Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thanksgiving reflections on life November 22, 2017

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A few years ago I found this vintage 1976 calendar at a garage sale. Each year prior to Thanksgiving, I hang it in my dining room as a representative reminder of life’s blessings.

WHEN I CONSIDER THANKSGIVING, I visualize the tapestry of my life woven with gratitude and blessings and, yes, even sadness. Sometimes I’d like to yank the black threads and pull away the darkness, leaving only vivid hues of happiness.

But to do so would present an imitation of my life, a cheap knock-off work of art that portrays the idealistic rather than the realistic. I don’t care who you are, where you live, what you do, you are the accumulation of life’s experiences—positive and negative.

Challenges, whether financial, health-related, personal or otherwise, shape us, make us stronger, teach us empathy and compassion and how to handle grief and anger and disappointment and frustration and pain. At the time we battle difficulties, we usually fail to see the good, the reason to give thanks. Often that comes later, as time passes, acceptance comes, situations change and reflection happens.

For example, I was bullied as a pre-teen by junior high classmates so ruthless and mean that I hated school. I cried every day, wished the teasing would end. It should have. But in those days, no one stepped in to stop the abuse. And one teacher in particular was himself a psychological abuser. Because of those two unbearable years, I hold zero tolerance for abuse whether perpetrated by a child, teen or adult. I use my words now as a way to educate, to help others, to advocate, to make a positive difference.

When I consider personal health challenges like severe osteoarthritis and resulting hip replacement, a broken shoulder, and near deafness in my right ear, I see how my empathy for others has grown, how my patience lengthened, how my thankfulness for my husband deepened. Threads of gold shimmer in the tapestry of my life, outshining the underlying less-noticed darkness of difficulties.

My life remains a work of art in progress. There are days when life circumstances seem overwhelming, when the mother in me wants to make everything better. But then I hear an uplifting song, get an encouraging email or text, hold my granddaughter, hug my husband, write something especially meaningful, talk to my son too far away in Boston, gather with friends, reach out to someone hurting. Then threads of silver and gold sparkle gratitude and thanksgiving for this life I live. Not perfect. But beautiful in blessings.

Today, may you find many reasons to give thanks for your life. Happy Thanksgiving!

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Brainerd memories November 20, 2017

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Life could be compared to a beaded necklace, each bead representing a memory. Together the beads form a necklace, an accumulation of our life stories. Artist Cyrus Swann created this necklace with handmade porcelain beads and displayed at Crossing Arts Alliance in downtown Brainerd as part of the recent “ART TO WEAR, TEXTILES AND BEYOND” exhibit.

 

MORE AND MORE THESE DAYS, the quickness of time catches me by surprise like the first brisk wind of winter stinging my face.

 

Like the varied art in the “ART TO WEAR, TEXTILES AND BEYOND” exhibit, we each hold unique qualities, shaped by our experiences, our personalities and more. The center showcased garment is the work of Carolyn Abbott and is titled “Missus Carolyn Quite Contrary.”

 

I pull my wool jacket closer, tighten my scarf, wrap my hands in the warmth of gloves. Those actions won’t stop winter. But they keep me warm, comfortable.

So do positive memories.

 

This art by Lisa Jordan seems to hold years of memories.

 

Many decades of memories—difficult and joyful, mundane and remarkable, everyday and extraordinary—crowd my brain. Some seem so distant, as if another person lived that life in another place in another body.

In reviewing my life, I page through the chapters of growing up, of college and jobs and then marriage and family and, finally, today, the reality of a house now empty of children with Randy and me back at start.

 

 

We brought to our marriage those years when no connection existed between us. And those are the 25 years that still yield discoveries. On a recent trip to central Minnesota, we stayed two nights in Brainerd. Randy attended vocational school there more than 40 years ago. He knows the town. I don’t.

 

Chain businesses, and homegrown businesses, edge main routes in Brainerd. Many are new since Randy lived here in the mid 1970s.

 

But in four decades, things change. That proved the resounding theme. “That wasn’t there. That’s gone,” Randy repeated. And on and on. In the context of revisiting a community you left long ago, the reality of aging strikes hard.

 

I always appreciate public art, including this sculpture of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox on a downtown Brainerd street corner.

 

One of my favorite discoveries: this gathering space for knitters inside Utrinkets, a yarn, antiques and boutique shop along Laurel Street. Loved the place and the people.

 

It was nice to see this locally owned bridal and formal wear shop downtown.

 

Downtown carried a sense of emptiness, surprising us both as we pulled into Brainerd on a late mid-week afternoon in September. I held a preconceived image of a city crammed with mom-and-pop shops. Sure, they exist. But not as in you can’t find a place to park and we’ll never have enough time to get to all these shops (like in Park Rapids or Stillwater).

As a side note, while writing this post I learned that Brainerd is among two Minnesota cities recently selected as one of 20 finalists competing for the coveted spot of featured town in Small Business Revolution–Main Street, Season Three. The other is Owatonna, just a dozen miles from my home. The winner garners a substantial monetary prize and a Main Street revitalization plan.

 

No photo ban at the bridal shop, but a shoe ban instead, which makes sense.

 

But back to my Brainerd visit, where, after our stop downtown and a long day of travel, I wanted a craft beer. Much searching and many wrong turns, later, we eventually found Roundhouse Brewery in a railroad yard posted with signs forbidding photography. Photo bans irk me when I view so much visual storytelling potential. So I drank my beer, chatted it up with locals and simply enjoyed the evening before we headed to a hotel and dinner out.

 

I laughed at this sign outside Hockey House Minnesota in downtown Brainerd.

 

The next day we aimed north to Nisswa and Pequot Lakes, returning to our Brainerd hotel and a second town tour as the sun edged evening toward night. I tried to be patient while Randy wove the van down street after street, even snailing by Granny Growler’s house where he and two friends rented rooms and strained spaghetti in the bath tub. (The upstairs lacked a kitchen.) I’ve heard the tale too many times not to believe its truth.

 

The Crow Wing County Courthouse.

 

Randy talked of walking to the nearby vo-tech, now part of the high school campus, and reminisced about working in the tire shop at JC Penney. Or was it Sears? His words blurred, the memories he spoke holding much more meaning for him than for me.

 

The historic water tower, photographed as we drove by it.

 

The landmark Lions head drinking fountain, here since 1968.

 

 

Still, in the decades of change, some things remain unchanged in Brainerd—like the water tower and the lion’s head drinking fountain. There’s comfort in that, in tangible places that endure time, that still hold seasons of memories.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The season of autumn in rural Minnesota, a photo essay October 24, 2017

 

IN THE SEASON of autumn, farm memories draw me back to the land.

 

 

To follow country gravel roads

 

 

and county highways

 

 

past sweeping fields of corn

 

 

harvested,

 

A vintage Gleaner combine harvests a cornfield along LeSueur County Road 13 near Lake Jefferson.

under harvest

 

Partially harvested…

 

and unharvested.

 

 

Roads lead me by farm sites,

 

 

aged stately barns

 

Near historic Marysburg in LeSueur County.

 

and mammoth bins awaiting the yield.

 

Following a tractor pulling a 1970s era gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13.

 

I observe, too, farmers creeping tractors trailing wagons,

 

 

zipping along rural roadways

 

Visiting at the intersection of LeSueur County roads 13 and 16.

 

and stalled in conversation at a rural intersection.

 

Cattle graze along 241st Avenue, just off LeSueur County Road 13.

 

I scan the landscape with the eyes of someone who misses the farm,

 

A harvested field glistens with puddled rainwater and mud. Too much rain has slowed the harvest for farmers in southern Minnesota. They will be working long days and nights to catch up and get the crop in before the snow flies.

 

who remembers the hurry of her farmer father,

 

Enjoying a beautiful autumn Sunday afternoon along Waseca County Road 22.

 

who follows country roads in the season of autumn.

 

FYI: I shot these images in Rice, LeSueur and Waseca counties during a Sunday afternoon, October 22, drive with my husband.

Check back for more photos from that drive.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring the legacy of Burkhartzmeyer Shoes through film October 20, 2017

Burkhartzmeyer Shoes opened in 1949, starting first as a shoe and harness repair shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

ON A STREET CORNER in downtown Faribault, local icon Burkhartzmeyer Shoes still stands strong after nearly 70 years in business. That’s remarkable really considering the many chain and other shoe sources in today’s marketplace.

But the family members running this business through three generations also rate as remarkable, assuring its success. I know first-hand as I’ve shopped for foot wear at Burkhartzmeyer since moving to this community 35 years ago. I brought my kids here, too, leaving with shoes or boots tucked inside boxes tied with cotton string and an added bonus sucker.

 

Boots purchased at Burkhartzmeyer Shoes last year and ready for another Minnesota winter.

 

Burkhartzmeyer owners and employees understand the importance of great customer service—measuring feet, fitting shoes properly and always always treating each consumer with welcoming respect and kindness. Like a friend.

I know these shoe people—second-generation owner Buck; third-generation owners Bruce and Brian; and current and former employees Lanny, Dee, Sharon, Larry and Kaylyn. They greet me by name, ask about my family, form relationships that connect me to them and this place.

 

High school students and filmmakers Logan Ledman, left, and Samuel Temple. Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Buck and cousins Bruce and Brian emphasize their warm relationships with customers and more in a recently-released film about the Burkhartzmeyer family legacy produced by area teens Samuel Temple and Logan Ledman. This also remarkable pair craft “1855: A Faribault History Series on FCTV.” Via research and interviews, they present insights into local businesses, people and places that broaden my appreciation for Faribault.

Samuel and Logan nailed it in their Burkhartzmeyer film, taking the viewer through the progression of the family business starting with original owners Ferdie and Martha Burkhartzmeyer to second-generation owners, brothers Al, Putz and Buck, to current owners, Bruce and Brian. While the longevity impresses, the stories impress even more.

 

I pulled this shoe box from my closet with the Burkhartzmeyer Shoes label attached.

 

A common thread of hard work, adaptability and outstanding customer service—the business also offers shoe repair and pedorthics services—weaves through the storyline. But so does the kindness. Brian, son of the only remaining third-generation owner, honors his father, Buck, with these words: “He has the gift of caregiving…and kindness.” Specifically, Brian references his dad’s visits to care center residents, including family matriarch Martha, who died weeks short of 108 years. Buck still makes these daily visits, now to friends.

My family, too, experienced Burkhartzmeyer kindness, in 2004. At the time, Buck’s Faribault High School class awarded a scholarship to a graduating high school senior. When my eldest daughter didn’t receive the scholarship, Buck felt so bad he asked her to stop by the store for a new pair of athletic shoes. He wanted her to have good shoes when she left for college. Buck was there waiting, fitting my daughter’s feet. I’ll always remember that kind and caring gift to my family.

 

Al Burkhartzmeyer, known locally as “Mr. Downtown” for his welcoming spirit in the community (especially downtown), was instrumental in getting this historic 1915 clock restored on the Security State Bank Building. Following Al’s 2012 death, significant memorial monies were directed toward the restoration in a project undertaken by the local Rotary.  A devoted Rotarian, Al was once honored for 50 years of never missing a Rotary meeting. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I expect many others can share similar stories about the Burkhartzmeyers. They are a generous family, rooted in faith and hard work and a strong sense of community. They have swept floors, stocked shelves, put shoes away, measured feet. Through their care and compassion, they have made Faribault a better place and us, their customers, better people.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a similar long-standing business in your community that offers quality products and outstanding customer service?

FYI: Click here to watch the 1855 film on Burkhartzmeyer Shoes.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When yet another vehicle strikes another child heading to school October 18, 2017

A teen was struck on busy Second Avenue (pictured here intersecting with Minnesota State Highway 60), several blocks north of this Faribault intersection. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015.

 

IF YOU’VE EVER EXPERIENCED trauma, you understand how a news story can trigger difficult memories.

Tuesday morning a vehicle struck a 13-year-old girl as she crossed a busy Faribault street on the way to her bus stop. Conscious, but incoherent, she was airlifted to a Twin Cities trauma center with unknown injuries.

Now the 54-year-old male driver of the 1998 Lincoln Navigator that hit the girl faces possible charges. According to news reports, he drove his vehicle around the right side of vehicles stopped for the teen at the Second Avenue crosswalk.

When I heard the news, my mind flashed back to May 12, 2006, the date a car hit my then 12-year-old son as he crossed a busy Faribault street on the way to his bus stop.

The similarities end in the commonality of Faribault Middle School students struck on busy streets around 7:30 a.m. while going to bus stops.

My son suffered only minor injuries of a broken bone in his hand, a possible rib fracture and a bump on his head after bouncing off the windshield of a blue 4-door car, possibly a Chevy Cavalier or Corsica. That driver left the scene and has never been found despite police follow-ups on many leads and a $1,000 reward offer (now expired).

In the years since that May morning when fear gripped my heart, I’ve sometimes wondered about that motorist. How could he/she drive away from my boy, just leave him lying on the side of the road? Police suspect, and I agree, that the driver had something to hide, a reason to continue on.

 

 

I still keep a file of email exchanges with police, newspaper clippings, medical bills, insurance documents, the accident report, the reward flier and even handwritten get well cards crafted by children to my son. This incident is part of my family’s history now, part of our story.

I changed on that May morning 11 years ago. I lost some faith in the goodness of people. For awhile I was angry, driven to find the man or woman who failed to stop. I couldn’t understand the lack of compassion and still can’t. But my resolve to find the individual lessened as the years passed, replaced by an acknowledgment that I likely will never have answers.

Still, on days like Tuesday when I hear of another child struck on her way to school, the memories rise, strong and painful.

 

FYI: Click here to read an award-winning poem I wrote about the hit-and-run involving my son.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Attention, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans: A new must-read book by Marta McDowell September 21, 2017

 

WHEN A PACKAGE LANDED on my front doorstep some 10 days ago, I wondered about its content. I hadn’t ordered anything. But inside I found a newly-released book, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired The Little House Books.

Ah, yes, I had been expecting this. Sort of. But I’d forgotten about the book by bestselling author Marta McDowell that includes three of my photos. More than a year had passed since Marta and I connected.

Now I was holding the results of this New Jersey writer’s intensive research, multi-state visits and hours of writing. It’s an impressive book for the information and the art published therein on the places and plants in the life of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

 

Every summer, the folks of Walnut Grove produce an outdoor pageant based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Many pageant attendees arrive at the show site dressed in period attire and then climb aboard the covered wagon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I have not yet read the entire book. But I am sharing this new Timber Press release now because Marta will be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Avenue, in Minneapolis from 7 – 8 this evening (September 21) to present The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I expect the book to be enthusiastically received here in Minnesota and by Laura fans world-wide.

 

The southwestern Minnesota prairie, in the summer, is a place of remarkable beauty. I shot this image outside Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

I am among those fans with the added bonus of having grown up only three townships north of the Charles and Caroline Ingalls’ North Hero Township home near Walnut Grove in Redwood County, Minnesota. Long before the Little House TV show, long before I realized the popularity of Laura’s book series, I loved her writing. A teacher at Vesta Elementary School read the books aloud to me and my classmates during a post-lunch reading time. That story-time instilled in me a deep love for the written word and a deep connection to The Little House books.

 

The prairie near Walnut Grove is especially beautiful in the summer. I took this photo at the Laura Ingalls Wilder dug-out site north of Walnut Grove in 2010.

 

With that background, you can understand my enthusiasm for Marta’s book which focuses on the landscapes and specific plants that surrounded Laura and her family. Laura writes with a strong sense of place, a skill I’ve often considered may trace to her blind sister, Mary. Laura became her sister’s “eyes.”

 

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything. I took this photo at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna during a previous traveling exhibit on Minnesota disasters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Marta writes of specific plants and places in her book, taking the reader from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Missouri and in between—wherever Laura lived. In the section on Walnut Grove, she notes the wild plums, the morning glories and the blue flags (iris) that Laura writes about in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I’ve walked that creek and creekbank, seen the Ingalls’ dug-out, wildflowers and plums. I am of this rich black soil, these plants, this land. There’s a comfortable familiarity in reading of this land the Ingalls family eventually left because of a grasshopper infestation and resulting crop failures.

 

My black-eyed susan photo is published in Marta’s book. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To be part of Marta’s book on Laura Ingalls Wilder is an honor. The vintage botanical illustrations, original artwork by Garth Williams, historic photos, maps, ads, current day photos like my three and more make this volume a work of art.

There is much to learn therein, much to appreciate. So for all of you Laura fans out there, take note. You’ll want to add The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books to your collection.

 

DISCLAIMER: I received a complimentary copy of this book and was paid for publication of my three photos.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back from the Minnesota northwoods September 19, 2017

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Jackie Hemmer photographed me shooting lake scenes while on a boat ride on a lake south of Park Rapids. My husband and I were weekend cabin guests of Jackie and her husband, Rick.

 

WORDS TOOK ME to the northwoods of Minnesota. To a friend’s cabin. To a lake. To a book release party.

I am home now six days later, my suitcase emptied, tucked back in the closet.

But now the words and images of those days mingle memories of small towns explored, of laughter and good conversations shared, of a boat trailing waves and a loon on a lake, of wild rice hotdish and Gull Dam good beer.

Stories. There are so many stories waiting to be written.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photo courtesy of my friend, Jackie Hemmer, who shares her words and photos at “Who will make me laugh.” Please check out Jackie’s blog post about our friendship and recent visit by clicking here.