Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Elsie September 3, 2019

Elsie Keller, right, works in the kitchen at St. John’s Germanfest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

THERE ARE PEOPLE you meet in life who make a profound impact. Not on a grand, public scale. But upon the people they meet, the communities in which they live and serve simply by the way they live and serve. Humbly. Exuding kindness and friendliness. Living a life of service, of giving to others. Elsie Keller fits that description.

I don’t recall exactly when I met Elsie. But I know where. At St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, just down the road from the rural Nerstrand home where she lived her entire life. Ninety-three years.

 

Elsie making German potato salad, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Inside the church kitchen, that’s Elsie standing next to her stool at a Lenten Soup Luncheon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

Elsie next to The Last Supper painting given to St. John’s in honor of her husband, Arnold. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’ve attended many functions at St. John’s from the annual Germanfest to Lenten soup luncheons to ice cream and pie socials to the yearly The Last Supper Drama. And every time I set foot inside that aged limestone church, Elsie was there. Most often behind the scenes—plating pie, stirring German potato salad, operating spotlights and much more.

 

Elsie poses with family at the 2017 Germanfest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

If I didn’t spot her, I sought her out to hug her diminutive frame, to see her sweet smile, to catch up a bit. She was that kind of woman. The grandmother you miss. The mother who lives too distant. The friend who cares. The churchgoer who lives her faith in service to her church and to God. Singing. Coordinating Vacation Bible School for 51 years. Teaching Sunday School for more than five decades.

 

Elsie, hard at work in the Pie Room. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

A member of St. John’s Youth Fellowship waits, plate in hand, for a slice of pumpkin pie scooped up by Elsie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

By the end of the day, Elsie had blisters on her hand from cutting pies. Here she scoops a slice of apple pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

To know Elsie was to love her. I loved her smile, her demeanor, her humility, her kindness, her devotion to church and family, her work ethic. I remember, especially, the time I found her working in the St. John’s pie room sliding pieces of homemade pie onto plates with her gnarled arthritic hands.

 

Elsie takes a break from kitchen work to enjoy a bowl of ham and bean soup. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

Back at the farm, Elsie still gardened. She canned green beans on Thursday evening. The night before her death.

 

Elsie in The Pie Room, a space so small that this petite woman can barely fit her stool between a counter and refrigerator. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

I still cannot believe my friend is gone, even though she was nearly 94 years old. There are people in life who seem ageless, whom you always expect will be there. For me, that was Elsie. If only you could have known her. For those of you who did, you understand why I will miss her. Her smile, her kindness, her positive and giving spirit…

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A long ago kindness honored January 4, 2019

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Edited image of a single rose in a bouquet of 12.

 

FORTY SOME YEARS AGO, I bought lunch for her. In Mankato. Neither of us remembered exactly when or where. But my friend recalled one important detail which she shared shortly after arriving at my Faribault home late Thursday morning. It was the reason she carried a dozen pink roses.

That Debbie would bring me roses seemed a bit much I thought as she walked in the kitchen door and we hugged. We hadn’t seen each other in decades. Our connection is not a deeply-rooted friendship. It just did not make sense that lunch and a visit would prompt Debbie to bring flowers.

Then she explained. When I bought her lunch those four decades ago, she was a poor college student with only $1.50 in her pocket. We met then to talk shop as Debbie considered accepting a reporting job at the same Minnesota weekly newspaper where I once worked. She wanted the scoop. As a young professional earning a salary, I didn’t think about Debbie’s finances. I just said, “Let’s do lunch.” And Debbie showed up.

I had no clue back then of her meager monies. But Debbie arrived at the restaurant with a plan to simply buy herself coffee. And then I offered to pay for her meal.

All these decades later she recalled that simple act of kindness. I had no idea how much my generosity meant to her. But now she wanted me to know, expressing her gratitude with those roses.

Debbie would go on to work at the same newspaper where I once reported. On Thursday we exchanged war stories about sources and too many long board meetings and the challenges of being journalists at a small town newspaper. I blazed the path for her, she said. I’d never considered that. But I knew she was right.

We talked, too, about children and grandchildren and challenges in life and our faith and much more. Debbie is the kind of person who, even if you haven’t seen her in years, you can pick up the conversation and feel like time has never separated you. We share values and work experiences and a certain comfortableness that marks our friendship.

And to think it all started with conversation and mentoring over lunch and me picking up the tab. Sometimes you don’t realize the value in a simple act of kindness. You just do what’s right. And then one day the kindness circles back with unexpected joy. And the blessings of a friendship renewed.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When the holidays are anything but happy December 27, 2018

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An edited photo of a sign promoting kindness as part of The Virtues Trail Project in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

THIS PAST YEAR SEVERAL FRIENDS lost loved ones—one to suicide, another to an aggressive cancer, the other to advanced age-related health issues. Friends are battling cancer. Other friends are facing a myriad of challenges.

Christmas is not always easy. It can be downright difficult when you’re missing a loved one or working through something that’s really really tough. I get that. And I hope in some small way that my friends feel my care for them. I’ve reached out with words of comfort, with hugs, with a recognition of their struggles. I don’t pretend that I can erase their grief or solve the issues that are affecting their lives. I simply want them to know that they are not alone, even if they feel alone.

More than ever, it’s important for each of us to step outside of ourselves and recognize that people are hurting. Within our circles of family and friends. It’s important to realize that loss—whether by death or through strained relationships or other factors—hurts. We can ease that hurt by caring. Caring enough to ask, “How are you?” Caring enough to validate an individual’s loss and say, “I’m sorry.” Or “I’m here for you.” It doesn’t take a lot of effort. But it takes that pause, that ability to recognize that saying something is better than remaining silent.

I understand. I’ve heard words of care and support when I needed them. But I’ve heard, too, the loudness of silence.

TELL ME: How do you support family and friends dealing with a loss and/or a difficulty, especially during the holiday season?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts for my friend on a notable birthday September 12, 2018

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Smile, even when you’re turning sixty. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MY FRIEND, I’LL CALL HER JULIE, turns sixty today. I know she’s not particularly excited about that number because, as she says, “It sounds old (compared to 59).”

I remember feeling the same when I reached that landmark birthday. And to think I struggled with turning forty. I wish now that I was only four decades, rather than six-plus decades, old.

But there’s something to be said for this age. And I can summarize that in a single powerful, joyful word: grandma. Julie and I, who have been friends since our kids were in grade school, are both relatively new grandmas. Her grandson is 14 months younger than my almost 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter. We trade stories now about grandchildren and share images of the cute little ones who bring us much happiness.

Julie and I have been through a lot together. Joyful times and difficult times. We listen to one another and trust each other. With anything. What a blessing she has been in my life through rearing children and now into loving grandchildren.

On this her 60th birthday, I want Julie to realize that turning sixty is really not all that bad. Especially when you have a grandchild to spoil and love.

Happy birthday, dear friend! I wish you many more years of joyful living.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I from Hackensack: Into the Minnesota northwoods to visit a blogger friend October 9, 2017

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Among the attractions in Hackensack is this rendering of Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart, Lucette Diana Kensack. She stands on the shores of Birch Lake.

 

NEVER HAVE I FELT more grateful for specific directions than when invited recently to my blogger friend Sue’s lake home near Hackensack in north central Minnesota. In this unfamiliar region of lakes and woods and winding roads, Randy and I could easily have become lost. We couldn’t rely on cell phone coverage. And given my general overall difficulty reading maps and sensing direction, I would be of no help.

 

 

 

But with Sue’s detailed instructions to first turn at Swanson Bait Shop then drive east and more, we eventually found our way onto a road that twisted deep into the woods. Initially, the gravel road ran wide enough for two vehicles. But then Randy swung the van onto a narrower road that left me feeling a tad unnerved by downed and broken trees from a 2016 storm and closed in by woods. Yet, I trusted Sue’s directions as we passed the row of mailboxes she noted and then the handmade signs directing us toward her home. After one missed sign and resulting turn-around, we arrived 10 minutes early. Success.

 

 

Sue and her husband, Charley, whom I’d never met, welcomed us with warmth to their home overlooking a lake in a series named Woman, Man, Child and Baby lakes. Their lovely home sits atop a hill, snugged in by signature northwoods pine and by deciduous trees, some flaming color during our mid-September visit.

 

 

Lakeside, I delighted in the tranquil setting—the curve of the lake around an island, the masses of trees hugging the shoreline, the overall seclusion of this place. It is a land that seems foreign to a prairie-raised girl most at home in wide open spaces among corn and soybean fields.

I appreciate, though, this part of Minnesota and this opportunity to visit for a few hours with Sue and Charley. Cold and windy weather foiled plans to dine on the deck or spend much time outdoors. But it didn’t matter. Engaging conversation doesn’t require perfect weather.

 

Sue, right, and I pose for a photo taken by Randy.

 

I met Sue a few years back via blogging and in person in 2013 when she and her sister made a road trip from the metro to explore Faribault and have lunch at my house. Sue and I share a love of writing, of poetry and of books. This retired educator has, for the past few years, organized the book part of the Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack. With 37 Minnesota authors participating in this year’s fest, I can only imagine the time my friend invested in this event. She also chairs the Northwoods Art Council. Through her freelance writing, blogging, attendance at writers’ workshops and more, Sue has established an incredible network with Minnesota writers.

 

Sue’s started our Sunday brunch with a delicious salad featuring her homemade dressing. Photo from Sue’s Ever Ready blog.

 

But there’s more. Sue loves to cook. Food focuses her Ever Ready blog along with poetry and book reviews. Whenever I’m looking for a new recipe, I go to Sue’s blog or shoot her an email for ideas. I appreciate that her featured recipes include common ingredients, are often a twist on a familiar dish and are easy to prepare. On the day we lunched with her and Charley, Sue served Apple, Grape & Pecan Salad with Mustard Maple Vinaigrette; assorted breads; Wild Rice, Sausage and Potato Casserole; and Angel Food Cake with Warm Chocolate Kahlua Sauce. I expected nothing less than delicious and that’s exactly what Sue presented.

This couple also served up plenty of hospitality in conversation. Through the years, Sue and I have communicated often via email, offering each other support and encouragement, simply being there for each other as friends are. Randy and Charley, with a shared interest in cars, also had plenty to discuss.

 

 

And then there was Bella, the yellow lab. She welcomed us, too, and especially liked being petted, pawing for me to stroke her more after I stopped. What a dog.

 

 

Hours after our arrival, after I photographed the affectionate Bella and after Sue and I posed for photos, Randy and I set off into the woods with instructions to stay to the right. As we emerged onto the county road, I felt as if we’d just exited a retreat. I am grateful to Sue and Charley for sharing their place of northwoods solitude with us. For a few hours I felt blissfully sheltered from the world.

 

FYI: To check out Sue’s Ever Ready blog, click here. She also has a blog written from Bella’s perspective. To read The World According to Bella, click here.

To read the blog post Sue wrote about our visit, which includes links to recipes for the food she prepared, click here.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My first stay at an Up North Minnesota lake cabin September 22, 2017

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THROUGH THE PLEATED SHADES, lightning flashed like a strobe light outside the cabin. Soon thunder rumbled, not loud and crashing, but slow and ramping in volume. I willed myself to shut out the light, the sound, to fall asleep here in this place nestled in jackpines along the shore of a lengthy lake four hours from my southeastern Minnesota home.

 

Downtown Park Rapids features two rows of parallel parking down the middle of the street and diagonal parking curbside on both sides.

 

Randy and I arrived in a flush of rain after an afternoon in Park Rapids, a resort town abundant in shops and quirky in its center of the street parking. Already I loved this place, despite the grey skies and near constant rain.

Yet, this was not my vision of our first-ever stay at a Minnesota northwoods cabin. But when you can’t control the weather, you can either choose disappointment or embrace the situation. And I was determined to make the best of our visit with friends Jackie and Rick.

 

Jackie, right, took this selfie of the two of us. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

When Jackie invited us to their cabin, I accepted with the enthusiasm of someone who has always wanted to experience this quintessential Minnesota activity of “going Up North to the cabin.” Our friends made us feel as comfortable as if we were family and long-time friends. We are neither. I met Jackie several years ago after connecting with her via blogging. She and Rick live some 40 miles from us in Rochester. Jackie is a nurse by profession and a blogger with strong photography skills.

 

Randy and I, left, with Jackie and Rick. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

We joke that we could be sisters given our shared interests in photography, barns, cemeteries, country churches, small towns, gravel roads and much more. We are women of faith, mothers of three, grandmothers and wives who are grateful for loving and supportive husbands of 35 years. We each birthed sons who weighed nearly 11 pounds. Jackie beat me by two ounces.

Mostly, though, we have that natural connection of conversing with ease, of laughing and enjoying each others’ company in a developing friendship. Previously, the four of us had gotten together briefly several times. This weekend at the cabin would forge our evolving friendship.

 

With Rick at the wheel, we head across the lake. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

Given the weather, we mostly sheltered inside the cabin peering through spacious windows toward the grey lake and rainy skies. We laughed and talked with barely a lull in the conversation. When the weather broke for a bit Saturday morning, I suggested a boat ride. I surprised all of them. I had to overcome a general uncomfortableness on water to board a boat.

 

As the boat picks up speed, waves trail behind.

 

I appreciate that Jackie and Rick honored my request that we not venture too far from shore. Eventually I felt comfortable enough to ask Rick to increase the boat speed. The distractions of my camera and Rick’s history tour of the lake along with Jackie’s encouragement made for a pleasant ride. There’s something to be said for friends who are supportive and loving.

 

Watching Randy relax and unwind from work gave me much joy. We needed this vacation.

 

That evening, after dining on grilled steak, we clustered around the dining room table for a game of Outburst. Boys against girls. We laughed and talked and laughed some more between munching on caramel corn from Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks in Park Rapids. Before 11, we were off to bed and I slept well without rumbling thunderstorms.

 

Only a few boats were on the lake Saturday morning.

 

As wonderful as the cabin experience was, I had hoped to spot a loon. Sunday morning while looking across the lake, I noticed a black floating shape with the seeming distinctive curve of a loon. Jackie handed me binoculars while she fetched her glasses. Through the lenses, we confirmed a loon sighting. It would have to do—this lone loon in the distance. I was thrilled.

 

A grouping of loons. Photo by Jackie Hemmer.

 

That evening, hours after our mid-morning departure, Jackie texted a photo of seven loons with this message: Saw about 15 loons on the lake tonight just beautiful!

 

 

Just beautiful. That summarizes, too, our weekend stay with friends who blessed us with a delightful time at their Up North cabin.

 

FYI: Click here to read Jackie’s blog, “Who Will Make Me Laugh.”

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos by Jackie Hemmer are also copyrighted and used with her permission as noted.

 

May Day sweetness from cherished friends May 1, 2015

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An artsy edited image of my tulips.

An artsy edited image of my tulips.

TODAY, WHILE TWO LOVED ONES are viewing the tulip fields of Amsterdam, I am delighting in the tulips that brighten my Minnesota front yard.

And I am celebrating May Day with thankfulness for friends who continue to bring joy into my days with sweet surprises.

This morning my doorbell rang. Twice. I glimpsed legs and arms flying as young friends raced to vehicles driven by their mothers. I hurried to a side window, flashed a wave and a smile and mouthed a thank you.

The first May Day basket to arrive included four construction paper flowers with candy centers.

The first May Day basket to arrive included four construction paper flowers with candy centers.

Then I swung open the front door and retrieved May Day baskets from the front steps.

Four homemade chocolate chip cookies were tucked inside the second May Day basket.

Four homemade chocolate chip cookies were tucked inside the second May Day basket.

The kindness of these dear and thoughtful friends continues to touch my heart. These are busy young families—one with five children and another with two and fostering a third—who homeschool their children. It takes time and effort to create May Day baskets, then gather everyone into a vehicle and deliver those treats.

The two May Day baskets dropped on my front steps this morning. The one on the right reminds me of the baskets I wove as a child for my mother.

The two May Day baskets dropped on my front steps this morning. The one on the right reminds me of the baskets I wove as a child for my mother.

What a fine example these parents are setting, encouraging their children’s creativity and showing them the true joy in giving to others. Their sons and daughters are already growing into fine, compassionate and caring young people. It’s not easy raising kids in today’s world. Just last evening when I saw one of these mothers at a church function, she wished aloud that times were like those on the Andy Griffith show. Simpler. I understand. I’ve often wished that myself.

I’ve raised my children into adulthood. It wasn’t always easy and still isn’t at times. But I have that seasoned experience and ability to see that “this too shall pass.” I can offer the gift of encouragement to young families.

And what I’ve gotten in return are true and cherished friendships.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling