Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thinking of Mom on her birthday May 24, 2022

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My mom celebrates her 82nd birthday at Parkview Home in Belview, Minnesota, in May 2014. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2014)

THE FIRSTS ALWAYS prove the hardest. And today marks a first. Today would have been my mom’s 90th birthday, had she not died in January.

I miss her. Sometimes believing she is truly gone feels impossible. A lot of that has to do with COVID—of seeing so little of her during the pandemic and then attending her funeral in the absolute height of omicron. Like so many other families with elders in long-term care, with loved ones who passed during COVID, the loss is compounded. Closure seems elusive in the absence of community comfort.

But I don’t want to dwell on that. I want to focus instead on my mom, a woman of deep faith, humble, kind…and such a gift to me.

I think back on her birthday in May 2014, shortly after she moved into the long-term care center which became her home for the remainder of her life. Randy and I drove the 2.5 hours to visit her, bringing with us a homemade chocolate cake and several jugs of lemonade. A few extended family members joined us to celebrate.

I took a photo of Mom as she gazed upon that rectangular cake, nine candles blazing, sprinkles scattered atop the homemade chocolate frosting. She looks content, pleased. That I could bring her joy on her 82nd birthday still makes me smile.

On Monday I smiled, too, as Mom’s sister Rachel and her husband, my Uncle Bob, stopped to see me en route back to their Missouri home after a visit to Minnesota. As Rachel and I stood in the driveway wrapping our arms around each other in the tightest hug, I felt a moment of fleeting sorrow mixed with comfort. None of my mom’s siblings attended her funeral due to COVID concerns, health issues and/or distance. I was thankful for their decision, although I knew it had to be difficult for them not to say goodbye to their sister. As my godmother and I hugged upon her arrival, I felt Mom’s presence. There was an undeniable moment of shared grief.

Later, after I served lunch, I grabbed a bag of gingersnap cookies from the kitchen counter to pass around. Mom’s favorite. I’d baked a batch awhile ago and froze some. When Mom lived at Parkview, I made gingersnaps for her every Christmas.

Today, May 24, I think of gingersnaps and birthday cakes and multiple memories that remind me of the mom I loved, still love. And miss. Oh, to sing “Happy birthday!” one more time.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Elusive grief April 13, 2022

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Me with my mom during a January 2020 visit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling)

JANUARY 13, 2022. Three months have passed since my mom died. Sometimes that feels like forever. And sometimes like yesterday.

In all that time, I have yet to grieve like I feel I should. That is a heart-wrenching, full-out crying session of shoulders heaving, tears gushing, emotions overtaking me.

And I keep asking myself, “Why can’t I cry?” I loved my mom and I miss her and losing her is one of life’s greatest losses.

The answer to my self-imposed question seems multi-layered. Losing my mom was a gradual process. One of declining health paired with an inability to connect with her during these awful years of a global pandemic. Long before her death, she lost the ability to talk on a telephone. So my weekly Sunday evening phone calls to her ceased. My last long-distance conversations with her were via speaker phone, me talking “at” her rather than “to” her.

One of my last portraits of Mom. We had a particularly good visit that day. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2021)

As Mom’s memory and overall health faded, even our rare in-person visits at her care center proved difficult. I reminded myself that I was there for her, not for me. And that helped. If she connected with a flicker of recognition or a smile or a few words, then I felt grateful. It was always about her. Not me. Always.

Today I feel an emptiness. A void. An absence.

Her public funeral (not something I wanted/supported) did not provide an outlet for my grief. It was not a funeral as usual for me at the height of omicron. I did not stand in a receiving line accepting hugs and hand shakes. That was way beyond my comfort level among the unmasked in a crowded fellowship hall and sanctuary in rural southwestern Minnesota. I felt disrespected as a grieving daughter and nearly did not attend the funeral due to the health risk (to myself and others). But I mustered through, feeling like a masked outsider at my own mother’s funeral. Grief and comfort eluded me on Mom’s burial day because of choices made. And not necessarily just my choices.

Randy and Mom dye Easter eggs in her home in 2014. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2014)

And so here I am today, three months later. Recently I stood before a rack of Easter-themed greeting cards at Dollar Tree. My eyes scanned the labels—for daughter, son, granddaughter, grandson…then focused on “Mom.” And in that moment I felt the pain of losing Mom and I remembered the Easter of 2014 when Randy and I traveled 120 miles to my hometown of Vesta to spend the holiday weekend with her. I recall how she delighted in dyeing eggs, giddy like a child. Oh, to bring her such joy. But that April visit also proved a pivotal point for Mom. We observed her debilitating chronic pain, her inability to get around. Shortly thereafter, she moved into assisted living. Eventually, she would land in the nursing home wing of Parkview, her home for nearly eight years.

One of the many inspirational pieces Mom clipped and saved. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

As I reflect on Mom’s journey, I feel thankful that she lived to age 89, nearing 90. Too many times during her life, we did not think she would survive major health crises. A viral infection in her heart nearly killed her in the early 1980s. Open heart valve replacement surgery followed. She nearly bled to death another time. Pneumonia almost claimed her life years later. A broken neck resulting from a fall placed her in a metro area ICU trauma unit. Countless times we gathered at her bedside to say our goodbyes. But each time Mom pulled through and relief washed over me. Once more.

Did all of those near-death experiences factor into how I feel today about Mom dying? Perhaps. I’d mentally prepared myself and said “goodbye” so many times in the past. Now when I need to grieve, grief feels elusive.

Her name remains in black marker on my whiteboard prayer list. I thank God for bringing her to faith, for blessing me with her as my mother, for the long life she lived.

Her name remains inked, too, in my address book. I can’t bring myself to X it out, for doing so means finality.

I expect prior to Mother’s Day, when I’m standing before the card rack at Dollar Tree searching for a card for my daughter, my eyes will scan the labels then land on “For Mom.” And when that happens, grief will rise. Not in tears, but in the way grief sneaks up on you in the most ordinary of ways and clenches your heart with pain.

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JUST A NOTE: I recognize that grief is a process, one that takes time and differs for everyone. I recognize that many of you are also grieving and that you, too, may have experienced a loss of public comfort and grief during the pandemic. I’m sorry. I understand. I empathize. You are not alone. I care. Others care.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Moving through grief January 31, 2022

My Grandma Josephine holding her baby daughter, my mom Arlene, in 1932.

AMAZING GRACE, how sweet the sound…

The lyrics brought me to tears. Sobbing. A week after I followed family into the St. John’s Lutheran Church sanctuary, behind Mom’s casket, and settled onto a pew only feet from her coffin.

On that January 22 morning, with “Amazing Grace” as the funeral processional, tears did not fall. Nor did they in the immediate days thereafter. But a week later, while watching the movie, I Can Only Imagine, grief bubbled over. I cried as I listened to “Amazing Grace” in a funeral scene. Actor J. Michael Finley, playing Christian musician/vocalist Bart Millard of MercyMe, sat in a pew at his father’s funeral. When the camera shifted from Finley to his father’s casket, my own new grief erupted.

Me with my mom during a January 2020 visit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling)

It is a process, this grieving. For me, the process began years ago as Mom’s health declined. Every time I saw her, which was not often in the past two years due to COVID-19, I felt like it would be my last. And so I savored each visit—the moments of connection, the glimpses of recognition, the slightest of smiles. I hoped my presence comforted her, brought her a bit of joy, reassured her of my love. This was about her, not me.

A portion of a photo board I created of my mom and with her parents and siblings.

And so here I am, approaching three weeks since her death, only now feeling the depth of my mother’s forever absence on this earth. On Sunday I removed pictures from photo boards I crafted. Storyboards which highlighted her life. Photo collages intentionally focused on her. Not me or others. But on her and the story of her life.

Mom’s “The Good Shepherd” art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2022)

On my dining room wall hangs a framed print, “The Good Shepherd,” a wedding gift to my parents in 1954. It always hung in their bedroom and then on my mom’s care center wall until the end. Now I have this cherished art, this visual reminder of Mom’s faith. For 67 years, that image of Jesus, “The Good Shepherd,” reassured and comforted her, just as it does me today. In my grief, especially in my grief.

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TELL ME: Dear readers, do you have a special piece of art, a song, something that reminds you of a dear loved one now departed? I’d like to hear what touches your spirit/comforts/uplifts you when you think of a loved one (s) now gone.

© Copyright 2022 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

 

Heartbroken on May 14 May 14, 2020

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Aunt Sue and Uncle John

SHE IS STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL, the young woman in the long-sleeved simple white dress with eight decorative buttons and a corsage accenting the bodice. Her thick black hair is pulled back in a pony tail held in place by a white ribbon and a sprig of flowers. Next to her stands a tall, lean man dressed in suit and tie, a single carnation pinned to his lapel.

On May 14, 1968, this couple—my Aunt Sue and Uncle John—married. Today would have been their 52nd wedding anniversary. Except Sue died last week of pancreatic cancer. Although we all understood that Sue’s cancer, diagnosed some six months ago, was terminal, her death is still difficult to accept. Her husband of nearly 52 years is heartbroken.

That heartbreak has been compounded by COVID-19. For the week Sue was hospitalized prior to her May 8 death, John could not visit her. Until the end—the day prior and the day of. And now he and his grown children and their families are left to grieve alone. The usual ways in which we comfort and support one another have vanished. You know that if you’ve lost a loved one during this global pandemic.

I wish I could be there for my uncle and cousins, to hold them close and tell them how deeply sorry I am for the loss of their wife and mother, my aunt. Instead phone calls, texts, emails, cards and flowers must suffice…until we can gather at some time to honor Aunt Sue.

She was such an incredibly beautiful woman. And also outgoing and engaging. When John and Sue would drive from Minneapolis to rural southwestern Minnesota with their two kids for family gatherings, Sue was right in the thick of conversation and always eager to play board games. During those games, we threatened to use a timer because she often took too long taking her turn. At Christmas one year, I nearly convinced her that I sharpened a candy cane with a pencil sharpener. Laughter filled the farmhouse and Sue laughed right along.

Sue loved her kids and grandkids, cats and good Italian food and life. And she loved my uncle.

Today I will call Uncle John, to offer my support, but mostly to listen. Maybe he will tell me about the beautiful young woman with the thick dark bangs and her hair pulled back. The lovely bride in the above-the-knee simple white wedding dress and his wife of not-quite 52 years.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The kindness of a faith community July 20, 2018

 

CHOCOLATE MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER, right? Or at least it helps.

Chocolate lifted my mood recently following the death of my friend and pastor, the Rev. Dr. Michael Nirva. He died June 9 in Sweden from complications related to cancer. His unexpected death while traveling with family hit me, and our congregation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault, hard.

 

 

From across town, First English Lutheran Church reached out, gifting Trinity with a basket of hugs and kisses. Of the Hershey’s chocolate variety. The congregation’s act of Christian love and sympathy touched me and many others. How thoughtful and kind and caring.

 

 

Likewise, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church sent a plant to honor Pastor Nirva at a celebration of life service last weekend. What a blessing to live in a town where such grace is extended to a faith family grieving the loss of its senior pastor.

Thank you, First English and Our Savior’s.

 

 

© Copyright 2018 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

 

Grieving September 22, 2011

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“THANK GOD FOR MY FAITH,” my mom said as she shared yet another piece of tragic news that has touched my extended family this week.

Her dear cousin Alice, 79, died Tuesday as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident in North Mankato. This I learned in a phone call on Wednesday. After I hung up, and per my mom’s request, I began phoning four of my five siblings.

A day earlier I had done the same.

My sister-in-law’s 64-year-old father was found dead at the scene of a single-vehicle accident in Cottonwood County early Tuesday morning, news I was asked to share with other family members.

This is almost more than we, my extended family, can bear right now. We’ve leaned on and supported each other and relied on our strong faith in God and on friends to get us through our hours and days.

Yet, I know the most difficult minutes are yet to come—when I see my brother and his wife and their two children. What will I say that will console them? Words and hugs seem inadequate. Prayers are not.

My mom is right. It is faith in God that sustains us. We are not alone.

And, certainly, we are not the only family grieving. In Waseca, many are mourning the loss of 11-year-old Jaiden, a sixth-grader who on Monday committed suicide. My sister, a Waseca floral designer, has been creating floral arrangements for Jaiden’s funeral. My two young nieces, who attend school in Waseca, and my other sister, who teaches in Waseca, have all been impacted by Jaiden’s death.

Grief runs deep.

In Faribault, family and friends are mourning the death of 25-year-old Wendi due to injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident. She was a Faribault High School classmate of my eldest; my daughter did not know her well.

Grief runs deep.

We all know we are going to die. Yet, when a death comes unexpectedly, in a tragic way, it’s especially difficult to comprehend, to accept, to understand.

We do the best we can. We cry and pray and talk and, for me, write.

And last night I laughed, a laugh that built and rolled into a deep belly laugh that left my muscles aching. When I think about it now, the subject of my laughter wasn’t at all funny—as my husband told me at the time. But I asked him, “Would you rather I cry?”

So I laughed. Because I’ve already cried too much.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling