Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mourning January 19, 2022

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Mom in the room at her care center, where she was in hospice. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021)

SHE DIED ON THURSDAY EVENING. My mom, 89, the woman who birthed me and cared for me and set an example of kindness, faithfulness, love and compassion that I strive to emulate.

I feel simultaneously sad and thankful. Sad because I’ve lost my mom. Grateful because she is no longer struggling to breathe, to manage pain, to endure all the challenges of a body in failing health. She is at peace now. In heaven. Reunited with loved ones. With her Lord. That comforts me.

Because I have yet to see Mom in death, my grief seems stifled. Not yet unleashed. I have not experienced a crying-my-eyes-out moment over her death. Over other matters, yes. But the uncontrollable tears of mourning will come. Soon.

In these first days of decisions and stressors and sleepless nights and exhaustion so extensive I wonder how I can function, I press on. Soon things will settle and reality will arrive like an unwelcome visitor. And when that happens, I will be ready. Sort of. I recognize that losing one’s mother is unlike any other loss in its profoundness.

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For now, my posting may be irregular. I promise a future post in which I share more about my dear sweet mother.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Grief & peace in the Christmas season December 17, 2021

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The dove, a symbol of peace, carved onto an aged tombstone at the Cannon City Cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2020)

Sleep in heavenly peace… The refrain of “Silent Night, Holy Night” unleashed tears as I washed dishes Friday morning. My shoulders heaved, my hands swirling in the soapy water. I gave in to my emotions, overwhelmed by words that simultaneously comforted and grieved me.

Earthly peace sometimes feels elusive. Even in this season of Christmas.

I want to acknowledge that and to acknowledge also the grief many of you are experiencing. There’s been so much loss in the past two years. Too much.

I’m thinking especially of those of you who have lost loved ones. I recognize how your hearts hurt, how you ache at the missing of your dear ones. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. We each differ in how we process loss, how we manage grief. But we all must grieve.

Music often stirs my emotions. Sometimes uplifting, other times opening my spirit to that which lies heavy on my heart. I listen regularly to Christian music on 98.5 KTIS in the Twin Cities. Several songs before “Silent Night,” I cranked the volume to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” an incredibly uplifting song.

Minutes later, I cried into the water-filled sink at sleep in heavenly peace.

As we move closer to Christmas, expectations exist to feel joyful. I hope you find joy. But please know that it’s OK to feel otherwise. It’s OK to listen to “Silent Night” and cry as you think of a dear one asleep in heavenly peace.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thanksgiving thoughts from Minnesota Prairie Roots November 25, 2021

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Words of thanks in the Psalms. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

ON THIS NATIONAL day of Thanksgiving, I realize that gratitude may feel elusive.

Perhaps you are mourning the loss of a loved one, grief shadowing your thoughts. Perhaps a loved one is seriously ill, near death. Maybe you are struggling with new or ongoing health issues. If this describes your situation, I’m sorry. Holidays like today, focused on family, can be hard, really hard.

We’ve all had those years when we’d rather skip the holiday for all the pain it brings.

But within and over and under and through and beside and between, gratitude can still find a way into our hearts. In photos. In memories. In a phone call or a text or a video chat. In time together, whether in-person or virtually. In a prayer offered. In a prayer received.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for you. For your support of my creative work. For the connections we’ve made, the friendships formed. For being part of my world. I value you. I count you among my reasons to give thanks, especially today.

A blessed and happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, dearest readers of Minnesota Prairie Roots!

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A river of grief October 29, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

GRIEF RUNS LIKE A RIVER through the communities of Faribault and Northfield. Rushing. Rising. Roaring. Flooding over banks.

This week, three tragic events have claimed the lives of three. A beloved priest. A woman who lived a life of service. And an, as yet, unidentified individual.

We are two Rice County communities collectively mourning.

The latest loss occurred at 9:25 pm Thursday when a car slammed into the Warsaw Town Hall in a fiery crash that set both vehicle and hall afire, according to the Rice County Sheriff’s Department. The driver, the sole occupant of the car westbound on County Road 39/230th St. West, remains unidentified. This location, a T intersection (CR 39 and Dalton Avenue meet), has been the site of numerous crashes.

UPDATE, November 2, 2021: The driver of the vehicle involved in the fiery crash has been identified as Robin (Robinson) Roberts of Waseca. My heart breaks for Robin’s family, whom I know. Robin was the granddaughter of my former, and now-deceased, next door neighbors. She was a beautiful soul in every way from her mega smile to her loving and caring spirit. She cared for her Uncle Terry after his dad passed and his mom was no longer able to care for him. Terry had downs syndrome and was like a brother to Robin. We felt blessed to have Terry (who passed several years ago) and his parents living next door to us for many many years. And I feel blessed, too, to have met Robin, a joyful and kind woman who brought much compassion and love into this world.

Only a day prior at 9:36 am Wednesday, another tragedy occurred, this one nearly 300 miles to the north on Lake Vermilion in Greenwood Township near Tower. Eva Gramse, 72, of Faribault died in a fiery house explosion, according to the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department. Her husband, Michael, was found outside their cabin and was airlifted to a Duluth hospital with severe injuries.

The Gramses are well-known in Faribault. Michael Gramse founded MRG Tool & Die, now led by their son Rod as president of the company. But the couple’s imprint extends beyond their business with both actively involved in the community. Michael Gramse has advocated for youth pursuing careers in trades. And Eva, according to media reports, advocated for underprivileged children and led a bible study at her church, Peace Lutheran. I knew of her from previous involvement with Faribault Lutheran School, a Christian school my children attended. I expect the depth of Eva’s impact on my community will emerge in the coming days as friends and family share stories of this woman who meant so much to them.

In neighboring Northfield, that community is grieving the tragic death of the Rev. Dennis Dempsey, 73, who served the Church of St. Dominic for 15 years up until recently. He died on Monday when a vehicle struck the bike he was riding in Rosemount. The driver of the vehicle has a history of speeding and other violations and faces possible charges in this deadly incident.

By all accounts, Father Denny as he preferred to be called, was beloved by many. With 41 years in the priesthood, including time at a Venezuelan mission, he touched many lives. Those who knew him speak to his kindness, his love of the outdoors, his support of the local Latino community, his overall caring spirit and love of people. My connection to him comes through dear friends served by this man of God. Their hearts are broken.

St. Dominic’s celebrates their much-loved former priest today (Friday) with visitation from 4-8 pm and a 7 pm Vigil Liturgy service. Father Denny’s funeral mass is set for 10:30 am Saturday at his current parish, Church of the Risen Savior in Burnsville.

Grief runs like a river. Through Northfield. Through Faribault. To grieve is to have loved…

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A must-listen: “Tilly Remembers Her Grandfather” August 13, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

SHE DEFINES SADNESS in these words: an ocean filled with nothing.

That definition comes not from a poet or a songwriter, but rather from 12-year-old Matilda Breimhorst in a May 1, 2020, podcast interview with Michael Barbaro of The New York Times, The Daily.

I encourage every single one of you to listen to this 20-minute interview, “Tilly Remembers Her Grandfather.” It will leave you emotionally exhausted/drained/heartbroken as you hear Tilly speak about her beloved Papa.

The Rev. Craig Breimhorst died on April 16, 2020, due to complications of COVID-19. He was the first person in my county of Rice to die of the virus. That county death tally has since risen to 113. As shared in my post yesterday, Breimhorst’s life will be celebrated on Saturday during his funeral.

When I published that post, I was unaware of the podcast. But Minnesota Prairie Roots reader Sandy Varley directed me to the NY Times podcast and for that I feel grateful. Please, take 20 minutes of your time to listen to Tilly talk about her Papa.

About the grandfather who climbed with her onto their special spot on the roof of his house to talk and star gaze. About the grandfather who would show up unexpectedly at school to eat lunch with Tilly (even stealing her chips) and tell stories to her and her friends. About the grandfather whose t-shirt she slept in when he lay dying in the hospital.

I admire the strength of this 12-year-old in telling her story, sharing her grief. Her words are powerful, her insights remarkable for someone so young. Via this podcast, via the bravery and honesty of Tilly, Rice County’s first COVID-19 death transforms from a statistic to a granddaughter remembering and grieving her grandfather. Her beloved Papa.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mourning Week Day, age six May 4, 2021

Week Day. Photo source: Hamilton Funeral Home.

TODAY A FAMILY BURIES their six-year-old daughter and sister on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. My heart breaks. Tears flow. And sorrow roots deep within me.

To see the photo of an adorable girl with a sweet smile and braided pigtails makes this all too real. This COVID-19. This deadly virus which, on April 25, claimed the life of Week Day.

She emigrated with her family from a Thai refugee camp to Marshall, Minnesota, in December 2015. Week was not quite 18 months old. The daughter of Mu Mu and He Lars. And then big sister to Michael.

And when she passed, the first grade student of Ms Hewitt and a classmate and friend at Park Side Elementary School.

My heart breaks for those who knew and loved this little girl. The girl who loved the color pink and singing and dancing and drawing and painting. The little girl with the kind heart, best attitude, bright smile.

Any death from COVID-19 is tragic. But, when a child loses her life, it’s especially difficult to take.

If you wish to show your love and support to the family of Week, please send cards, words of encouragement and donations to:

Hamilton Funeral Home

Family of Week Day

701 Jewett St.

Marshall, MN. 56258

Thank you.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Briana, more than a statistic April 28, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

SHE DIED ON FRIDAY due to complications from COVID-19. And she was 30. Only 30.

I didn’t know Briana, who graduated from Faribault High School in 2009. But that matters not. Here’s a young life lost to a deadly virus, Briana’s name now on the ever-lengthening list of 7,091 (as of Tuesday) Minnesotans who have died from COVID or complications thereof.

Briana’s obituary, published April 27, 2021 in The Faribault Daily News.

My heart hurts for Briana’s family and friends. Her obituary and the comments therein, describe a vibrant and artsy young woman who enjoyed photography, crafts, sewing and music. She was also tagged as a passionate activist.

Briana’s friend Corrina writes: Briana was the most fieriest, artistic, and admirable person I knew. She inspired me to protest and we walked together through the streets fighting for justice. She made the world a better place.

She made the world a better place. I think we would all like to be remembered in that way.

It’s so important to remember that behind every COVID-19 death statistic is a person. An individual who loved and was loved. Who perhaps, like Briana, marched with fiery passion. Or quietly helped others via kindness, generosity and compassion. Or still had their whole life ahead of them. Like the first grader from Park Side Elementary School in Marshall who died on Sunday due to complications from COVID-19. A child with no underlying health conditions. My heart breaks. My cousin’s daughter teaches at Park Side. Marshall sits in Lyon County, in the southwestern corner of the state, in a region with one of Minnesota’s highest COVID infection rates.

As I watch and read media coverage of the COVID situation in India, my heart also breaks at the overwhelming number of new cases—some 350,000 in a single day—and the resulting deaths. It’s difficult to see film of people suffering, of bodies wrapped in blankets and lying in the streets, of oxygen masks clamped onto faces and hear the pleas for oxygen, medicine, PPE. Pleas, too, for vaccines.

An article published in the April 27 edition of The Faribault Daily News highlights how the virus continues to spread in my region of Minnesota. I see more and more people in public without face masks or half-masking. Tuesday stats from the Minnesota Department of Health list 12 new deaths, including one from my county of Rice. That individual was between the ages of 55-59. That makes 104 COVID-19 deaths now in my county

I feel thankful that the US and other countries are offering help to the people of India in this overwhelming health crisis. Yet, I can’t help but think how people in the US are turning down vaccines, not wearing face masks, living like there’s no pandemic…

Monday evening I watched “The Virus That Shook the World,” a two-part FRONTLINE public television documentary featuring people from around the world in the first year of COVID-19. A doctor. Filmmakers. Dancers. It was heart-wrenching to listen, to watch. But necessary to document. Important to view. I felt my grief building as the film progressed. And then, when a daughter in Iceland shared the story of her mother’s death from COVID, all the grief and pain I’ve felt during the past year-plus erupted. I couldn’t stop crying as I observed this family’s loss and pain. I felt like I was crying the grief of the world. Crying for Briana and her family. Crying for the family of that first grader and the entire community of Marshall. Crying for those in my circle who have lost loved ones (seven thus far) to COVID.

In all this grief and suffering and pain and death, I hold onto hope. Hope that we can overcome. Hope that we can heal. Hope that we can set aside politics and misinformation and me-attitudes to do what is right. To care about others and to act like we care. To understand the importance of health and science in defeating this virus. To cry tears of joy rather than tears of unending grief.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Ashes to ashes February 18, 2021

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Photographed at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, New Trier, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

ASH WEDNESDAY PASSED yesterday not without my lack of awareness of this special day in the Christian church. Rather, I experienced the day with an acute awareness rooted in a recent personal loss—the death of my father-in-law.

Now, a day after the Wednesday symbolizing death and repentance and the beginning of Lent, I am thinking of my husband’s father, his funeral and burial only one week ago.

…for dust you are and to dust you will return—Genesis 3:19.

I doubt any words can better describe the reality of death. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. That’s basic. Understandable. Maybe uncomfortable for some. But it’s truth. We’re all going to die, whether at age 90 like my father-in-law or age 19 like my nephew Justin in 2001. Sometimes death takes our loved ones way too soon.

Last Thursday, as we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for Tom and heard the priest speak those familiar words of dust to dust, grief and reality descended. Yet, as a woman of faith, hope balances that in the belief that I will see my loved ones again in heaven. Dad Helbling. Justin. My dad and grandparents and many aunts and uncles…and others I’ve had the joy of loving. For to love is to also open one’s heart to grief. And to hope.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A time to mourn, on a frigid February day in Minnesota February 12, 2021

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THERE IS A TIME for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…

Thursday was a day to mourn as the Helbling family celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for my father-in-law, Tom Helbling. He died on February 5 at the age of 90.

St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

It was an unusually frigid February day in central Minnesota with the temp hovering around zero as we gathered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Over the course of more than three hours, memories imprinted upon me. Memories shaped in part by a global pandemic, which affected the ways in which we could be comforted. Randy and I declined hugs and handshakes. There would be no luncheon, the time of one-on-one visits. No getting together with siblings, at least for us, either before the funeral or after.

Yet, simply being together in the same building brought comfort. Comfort came, too, in flowers and music and Scripture. Like the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, read by my sister-in-law Rosie. When she read a time to embrace and a time to refrain, I thought, how fitting for a funeral during COVID-19.

The casket spray, which incorporated a tractor photo and a toy tractor.

Images seared into my mind—like the lowering of the casket lid over my father-in-law. Or the surprise of seeing my then preschool-aged son in an image atop the casket spray. He was perched on the seat of his grandpa’s Ford 9N tractor in a photo I took decades ago.

We sat in the front pew to the left. Above the altar, in the blue ceiling, are the heavenly angels that drew my focus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Many times throughout the service—especially during the farewell chant and song of angels welcoming Dad into heaven—I focused on the heavenly angels painted on the ceiling high above the altar. What a gift the artists and craftsmen of this aged church left for mourners. Art comforts.

Pipes on the St. Michael’s organ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

So does music, especially music. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and many other songs filled this massive church with the most beautiful, heavenly music performed by musicians in the balcony. St. Michael’s has incredible acoustics. Randy and I suggested to his classmate Janel prior to the service that perhaps the musical team could play a polka or waltz in honor of Dad, who so enjoyed both and who also played piano, organ and accordion (not the concertina, as the priest noted). My sister-in-law Vivian shared with me later that the hymn “Whispering Hope,” played before the casket closed, was a popular waltz at wedding dances in the area and was a favorite of her parents. I love nuances like that which personalize a funeral.

As I sat through the service next to Randy on an uncomfortably hard straight-back pew, physically-distanced from family, I determined not to cry. I didn’t want to cry into my mask. I considered how surreal this felt to experience a funeral during a global pandemic. And how surreal also to experience a funeral during Minnesota’s longest cold snap in nearly three decades.

We dressed for the weather, wearing long johns under our dress pants. Randy told me his dad wore long johns often back on the farm so this extra layer of warmth seemed another fitting tribute. Before heading to the cemetery, we slipped out of dress shoes into snow boots.

The crucifix carried to the cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

And then, once grandchildren slid their grandfather’s casket into the hearse for the short drive to the cemetery, mourners followed by foot, crossing Minnesota State Highway 25. A church officiant stood half-way into the traffic lane, bundled for warmth, purple mask covering his face, holding a pole with crucifix atop as traffic waited out of respect for us to cross the road. It was a strong visual moment for me. The red pick-up truck parked curbside contrasting with mourners dressed in black. Waiting vehicles. Masks and stocking caps and bald heads (among those who chose to brave the elements minus head coverings). The priest in his, oh, so Minnesotan red buffalo plaid coat and matching ear flapper cap. An icy parking lot with occasional welcome patches of gravel. And then, the final steps across the snow to the burial site.

This art rises above St. Michael’s Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

As my nieces and nephews carried my father-in-law’s casket, I felt the heaviness of grief. The cold of death, balanced by the promise of eternal life. Grief and joy.

And then, in one last act of love, we each stepped up to pull flowers from the casket spray to lay upon the casket. I chose a red rose, not yet blackened by the cold, placed it on the shiny grey surface. And then, with my mittened hand, I patted the lid twice in a final farewell to my father-in-law.

© 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