Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

More kindness, this time from Holland April 23, 2020

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WHEN I SPOTTED THE FED EX truck parked on the corner by my house and the driver leaping back inside, I decided to check my front steps, even though I wasn’t expecting a package. I rarely order online.

 

 

But there, on my steps, sat a cardboard box with an imprinted arrow pointing skyward next to the word UP. So I carried the box inside, washed my hands and slit the tape. Inside I found a pot of tulip bulbs erupting through a layer of moss. And this message:

Tulips from Holland!!! I told you I would do it! The Cedar Journal blog friend.

How sweet is that? Paula, a native of northern Minnesota who now lives in Holland with her husband, gifted me with these springing-to-life tulip bulbs after I commented on her post, “Spring Time in the Netherlands 2020,” and asked her to pretty please, send flowers to Minnesota. However, I missed her reply to send my address so she could send me tulips. She sleuthed my address on her own.

 

 

And now I have these Holland tulip bulbs that, in a few weeks, should bloom bright colors and remind me of Paula and her kindness. Isn’t that lovely? In these days when our worlds are turned upside down, this blogger friend, whom I’ve never met, reaches out to me with a simple act of kindness.

But it’s more than that. Paula gifted me with a spot of joy during these difficult days. She uplifted me and reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of people—just like Penny in sending face masks and Paul in sending a watercolor print last week. There are so many caring people in this world. Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to be kind.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo taken at LARK Toys, Kellogg, Minnesota.

 

I invite you to share today recent acts of kindness extended to you or which you have extended to others. You may just spark an idea that ripples more kind acts. Thank you, my friends. And Paula, especially, thank you for your gift of spring-in-a-box shipped from Holland to Minnesota. I am grateful.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Warming heads, hands & hearts in Faribault January 29, 2020

Photographed just days ago outside The Nook and Cranny, Faribault.

 

OUTSIDE THE FORMER St. Lawrence Church, where parishioners once ascended steps to front doors opening under a banner WELCOME sign, those in need find a warm welcome.

 

 

 

 

A handwritten sign invites them to take whatever they wish to stay warm. A hat. A scarf. Mittens. The winter neck, head and hand wear drapes benches and hangs clipped to clothesline rope.

 

A Little Free Library, left, also sits outside The Nook and Granny gift shop.

 

But this is much more than a give-away by The Nook and Cranny, the boutique/gift shop/craft center housed inside the former church. I view this as an act of kindness, care and compassion extended to my community.

Faribault is not a city of wealth. Rather, we are a primarily blue collar community, home to many immigrants, a place where people work hard and often struggle to make ends meet. But we are also a generous community—supportive of fundraisers, volunteering, giving to charities, helping our neighbors…

 

 

And here, in the deep of winter, one business located along one of Faribault’s busiest streets at 725 Second Avenue Northwest, reaches out, warming heads, hands and hearts. I can’t help but think that St. Lawrence, the patron saint of the poor, would be pleased.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. January 20, 2020

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A student watches a video about Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS I FINISHED MY BOWL of oatmeal and blueberries this morning, I watched a portion of Good Morning America. A young boy talked about a program he started, Books N Bros, aimed at “empowering boys, promoting literacy, and bringing awareness to African American literature.”

Sidney’s own challenges—specifically with stuttering and bullying—led him to seek refuge in reading. Now he’s using those negative experiences to make a difference by connecting boys to books. His efforts equal love in action, following the example of Martin Luther King Jr.

King rallied and worked for equality on a national stage. I admire his determination, his strength, his hopes, his dreams to make a positive change in this country. We’ve come a long ways. But much still needs to be achieved in racial and other equality.

 

Visitors could photograph themselves and express their thoughts, as shown here in this Polaroid image posted at the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2015..

 

While we need leaders like King and young Sidney to publicly champion for change, we, too, must get involved. It takes all of us, from small towns to major metropolitan areas, to stand up, to speak up, to do something, not just sit there.

So how do we accomplish that? Assess your strengths—because we all have them—and then use them in a positive way. For me, writing and photography prove a powerful tool to connect, to uplift, to inform and more. Words matter. They can help or they can hurt, empower or diminish, support or break down. I recognize the responsibilities I carry as a writer. And as a photographer.

I’ve also been gifted with the ability to listen, a skill that seems more and more a rarity in a seemingly me-centered world. But our family, our friends, our neighbors, even strangers, need us to listen. Just listen. Not turn the conversation to ourselves and our experiences and challenges, but to stay focused on the person talking to us. Them. Not us.

I can’t write enough about the need for compassion. The challenges of life—and I’ve experienced plenty—have made me a stronger and more empathetic person. Some good emerges from every difficulty, although we can’t always see that when we are in the thick of whatever.

Like young book-loving Sidney, I was bullied as a child. Because of that, I advocate kindness. If we all were just a little kinder to one another, not talking at or over others, we would all better understand the perspectives and experiences we bring to conversations. In other words, listen. There’s that word again.

 

Photographed in August 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, Minnesota. I’ve never forgotten this powerful message posted in my community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

Today and every day, I hope you will take to heart the many inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. and live those words. Through your conversations and your actions.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear how King’s words have inspired you.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts in the light of recent news headlines December 4, 2019

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Artwork created by Gracie for a student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo March 2018.

 

LIFE CAN BE TOUGH sometimes, really tough.

Five dead in a Minneapolis high-rise fire last week.

Four dead, including two young brothers and their mother, in an act of domestic violence in south Minneapolis just days ago.

Nine killed in an airplane crash in South Dakota.

The headlines and media reports can overwhelm.

Yesterday, a 16-year-old boy was taken into custody in my community after reportedly sending threatening texts to two students that he was “thinking about shooting up the school.” Faribault High School. A similar, but worse, scenario played out in violence in two eastern Wisconsin schools in recent days.

I wish the world was free of meanness, violence, hatred and tragedies. But it isn’t and never will be. Yet we have the power within our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our circle of family and friends, yes, within our hearts to individually treat others with kindness, compassion, empathy and respect. And that is a start.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dance, smile, toss confetti, spread joy… September 30, 2019

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THE BEST GIFTS cannot be bought. How often have you heard that cliché? It’s true.

We each hold the capacity to give gifts that hold value far beyond anything that can be purchased. For example, when I celebrated my birthday last week, I received several unexpected gifts that brought me profound joy. Joy as in crying and experiencing an overall feeling of being deeply loved.

 

 

 

The first arrived in my mailbox, by all appearances just a birthday card sealed inside an envelope. But when I opened the card, I discovered a clutch of colorful sticky notes. Upon those neon slips of paper, a friend and her family penned powerful words of encouragement and love. Exactly what I needed.

How could I not feel joyful when I’m told I’m loved and that God created me to do amazing things?

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

The simple word SMILE, written in an artsy font, prompted a smile.

Now I have that stack of uplifting notes to remind me that Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about dancing in the rain. I needed to read that perspective and my friend knew it.

Then several hours later my dear Aunt Dorothy called from New Jersey to wish me a happy birthday. She’s the aunt who lived in Minneapolis when I was a child and who gave me her old nail polish and lipstick and jewelry and made me feel so loved, especially with her endearing name for me, My Little Princess. All these decades later, Dorothy still calls me that sweet name. Not simply Little Princess. But My Little Princess. I feel so loved.

 

 

And then, just as Randy was preparing to cook dinner on my birthday (because I refuse to cook on my birthday), my niece Tara arrived with her sweet family. She held a box containing six fancy cupcakes from Cream of the Cakes in Lakeville. I never expected this. And that’s the sweetness of this act. This young mom took time out of her busy life to not only buy those delicious cupcakes but then to drive 20 some minutes to deliver them. And bonus, I got wonderful hugs from my great nephew who is, as he told me, three. Not two.

Add to that a bouquet of garden-fresh hydrangea from a friend earlier in the week and flowers from Randy and I feel pretty darned loved. Calls, emails and a video chat with the grandkids brought more birthday joy. The best gifts cannot be bought.

I challenge you this week to reach out to someone who needs the gift of joy—of uplifting words, of a simple act of love and kindness, of a surprise gift. As my friend printed on a sticky note: Be the reason someone smiles today!

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Elsie September 3, 2019

Elsie Keller, right, works in the kitchen at St. John’s Germanfest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

THERE ARE PEOPLE you meet in life who make a profound impact. Not on a grand, public scale. But upon the people they meet, the communities in which they live and serve simply by the way they live and serve. Humbly. Exuding kindness and friendliness. Living a life of service, of giving to others. Elsie Keller fits that description.

I don’t recall exactly when I met Elsie. But I know where. At St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, just down the road from the rural Nerstrand home where she lived her entire life. Ninety-three years.

 

Elsie making German potato salad, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Inside the church kitchen, that’s Elsie standing next to her stool at a Lenten Soup Luncheon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

Elsie next to The Last Supper painting given to St. John’s in honor of her husband, Arnold. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’ve attended many functions at St. John’s from the annual Germanfest to Lenten soup luncheons to ice cream and pie socials to the yearly The Last Supper Drama. And every time I set foot inside that aged limestone church, Elsie was there. Most often behind the scenes—plating pie, stirring German potato salad, operating spotlights and much more.

 

Elsie poses with family at the 2017 Germanfest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

If I didn’t spot her, I sought her out to hug her diminutive frame, to see her sweet smile, to catch up a bit. She was that kind of woman. The grandmother you miss. The mother who lives too distant. The friend who cares. The churchgoer who lives her faith in service to her church and to God. Singing. Coordinating Vacation Bible School for 51 years. Teaching Sunday School for more than five decades.

 

Elsie, hard at work in the Pie Room. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

A member of St. John’s Youth Fellowship waits, plate in hand, for a slice of pumpkin pie scooped up by Elsie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

By the end of the day, Elsie had blisters on her hand from cutting pies. Here she scoops a slice of apple pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

To know Elsie was to love her. I loved her smile, her demeanor, her humility, her kindness, her devotion to church and family, her work ethic. I remember, especially, the time I found her working in the St. John’s pie room sliding pieces of homemade pie onto plates with her gnarled arthritic hands.

 

Elsie takes a break from kitchen work to enjoy a bowl of ham and bean soup. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

Back at the farm, Elsie still gardened. She canned green beans on Thursday evening. The night before her death.

 

Elsie in The Pie Room, a space so small that this petite woman can barely fit her stool between a counter and refrigerator. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

I still cannot believe my friend is gone, even though she was nearly 94 years old. There are people in life who seem ageless, whom you always expect will be there. For me, that was Elsie. If only you could have known her. For those of you who did, you understand why I will miss her. Her smile, her kindness, her positive and giving spirit…

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A long ago kindness honored January 4, 2019

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Edited image of a single rose in a bouquet of 12.

 

FORTY SOME YEARS AGO, I bought lunch for her. In Mankato. Neither of us remembered exactly when or where. But my friend recalled one important detail which she shared shortly after arriving at my Faribault home late Thursday morning. It was the reason she carried a dozen pink roses.

That Debbie would bring me roses seemed a bit much I thought as she walked in the kitchen door and we hugged. We hadn’t seen each other in decades. Our connection is not a deeply-rooted friendship. It just did not make sense that lunch and a visit would prompt Debbie to bring flowers.

Then she explained. When I bought her lunch those four decades ago, she was a poor college student with only $1.50 in her pocket. We met then to talk shop as Debbie considered accepting a reporting job at the same Minnesota weekly newspaper where I once worked. She wanted the scoop. As a young professional earning a salary, I didn’t think about Debbie’s finances. I just said, “Let’s do lunch.” And Debbie showed up.

I had no clue back then of her meager monies. But Debbie arrived at the restaurant with a plan to simply buy herself coffee. And then I offered to pay for her meal.

All these decades later she recalled that simple act of kindness. I had no idea how much my generosity meant to her. But now she wanted me to know, expressing her gratitude with those roses.

Debbie would go on to work at the same newspaper where I once reported. On Thursday we exchanged war stories about sources and too many long board meetings and the challenges of being journalists at a small town newspaper. I blazed the path for her, she said. I’d never considered that. But I knew she was right.

We talked, too, about children and grandchildren and challenges in life and our faith and much more. Debbie is the kind of person who, even if you haven’t seen her in years, you can pick up the conversation and feel like time has never separated you. We share values and work experiences and a certain comfortableness that marks our friendship.

And to think it all started with conversation and mentoring over lunch and me picking up the tab. Sometimes you don’t realize the value in a simple act of kindness. You just do what’s right. And then one day the kindness circles back with unexpected joy. And the blessings of a friendship renewed.

© Copyright 2019 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

 

What you should & shouldn’t say to someone with a broken bone July 2, 2018

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Just days after open reduction internal fixation wrist surgery, the swelling in my fingers is diminishing.

 

I PONDERED WHETHER I should pen this post because many kind words have been extended to me since my fall and subsequent surgery on my broken left arm. Thank you.

But many other words have also been offered that don’t help me or my situation. So if I come across as a tad cranky in this post, it’s because I am. My humor, tolerance and Minnesota Nice only stretch so far.

Following is a short list of comments which I’ve heard and which you should not make to someone with a broken bone. I’ll follow that with a list of ways to encourage and help. We can all learn from one another, right?

Here goes.

DO NOT call me a klutz. I’m not. My fall on rain-slicked wooden steps was an accident. Simple as that.

DO NOT state or suggest (while laughing or not laughing)) that my husband pushed me. He didn’t. There’s nothing funny about domestic violence. I won’t dwell. Click here to read an earlier post on that topic.

DO NOT tell me I broke my arm because I don’t drink enough milk or eat enough cheese, yogurt or other dairy products. That’s like telling a cancer patient she ate too many red Popsicles or a heart attack victim that he didn’t eat enough oatmeal. Not helpful.

I defy anyone who fell as I did not to break a bone. A friend who worked as an ER nurse tells me broken arms are common in falls as we instinctively try to break a fall with our hands. My doctor noted in my records, in layman’s language, that the fall caused my arm bone to break. Not a lack of consuming enough dairy.

So what should you say? Here’s what I’ve found helpful: A simple “I’m sorry” works. Or, “How are you feeling?” Or something similar. There is no fault-finding, no accusations, no name-calling. Simply kindness.

Get well cards and encouraging emails/texts/calls also go a long ways in uplifting. Ask how the person is doing. And, please, don’t deflect the conversation to a lengthy story about your (or a family member’s) broken bone experience. I’m not selfish. But are we talking about you or me here?

Additionally, I really appreciated the meals my niece Amber prepared for us. I need to remember that myself and reach out to others with food in their times of need. Cookies baked by my 24-year-old son and his girlfriend and shipped from Boston likewise fed my body and soul. As did flowers from Randy and a thoughtful gift sent by a friend in North Carolina.

Everything I’ve written here is pretty common sense. Sometimes we just need to pause and think before blurting out words that aren’t at all helpful.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How two Faribault businesses made me smile with great customer service May 2, 2018

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg’s Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine. This is one of my favorite images of a small town local business. I took this photo in August 2011. Lerberg’s Foods is still in business.

 

I VALUE GREAT CUSTOMER service. It can be the deciding factor in whether I patronize a business. If I have a bad experience, I’ll think twice about returning. If I have a great experience, you bet I’ll give that business my business.

Now more than ever, customer service holds significant value along our main streets. It is one way local businesses can compete with online shopping. Not that that is a personal concern for me; I seldom shop online. But most people do. So our local shopkeepers need to go that extra mile to create a welcoming experience that meets customers’ needs.

What comprises great customer service? For me, it starts with a smile. The minute I walk in the door, I should be greeted, valued. I don’t need a clerk or store owner who hovers, but I appreciate someone who is subtly attentive. Help me if I appear overwhelmed, uncertain or can’t seem to find whatever. Listen. Offer choices. Answer questions. And then listen some more. Or leave me alone if I’m sending body language signals that I’d rather be left to browse.

I expect it’s not always easy to determine how to best serve a customer. But a shopkeeper can’t go wrong by simply being nice. And helpful.

 

 

I cite two recent examples from my community of Faribault where two grocery store employees showed exceptional customer service. Both on the same day. While at Hy-Vee, I was approached by an employee who apparently noticed me filtering for too long through clamshells of strawberries special-priced at $1.28/pound. I couldn’t find any berries that weren’t over-ripe and/or rotting. Even at a bargain, I won’t pay for bad produce and dislike when a grocer tries to sell food that should be tossed.

But this employee decided he wanted a satisfied customer. He offered to go to the back storeroom and find a pack of acceptable berries. Two if I wanted two, although I pointed out the “Limit one to a customer” sign. He would bring two, he said. I waited until he returned. With only one pack. But that was OK. He also promised to have those over-ripe berries cleared from the shelves.

At my next grocery store stop, I experienced exceptional customer service in the bakery department of Fareway Meat & Grocery. I was on a mission to find a smiley face cookie for my two-year-old granddaughter. Typically those cookies are sold at Hy-Vee. But on this Saturday they weren’t immediately available. I didn’t have time to wait an hour so headed to Fareway hoping for the coveted cookie.

 

 

I found smiley face cookies, six to a package. But I didn’t want six. I wanted one. Perhaps, I thought, I could buy a single cookie from the pick-your-own selections. Turns out the cookies aren’t sold individually. I explained my dilemma to the baker, how I had hoped to buy one cookie for Izzy for her second birthday because her mama loved smiley face cookies when she was a little girl. The baker smiled, then told me to pull a package from the shelves. I could have one, she said. At no charge.

You can bet my mouth curved as wide as the blue smile on that cookie. My joy in that simple gesture of kindness shone as bright as the yellow frosting. Granted, giving away that cookie didn’t cost Fareway much money. But it was priceless in terms of exceptional customer service.

That’s what I’m talking about as we celebrate Small Business Month in Minnesota during May and National Small Business Week from now until May 5. Hy-Vee and Fareway may not classify as small businesses. But two employees at their Faribault stores exemplified outstanding customer service to me. And that, my friends, is how Main Street can compete in today’s global online marketplace.

TELL ME: What’s your definition of great customer service? Give me an example. Do you shop local or mostly online?

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling