Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A legacy of love in 10 words May 19, 2018

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TEN WORDS IN A TELEGRAM. Ten words of love. Sent seven weeks prior to their December 7, 1945, wedding.

She saved the creased and partially torn slip of paper for 73 years, a reminder of the love they shared until his death a dozen years ago.

On Thursday that love letter, wired by my Uncle Glenn from Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia to his betrothed back in Minnesota, was shared at his beloved’s funeral. There, among all the family photos and remembrances, this piece of my Aunt Elaine’s life held the sweetness of young love and evidence of an enduring love between husband and wife.

“You don’t think of your grandparents in that kind of way, in a romantic way,” Glenn and Elaine’s granddaughter said as we stood (after the funeral dinner) reading the romantic words of Kim’s grandfather: DARLING. ARRIVED SAFELY. EXPECT TO BE HOME SOON. LOVE = GLENN.

Darling. That single word holds such love, such sweetness, such promise. I can only imagine the joy Elaine felt in receiving that October 19, 1945, wire from the man she was about to marry. While he served in the US military, she was back home on their native southwestern Minnesota prairie working as a nurse at the Marshall Hospital.

 

Elaine Borning. Photo from the Sunset Funeral Association website.

 

What a gift Elaine left to her six surviving children, 24 grandchildren and 47 great grandchildren by saving that telegram. Love of family threaded throughout her funeral day. In between comforting Scripture, we sang “I Was There to Hear your Borning Cry,” a hymn sung at every Borning family funeral. Song connecting generations, even in death.

I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I couldn’t make it through that song without tears releasing at the death of my godmother, in the emotion of gathering in a small town Lutheran church to grieve and to celebrate Elaine’s life. There, on a May morning as perfect as they get in Minnesota, our voices rose in love and sadness and hope. When the evening gently closes in, and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise. I was there to hear your borning cry…

After the service, vehicles in the long funeral processional trailed clouds of dust through the under-construction gravel Main Street of Echo as we passed the grain elevator and boarded up buildings toward the cemetery. As I stood on the lush grass a tombstone away from Elaine’s gravesite, I took in the scene. Family gathered. Clenched tissues wiping tears from eyes. My cousin’s head bowed in sadness. A Spee-Dee delivery truck passing by. White clouds hung in a deep blue sky, farm fields just across the highway. And then, as the pastor led the graveside service, the noon whistle blaring, loud and clear across the land. So small town. So fitting. A moment to laugh within, to think, Elaine would have appreciated this.

 

 

Just like she would have appreciated the homemade chocolate mayonnaise cake served at her funeral dinner. She had a fondness for sweets, was known for the chocolate mayo cake she baked. After her death, her family found candy bars stashed in her freezer alongside bags of neatly-stacked homemade buns.

And they found, too, her life story written just for them. I can only imagine the comfort my cousins and their children and their children’s children will find in reading those words. Just like the ten words written in that telegram 73 years ago. Words that leave a legacy of love.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From small town Minnesota: Comfort on a day of mourning April 28, 2018

This banner hung in the sanctuary at my Uncle Harold’s funeral.

 

COMFORT IN SONG. Comfort in words. Comfort in family. Comfort in food. Comfort in a sense of community.

 

The one-block Main Street of downtown Vesta, Minnesota.

 

I felt comforted as I gathered with extended family and my hometown community on Thursday to mourn, and remember, my beloved Uncle Harold.

 

Floral arrangements, plants and other memorials filled the front of the church. These flowers, with an oil can incorporated, were given by my siblings and our families. The oil can recognizes Harold’s previous occupation as the owner of Harold’s Service (a gas station and garage).

 

I felt blessed, too, to congregate here in a small town church overflowing with people. It is the songs, always the songs, that touch my emotions, that bring me to tears. I struggled to sing the words to “How Great Thou Art” as row upon row upon row of extended family, including me, joined the immediate family in walking in together, behind the casket, to fill St. John’s Lutheran Church.

 

Many family photos, including one of Harold and his wife, Marilyn, graced the table as did Harold’s (presumably favorite) cap.

 

I observed that the undertakers seemed surprised at the sheer volume of Kletscher relatives. We are a large lot and we come together in times of need. Only a few of my 30-plus cousins were missing. Family is important to us. Always has been. Always will be.

 

Vesta is a close-knit farming community of about 330 in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

As I sat in a folding chair at the end of a pew, pressed to the wall, I felt the closeness of this family and community that I love. Our voices swelled, loud, to sing “Amazing Grace” and, later, “Go My Children, With My Blessing.” In those moments of song, I felt especially moved by the legacy of my forefathers who helped found this congregation. There’s something about singing traditional hymns of old that comforts me and connects me to those who went before me—on this day my uncle.

 

A snippet of the life summary Harold wrote for his family.

 

Harold left a gift for his family in the form of his life’s story scrawled onto four pages of notepad paper. The notes were found in the barn/shed behind his home after his death. I didn’t have time to completely read the life summary given the crowd and busyness of funeral day. But Harold’s youngest son has promised to send me the stories, which also mention my dad.

 

The display table showcased some of the honors Harold has garnered through the years for his service to church and to community.

 

The two brothers now lie buried near each other on a cemetery just north of Vesta. The city fire truck led the long processional from the church to the burial grounds as an honor to Harold, a volunteer fireman of 45 years. On the hilltop cemetery, we said our final goodbyes, our final prayers, as the wind whipped and the sun shone. Standing there, I felt a sense of comfort not only in the closeness of family but in a sense of place. This is my land. These are my people. Even though I left Vesta decades ago, this still feels most like home.

When the graveside ceremony ended, I lingered with family, my heart heavy, yet my heart free. I paused at my father’s gravestone, too, and remembered him—dead 15 years now.

Back at the church, the celebration—and I intentionally choose to call this a celebration—continued with a lunch of scalloped potatoes and ham, coleslaw, slices of bread, homemade dill pickles and cupcakes served with lemonade and coffee. No Funeral Hotdish #1 or Funeral Hotdish #2, as I refer to the Reception Committee hotdishes published in the St. John’s Anniversary Cookbook of 1985. I scooped only small servings of food onto my paper plate, cognizant of the crowd to feed, and not necessarily expecting Jesus to multiply the scalloped potatoes like the fishes and loaves.

 

Harold worked as the city of Vesta maintenance engineer for many years before retiring at age 70.

 

Food and conversation comforted me on this Thursday, Harold’s burial day. He would have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love—by the vehicles overflowing onto the county road beside the church, by the lines waiting to comfort his wife and children, by the raised voices singing, Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee. How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In loving memory of Rhody C. Yule June 16, 2011

Rhody's self-portrait, 1989

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON we eulogized and buried my 92-year-old artist friend, Rhody Yule.

I have known Rhody for less than two years, having met him quite by happenstance in the fall of 2009. While driving by his rural Faribault home, I spotted celebrity portraits hanging on his garage, stopped to photograph them and then went to his front door.

There I met this sprite of a man and his yapping dog, Jo-Jo.

With his dog shut in the kitchen because I feared being bitten, Rhody shared the story of his life with me and my husband, Randy, strangers until then. I did not hesitate to ask about the paintings hung in his cozy living room and on his garage. He did not hesitate to share that he had been painting since age 16.

Even on that first visit, I learned so much about a man who would come to mean so much to me. His wife, Shirley, had fallen and was living in Hastings. Oh, how he missed her. His only child, Paul, died in a car accident in 1977 at age 23. Oh, how he missed him.

Rhody told us about his military service, including time in Nagasaki, Japan, cleaning up after the atomic bomb. He showed us photos and paintings on that first visit and grass-woven sandals from Japan snugged inside a wooden box he had crafted.

I thought to ask, thank God, if he had ever publicly exhibited his art. He hadn’t. That became my mission, to get a gallery show for this life-long artist. His first mini-show, of his religious paintings, came in September 2010, when he was invited to Christdala Church near Millersburg. He had, many years prior, done a painting of the church. Randy and I coordinated that exhibit, then loaded the paintings into our van and set them up outside this historic country church. Rhody and I spoke briefly at that event and he assured me that, despite our nervousness, we did well.

At Christdala, I distributed mini fliers for his upcoming gallery show at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault. I had applied for the exhibit on his behalf and, in January, with the assistance of family and friends and volunteers, “A Lifetime of Art: The Rhody Yule Collection” opened to a packed gallery.

In typical Rhody fashion, this man of gentle spirit and quiet humility took it all in, never once boasting, but enjoying every second of his evening. This marked a shining moment for him in his 92 years of life and I was honored to have helped him achieve this public recognition of his art.

Rhody, minutes before his gallery show opened in January 2011.

RHODY’S FUNERAL SERVICE on Wednesday, while tinged with grief, also caused us to laugh out loud at his humor. We reminded each other of his forgiving attitude, his unshakable faith, his always positive attitude.

Just days before his death,  my husband Randy and I visited one last time with Rhody. Physically his body had deteriorated to a shell of the man he had been, but his mind and spirit remained strong. We saw him on a good night.

In that last hour with our friend, we reminisced about his gallery exhibit as I, one-by-one, held up photos I had taken that evening. He was too weak to grasp the images. And then we paged through several of his photo albums with pictures of a younger Rhody, a freckle-faced Paul, a beautiful Shirley.

I thought to myself, “You will be with them soon, Rhody. Soon.”

Rhody did not fear death. Yet he wished to live, even thought he might recover. I knew better. When I mentioned Millersburg, Rhody was ready for a night out and a beer at his favorite eating establishment there. Family and friends celebrated with him last fall in Millersburg at a patriotic-themed freedom party. His idea. His celebration after overcoming a recent, temporary loss of his personal freedom.

Rhody had more living to do. I learned at his funeral that this WW II veteran wanted to travel on a Washington D.C. Honor Flight to see the war memorials. It breaks my heart that he did not live long enough for that to happen.

Me and Rhody at his opening night gallery reception.

He prayed every night for the soldiers to come home.

He was smartly dressed for burial in his military uniform, which hung loosely on the gaunt body of a man who once stood strong in service to his country.

Those honoring his memory were directed to donate to the Rice County Veterans Memorial Expansion Project.

A spray of patriotic red and white flowers adorned with a blue ribbon decorated Rhody’s carved wooden casket, a casket so appropriate for a man who crafted wooden boxes and also picture frames (for his art). Had he been physically capable, I expect Rhody may have built and carved his own casket.

But Rhody is gone now and, as the eulogist, the Rev. Ron Mixer, said, Rhody is busy painting sunrises and sunsets in heaven. He suggested we look for a signature “Y” in the clouds.

Rhody has left those of us who knew and loved him with more than his legacy as an artist and the thought that he is still painting. He has gifted each of us with his spirit of forgiveness and kindness, his humor and humility, his desire for fun, a love of life and a faith that endured challenges.

I knew Rhody such a short time. But how blessed that time has been.

We drove through nearly-torrential rain Wednesday afternoon to the rural Cannon City Cemetery to bury Rhody beside Shirley. As we gathered under the tent and next to it, sheltered by umbrellas gripped tight against the whipping wind, members of the Central Veterans Association fired an honorary salute to their brother soldier. Taps mourned. An aging veteran presented a folded American flag to Rhody’s step son in a voice choking with gratitude and emotion.

Soon the rain stopped and the sun wedged through the clouds as if Rhody was there, telling us to wipe away the tears. He would have wanted us to celebrate his life, and we did, but only if we didn’t brag about him.

Rhody's favorite painting, "The Last Supper," which he painted in honor of his beloved son Paul.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling