix of seasons.

That is the reality of my long-term memory.

For me, the summers of my youth on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm were defined, not by the weather, but by playing “cowboys and Indians” (yes, I realize that is not politically correct today, but it was the reality of the 1960s), by after-chores softball games on the gravel farmyard and by evening showers with a garden hose.

Let me explain that last one. I lived for the first dozen years of my life in a cramped 1 ½-story wood-frame farmhouse with my farmer-father, my housewife-mother and four siblings. The third brother was born later, after we moved into the new house.

The old house didn’t have a bathroom. That meant we took a bath once a week, on Saturday night, in an oblong tin bath tub that my dad lugged into the kitchen. Yes, we shared bath water. And now that I consider it, given we labored in the barn daily, we must have really stunk by Saturday night.

Sometimes in the summer, when the weather was especially hot and humid, we showered. After my dad finished milking cows, he would thread the green garden hose through an open porch window outside to the east side of the house. Then, with one of us “standing guard” where the driveway forked, within a stone’s throw of the tar road, we began the process of showering.

One-by-one we took our turn standing naked on the grass, soap bar in one hand, garden hose in the other, scrubbing away the sweat and animal stench, the bits of ground feed and hay and silage, the dirt that clung between our toes.

And all the while we showered, we worried that a relative or a neighbor might turn into the farmyard or an airplane might fly overhead, as if a pilot could see us from high in the prairie sky.

So during a hot stretch like we’re experiencing right now in Minnesota, I remember those primitive summer showers on the farm. I recall, too, the single turquoise box fan we owned—the one reserved for my hardworking farmer-father who endured heat and flies as he bent to wash another udder, to attach another milking machine, all to earn money to feed his growing family.

And I think, as I sit here at my computer in my air-conditioned office just around the corner from the bathroom with the combination bathtub and shower that I have it good, darned good.

Growing up on the farm, we had one box fan similar to this one.

DO YOU HAVE summer memories like mine, or another weather-related story? Submit a comment and share.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The winters of my childhood January 20, 2011

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REMEMBER THE WINTERS of fun?

You could hardly wait to rush out the door and slog through freshly-fallen snow, plowing furrows for a game of fox-and-goose.

You could barely wait for Dad to push bucketsful of snow from the farmyard with his tractor and loader into mountains suitable for scaling.

 

Three of my younger siblings and I pose atop a snow mountain our dad created in our southwestern Minnesota farmyard in this photo dated February 1967.

You excitedly dug into the sides of snowdrifts, hard as bedrock, to carve out snow caves.

You raced across the tops of those snowdrifts, up and down and all around the world of white.

 

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.

You packed snow into hard balls, aiming for siblings, wiggling and screaming at the brother who grabbed your collar and stuffed ice-cold snow down the back of your neck.

And when the snow was the perfect consistency, you rolled and packed it into big balls, shoving and grunting and straining, working together with classmates or siblings to build a snowman or a snow fort.

Such were the winters of my childhood on a southwestern Minnesota farm. Fierce. Brutal. But, mostly, fun.

Today, living through one of our snowiest winters in forever, I am reminded of those childhood winters. I would be wise to remember the fun I once experienced on the cold, snowy, wind-swept Minnesota prairie.

 

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. My uncle drove over from his nearby farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse. That's my mom and five of us kids atop the drift.

WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES of childhood winters?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling