Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Christmas blessings in a Nativity scene December 25, 2018

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WHEN I FIRST PULLED this image from my files, I planned to simply use it to illustrate the true meaning of Christmas and wish you a blessed Christmas. Quick and easy.

But then I noticed something. Hands. So many hands posing in different ways. I knew this was more than just a photo of my granddaughter looking at a vintage Nativity. The same Nativity her mama, aunt and uncle viewed every December in Faribault.

Let’s start with Izzy. You can barely see Grandpa’s hand clutching her arm to keep her from falling off the bales in front of the manger. Grandpa was also stopping Izzy from climbing into the scene for a closer look at the Baby Jesus, which she wanted to do. I see love and protection in the closeness of grandfather and granddaughter.

Two of the three Wisemen also hold their hands in a protective pose, guarding the precious gifts they carried to Bethlehem.

And that middle Wiseman, well, to me his arms folded to heart symbolize love, how close we hold those we love most. I suppose one could argue he’s just keeping his cape in place. I choose to see his adoration and love for his Savior.

Then there’s Joseph, his hand gripping a staff. I expect he felt overwhelmed in many ways by the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Holding onto something physical can ground someone in times of mixed emotions.

Finally, Baby Jesus lies with his arms outstretched in a gesture of openness. Like he’s welcoming us to come and hug him, to feel his embrace. Izzy saw that. She wanted to climb right into the manger. But, of course, I couldn’t let her.

Instead, I stepped beside this 2 ½-year-old and suggested she say goodbye. “Goodbye, Baby Jesus,” my sweet little granddaughter said. And my heart melted as I held her close.


For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)

Merry Christmas, dear readers! Merry Christmas!

FYI: To see more photos of the Nativity, click here to read my 2016 post.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


About those dirty hands July 1, 2017

My husband enjoys his cheeseburger at the 2016 North Morristown Fourth of July celebration. This photo and a comment on it prompted this post. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.


I FEEL THE NEED to defend my husband. And if I was on Facebook, I’d go directly to the source of an uninformed and hurtful comment about a photo I took of Randy’s hands while he was eating a cheeseburger at the 2016 North Morristown Fourth of July celebration.

The commenter wrote that she would not eat a burger “with those dirty hands/fingernails. Yikes.”


My husband at work in the automotive machine shop where he is employed as the sole employee. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.


I take issue with that. Randy is an automotive machinist and has been for about 40 years. He works in a dirty environment on heads, blocks, brake rotors, flywheels and more that are oily, greasy, filthy—whatever word you choose to define the grime he touches.



His hardworking hands are permanently imprinted with the residue of his labor. He washes his hands multiple times daily. Removing every trace of grease would be nearly impossible. It’s not like he’s coming to the table with hands just pulled from some project. They are as clean as he can get them without extensive scrubbing. To suggest otherwise is just plain wrong.


Just one example of all the work that awaits my husband in the NAPA automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.


I’ve often felt that blue collar employees don’t get the respect they deserve. Randy is good at what he does. Really good. His skilled work is in high demand. Always. Few people do what he does. His skills are advanced beyond basic garage mechanics to precision automotive machining. He repairs everything from cars to vans, trucks, semis, forklifts, snowmobiles, motorcycles, tractors and more.

Randy holds an incredibly strong work ethic. I keep telling him that, at his age of 60, he doesn’t need to work so hard and long. He stopped working Saturdays only a few years ago, often puts in 9-hour plus days and, up until this summer, received only 10 vacation days annually. But he continues to work hard because he feels an obligation to his customers, the people depending on him to get their cars back on the road, their tractors in the field, their boats on the water.

I admire his dedication. And I recognize those “dirty hands/fingernails” as those of a man who is not always appreciated as he should be. Without hands-on skilled tradesmen and women, this country could not function. Randy may not have a four-year college degree, but that does not make him or his work any less important than that of a college grad.


Randy’s toolbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.


I realize I’m getting a tad off topic here. But I grow weary of a society that generally places a higher value on white collar workers. Fresh out of college, our son, now 23, started a job in the tech field at a salary more than double his dad’s pay and with much better benefits. We always want our kids to do better than us. That is a good thing. But this personal example within our family shows the disparity between blue and white collar workers and the minimal value placed on 40 years of experience and those without a four-year degree.


Randy enjoys a BBQ pork sandwich and a beer at the 2013 North Morristown July Fourth celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.


So, yeah, criticize my husband’s hands and you will hear from me. His are the hands of a man who has worked in his field for about four decades. His are the hands of hard work and dedication. His are not unwashed hands holding a burger.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Mankato photographer focuses on hands and water in new exhibit October 7, 2015

IF I WERE TO STUDY your hands, what would I see? Would I see earth or art, youth or age, strength or weakness…

My left hand, which I photographed in 2011.

My left hand, which I photographed in 2011.

When I look at my hands, I see brown spots sprinkled across skin streaked blue with veins. I notice the slight bump on the knuckle of my right pinkie, a writer’s callous from finger rubbing against paper.

Would my hands show you that I am of the land and also a wife, mother, writer and photographer? Would you see the poetry that flows from my fingertips in both words and images?

Four separate photo projects meld in Kay Herbst Helms' new exhibit.

Four separate photo projects meld in Kay Herbst Helms’ new exhibit. Image courtesy of Kay Herbst Helms.

A Mankato photographer has chosen for the past five years to study hands, to tell their stories through a series of photographic projects. Kay Herbst Helms’ photos come together in “Seeking What Sustains Us: a photographic journey of hands and water,” an exhibit of four photo projects showing at the Carnegie Art Center, 120 South Broad Street, Mankato.

The exhibit opens at 1 p.m. Thursday, October 8. I will join five other area poets—Yvonne Cariveau, Susan Chambers, John Hurd, Derek Liebertz and Gwen Westerman—at 5 p.m. in reading original poems about water. Dick Kimmel will also entertain with bluegrass music.

But it is Kay’s images which will be the focal point. As she tells it, the decision to photograph hands happened in a prophetic way—when she awakened one morning with the single word, hands, in her thoughts. That led to “Blessed Are the Hands That Have Served,” a photo exhibit focusing on the hands of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Viewing Kay Herbst Helms' photos in "What Sustains Us."

Viewing Kay Herbst Helms’ photos in “What Sustains Us.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Her second hands project, “What Sustains Us: considering the hands and the land of south central rural Minnesota,” features the hands of those who work the land and their rural surroundings. It’s an exhibit I viewed in 2012 at the Arts Center of Saint Peter. In that display of black-and-white photos, Kay also shared brief stories of those she photographed.

In her third project, “inner necessities,” Kay photographed the hands of area artists and musicians.

Her fourth hands-themed photo compilation, “Water Vapors,” debuts this week as a consideration of what our hands have done to, in and for water. “We all have connections to each other and to water,” Kay says. “How we manage those connections will determine the future of our great-great grandchildren.”

Several of Kay's images focus on cattle, enhancing the exhibit's rural theme.

Several of Kay’s images focus on cattle, enhancing the exhibit’s rural theme in her “What Sustains Us” photo project. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

I expect that I will connect with all four of these photo exhibits because I, like Kay, hold a deep appreciation for storytelling via photography.

An elderly man turns to a hymn in the old pocket-size songbook that's been used for decades.

I shot this hands photo at an old-fashioned mission fest in Marquardt’s Grove south of Janesville in 2012. To this day, it remains one of my favorite photos of hands. It tells a story of enduring faith.

And for hands. (Click here to read one of my most beloved posts about hands, my mother’s hands.)

Activities related to the exhibit. Image courtesy of Kay Herbst Helms.

Activities related to the exhibit. Image courtesy of Kay Herbst Helms.

FYI: Kay Herbst Helms’ exhibit runs through October 24. An opening reception is set for 7 p.m.- 9 p.m. on Saturday, October 10. Additional arts activities include the free “Fish Prints for Kids” at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 15, and “Marbling for All Ages” at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 17 (fee is $5). Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My mother’s hands May 13, 2012

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My mother, Arlene, and me.

IT IS THE EARLIEST SNAPSHOT of me and my mom, dated January 1957.

Photos with her are rare; the next comes four years later. Yet, it matters not that my childhood photos fill only a few pages in an album. They are enough to see my mother’s love.

I see it in her hands, always the hands—clasping a baby or holding a toddler or encircling a child.

Hers are the hands that wrapped six babies in blankets, including me, her eldest daughter.

Hers are the hands that guided soiled cloth diapers and my dad’s grimy barn clothes into a Maytag wringer washer.

Hers are the hands that dumped buckets of water into the old tin bath tub on Saturday nights.

Hers are the hands that held books and rocked babies and swiped mecuricome onto skinned knees.

Hers are the hands that seeded seasons of gardens and hoed weeds and preserved the bounty of the earth.

Hers are the hands that peeled potatoes and stirred gravy and fried hamburger into blackened hockey pucks.

Hers are the hands that pressed coins into tiny hands for Sunday School offerings.

Hers are the hands that folded in prayer–for children and husband and her own healing.

Hers are the hands that reached out in love, always, to soothe, to calm, to protect. For nearly 57 years she has been a mother. It has been her life, her calling, and I have been blessed to be her daughter.

These are the hands of my mother, the mother I love always and forever.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Ugly chapped hands February 13, 2011

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My not-so-beautiful left hand.

THIS IS THE HAND of a writer. My left hand. I would show you my right hand, too, but I can’t hold my camera and photograph my right hand with my left hand. Never mind.

I’m not showing you my appendage because it’s pretty. It’s not.

It’s really rather ugly. My right hand is worse, with cracks and dried spots of blood edging split skin.

The dry, cold air of winter has been rough on my skin. Cleaning a paintbrush with mineral spirits more than a dozen times during the past two weeks has added to the epidermis damage.

I doubt my hands have looked this bad since I was a child. Back in the day, back on the farm, my hands cracked and bled every winter. That was a result of working in the brutal outdoors, protecting my hands with only a thin pair of brown cotton chore gloves as I fed calves and cows, bedded straw and pushed manure into barn gutters.

Dipping my hands into buckets of hot water to mix milk replacer for the calves temporarily warmed numbed fingers. But it also caused them to chap.

My mom offered a solution: Corn Huskers lotion

Oh, how I detested that slimy, clear gel that she insisted we slather across our skin. I’m not here to endorse or not endorse any hand care products, but this lotion did nothing to improve the condition of my chapped hands.

Only the arrival of warmer weather, of spring, signaled relief from the itching, bleeding and cracking.

So, now, like decades ago, I am awaiting the spring renewal and healing of my hands.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling