Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In this season of ongoing grief, I hold hope July 18, 2018

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of Valley Grove Cemetery.

 

THESE PAST SIX MONTHS have marked, for me, an unprecedented, extended period of grief.

Jan. Carl. Harold. Elaine. Deb. Michael. And, yesterday, news of Ruth’s death. Whether family by blood, by faith and/or by friendship, each of these individuals held a place in my heart. I grieve their deaths.

But I grieve in hope, because I am a woman of faith. I believe in heaven, in eternal life. Therein lies my comfort.

On Saturday, that hope rose in familiar hymns like “Crown Him with Many Crowns” at the celebration of life service for my friend Michael, also my (senior) pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault. He died on June 9 from complications related to cancer, diagnosed only months earlier. He died while traveling in Sweden, far from his Minnesota home.

 

A snippet of Jesus’ face in a stained glass window at Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

At the service, Michael’s pastor friend the Rev. Mark Noren advised us all to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…and He will make your paths straight.” We repeated those words aloud from Proverbs 5. Words of strength and promise in a difficult time. He urged us to love our neighbors, to be there for others in prayer, support, encouragement and companionship.

I witnessed that care throughout the service. When a Sudanese choir of six sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in an upbeat tempo of unrestrained joy, I observed one singer gently wipe away the tears of another with her open palms. Such tenderness.

I watched, too, as a friend leaned into Michael’s youngest daughter, shoulder to shoulder, compassion in the closeness of two grieving young women.

More compassion came in the caring words of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Minnesota South District President, the Rev. Dean Nadasdy, who spoke of the mutual love between pastor and congregation.

 

The Good Shepherd stained glass window at Immanuel Lutheran Church, rural Courtland. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I felt that love in a tangible way at the visitation when I grasped the handle of the shepherd’s staff Michael received last year at a celebration of his 25 years in the ministry. At that event, I was honored to read a poem Michael wrote. He held an MA in English with a focus on poetry. We both loved language and words and penned poetry. He excelled in preaching. And he excelled in humor with a dry wit that often caught me by surprise. I marveled at his quick comebacks, his ability to unleash a humorous line with seemingly no effort. It was a gift.

But he sucked at gift-wrapping. Forgive me if you find that word inappropriate to connect to a pastor. Last December I was paired with Michael as our bible study group wrapped Christmas gifts for the Angel Tree ministry at our church. My efforts to teach him how to properly fold paper and wrap a gift failed. I finally gave up and suggested he dispense and attach the tape. I think he was relieved. Oh, how we laughed as we wrapped those gifts, extending love to our neighbors in need in the community.

I shall hold dear the memories of a man I valued not only as a pastor but as a friend. Life will always bring us grief as long as we choose to love. I accept that part of loving. For I have hope. Always hope.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling.

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Aunt Elaine May 16, 2018

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That’s Elaine in the middle, between two of my other aunts. I took this photo at the 2014 Kletscher Family Reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

EVERY CHRISTMAS I COULD COUNT on a handwritten letter from my Aunt Elaine updating me on the latest news in her ever-growing family. At last count, 47 great grandchildren. But those missives will come no more. My godmother died Monday afternoon at the age of 95.

Now I have only memories of the second oldest daughter of my grandparents, of the woman who outlived her husband, two children and seven siblings (two of them infants). She was strong. Tough. Stubborn. Determined. Whatever word you want to use, my aunt held her own in life. Her love of family, her faith and her get-up-and-go defined her. Elaine still lived in her own home and as most recently as several weeks ago delivered food to her sister-in-law after the passing of Elaine’s brother Harold.

I grew up in a close-knit extended family that gathered often to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We all lived near each other, either in Redwood or Yellow Medicine counties on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. I especially liked going to Aunt Elaine and Uncle Glenn’s house because then I could see Joyce, a favorite cousin born months after me. I also loved their house, a big old farmhouse of fine craftsmanship on a farm with a creaking windmill.

 

Homemade dill pickles (similar to the ones Elaine made) sold at the September 2015 Faribault Farmers’ Market and published here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

Beyond that, I selfishly couldn’t wait for the lunch Aunt Elaine would serve at the end of an evening of visiting. She made the best dill pickles. There was talk that well water made all the difference. Maybe. Maybe not. But I believe it was the hands that nurtured and picked those cucumbers and dill and then crafted them into dill pickles that made them legendary within our extended family.

 

 

Elaine was also known for her chocolate mayonnaise cake. I found the recipe (under her oldest daughter’s name) for that moist cake in the Peace Lutheran Centennial Cookbook, 1896 – 1996, Echo, Minnesota. Elaine served as a co-chair of the Cookbook Committee. I’m not surprised. She was always doing something for her church, community, family and others in general, including work as a practical nurse at the start of WW II. It’s part of our family legacy—this care and compassion and service.

 

Not the same cake Elaine made, but similar. Used here for illustration only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Days before her death, Elaine sampled that chocolate cake one last time after a granddaughter baked the cake and brought it, still warm, to her dying grandmother at the hospital. Elaine ate a few bites and then reminded her family of just how much she loved sweets. I love that story. I love that story because it makes me laugh. In laughter I am reminded that death, though it brings sadness, also brings laughter in the memories. I will always hold sweet memories of my dear aunt, my dear godmother. She was a strong woman of faith, loving her family, her community and the prairie place she called home. And now she has reached her final home: heaven. That, too, gives me joy in the presence of grief.

© 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

 

Uncle Harold April 24, 2018

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Harold Kletscher

MY UNCLE HAROLD died on Saturday. Unexpectedly. He was eighty-four. Even though he lived a long life, the length of years never seems enough for loved ones. The loss is no less difficult.

Harold, like two other uncles, lived within a mile of the farm place where I grew up in southwestern Minnesota. He was just always around. At church on Sunday mornings. Visiting the farm. But most often, working at the gas station he owned and operated along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Vesta. The business long ago closed.

In January 2014, I interviewed my uncle and wrote about his memories and my memories of Harold’s Service. I am thankful I took the time to listen to my uncle’s stories of doing business in a community of some 350. These businesses, once the backbone of small town economies, are dwindling. It’s important that we document the stories of these entrepreneurs as much for historical reference as for examples of determination, hard work and service. Today I direct you to that post (click here), as I think of my beloved uncle—husband, father, grandfather, businessman, city employee, church janitor, small town city councilman, volunteer and man of faith.

I am fortunate to come from a large extended family of many aunts, uncles and cousins. Nearly all lived within close geographical proximity back in my growing up years in Redwood County, Minnesota. We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries together. These days, with my generation of cousins and our families now spread well beyond the prairie, we see each other only once a year at the annual Kletscher Family Reunion. Or at funerals.

There is comfort in memories and in the closeness of extended family. We have a legacy of faith passed from our great grandparents. They were among founding members of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta. Funerals for my grandparents, father, and other uncles were held there. This week we gather again at St. John’s, to remember Uncle Harold. Loved by many. And now in his eternal home.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Comfort in grief March 26, 2018

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Not the soup I made, but used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I CHOPPED AND COOKED my way through grief. Onions and celery. Potatoes and carrots. I gripped the knife, chunking vegetables onto a cutting board. Then I dumped the mix into a pot of boiling chicken broth. I grabbed a second kettle, poured milk into a measuring cup, stirred a white sauce thick and bubbly, added cheddar cheese and chicken before combining contents of the two pots. Comfort in a kettle of simmering soup.

Next, I pulled molasses from the cupboard. Shortening, too, and flour and brown sugar and baking soda and salt and an array of spices. I combined and mixed and baked my way through grief. Comfort on a cookie sheet lined with old-fashioned gingersnaps scented of cinnamon and a grandmother’s kitchen.

And then, when the soup had cooled some, the cookies, too, I packaged both for delivery. Comfort for friends. But for me, too. There is something about the act of preparing and bringing food to a grieving family that offers solace in the midst of unfathomable pain. For the giver and the recipient.

On my way with Randy to deliver this tangible comfort, I felt angst rising. I prayed for the right words to say to our friends. “I’m sorry.” Two simple words—three if you consider the contraction—sufficed. And hugs.

And as we talked in the farmhouse living room, I noticed the landscape through the wide windows—how the grey sky met the grey earth, mimicking the grey of grief.

But I noticed, too, the cross hanging on an adjacent wall, the word JESUS bold and beautiful. Comfort. For me. For those parents who, like me, find peace in our faith.

We laughed over photos. And remembered. And grief vanished for a moment or three before we hugged again, the bagged gingersnaps lying on the dining room table next to an ice cream bucket brimming with the comfort of soup.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

January grief January 11, 2018

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I TRAILED MY HUSBAND as he wheeled his dad through double doors and across door mats, guiding him between a duo line of young men waiting outside the care center.

Just moments earlier the group carried their grandmother’s casket, grey as the January skies that matched the mood of this Wednesday afternoon in central Minnesota.

Randy veered his dad’s wheelchair to the left, behind the coffin, behind the hearse that would carry my father-in-law’s wife two hours west to her burial plot in Montevideo. There she would be laid to rest in the cold soil beside her first husband.

Earlier we gathered inside the care center chapel to remember Jan and to seek comfort in words of Scripture, song, prayer and memories. I learned of my step mother-in-law’s fondness for Tator Tot Hotdish and doughnuts as my own memories surfaced of a woman who always looked lovely with nails painted, hair done, and clothes and jewelry just so. Twenty-two years ago I photographed her marriage to Tom, Randy standing beside him then just as he was now.

Now, with her family preparing for the 100-mile funeral processional westward, my wheelchair bound father-in-law had his final moments with his second wife. It took one heave of Tom’s shoulders for Randy to place his hand upon his dad’s shoulder in a loving and tender act of comfort. I did likewise as the funeral director slid the grey casket, brightened by a lovely spray of red flowers, inside the hearse, then shut the doors.

In that act of finality, grief for my father-in-law surged through me. To see him lose a second wife 24 years after losing his beloved Betty hurt my heart.

Yet, we are people of faith, confident that Jan, like Betty, is now in heaven, and no longer suffering. That comforted us as we headed back inside the care center to sip coffee and to eat ham sandwiches (made with homemade buns), chips and bars (baked by the hands of those who loved Jan). Absent, though, were my step mother-in-law’s favorite doughnuts and Tator Tot Hotdish.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Another Christmas with Mom December 20, 2017

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I pose with my mom for a photo during our extended family Christmas gathering several days ago at her care facility.

 

MORE AND MORE I am cognizant of the passage of time, of aging, of the realization that I am now in the demographic of senior citizen. I need only look at my ever graying hair and my multiplying age spots and feel the aches and pains of arthritis. I am growing old, which is a good thing if you consider the alternative.

But with my own aging comes more frequent grief. More and more I am writing sympathy cards and attending funeral home visitations and comforting friends at the loss of parents.

While my dad died in 2003, my mom is still living. I find myself more and more making sure I photograph her during our visits. She lives 2 ½ hours away. Often I ask my husband to photograph my 85-year-old Mom and me together, too. We almost lost her last winter to pneumonia, one of many critical health challenges Mom has faced during her lifetime.

But she shares the story that God told her he wasn’t ready yet for that stubborn old lady. I believe her. Mom doesn’t lie.

And so I am blessed with another opportunity to celebrate Christmas with Mom. I am thankful.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling