Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One mother’s remarkable love December 3, 2018

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2017.


HER WORDS LEFT ME near tears. They are words of a mother who loves her 22-year-old daughter beyond measure.

She wishes, she told me, that she could trade places with Brittany*, that she would be the one battling ovarian cancer. Not her girl.

I saw the pain in Ellen’s* eyes, heard it during our brief exchange outside Walmart as I rang bells for the Salvation Army on Saturday morning. Ellen and I are acquaintances, two of our children once classmates. I haven’t seen her in years, thus greeted her with “How are you?”

When Ellen looked away and responded with a subdued OK, I picked up immediately that she was not alright. So I asked. And then she told me about the discovery of a large tumor on one of Brittany’s ovaries, the eight months getting care at a metro hospital, the seemingly successful treatment…until abnormal blood work results last week.

I reached out and hugged her.

We didn’t talk stages or treatment or about other medical details. I focused instead on how Ellen was coping, knowing how difficult this must be for her. How it would be for any mother. As moms we want to make everything better for our children, no matter their ages. Ellen didn’t disagree. But her response went beyond that. “I wish I was the one with cancer,” she said.

For the second time, I instinctively wrapped her in a hug.

Ellen spoke with the authenticity of a mother who’d thought often about her desire to trade places, to be the one fighting cancer. I admire the strength of her love for Brittany.

During the two hours I greeted folks while ringing bells, my time with Ellen proved an emotionally pivotal moment. I’d seen so much of humanity. Smiling faces. Scowling faces. Faces that exuded joy. Faces that showed nothing but despair. Mouths that spoke gratitude. Mouths that complained (about the winter storm—”It’s too early for this s**t”). I thought I’d heard it all. But I hadn’t until I heard the profound words of love from an incredible mother—”I wish I was the one with cancer.”

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

*Not their real names.


In the midst of aging, the joys of a walk in the park May 24, 2018

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WE’D PLANNED, ALL ALONG, to wheel her outdoors, into the sunshine of a mid-May afternoon in rural southwestern Minnesota. She embraced the idea with a hint of concern. She worried about the wind, always the wind. So I searched the drawers in her room for her stocking cap, even though she didn’t need it on this 80-some degree day. I couldn’t find the cap she wanted to protect her ears.

Soon Mom forgot about the wind in the busyness of preparing for her excursion. Staff rolled a wheelchair into her room, attached a portable oxygen tank, helped her move from easy chair into wheelchair. Mom noted how good it would be to get outside. And it was. Too many months have passed since her last wheel around the care center and into the adjoining city park.


The tree I can’t identify. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.


As Randy pushed her wheelchair along the sidewalk fronting Parkview, Mom noted the brightness of the afternoon. I started to view the world through her eyes, cloudy with the age of 86 years. She can’t see much at a distance. Thus I became her eyes. I described the pink splash of a blossoming crabapple tree, the rough bark of a tree I couldn’t identify. I doubt Mom saw the American flag stretched straight by the wind when we paused on the sidewalk.


A feature in the mini golf course in the city park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.


Just writing this, I feel a certain sadness that comes in observing how age steals the person you love, diminishing vision and memory and mobility. Yet, aging counters that loss with a return to the simple delights of life. I tried to remember that as we wound around the care center, past the mini golf course, to the park shelterhouse, past the aged log cabin and the barn swallows swooping.


Apple blossoms on an evening in May. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Occasionally we stopped, once so I could stride across the grass to an apple tree. I picked a twig of blossoms, took it back to Mom. She lifted the fragrant petals to her face, told me she couldn’t smell their sweetness. Yet, she clutched the flowers in her left hand, between thumb and forefinger. I checked my emotions in the poignancy of the moment. I wanted Mom to breathe in, once more, the intoxicating scent of spring.

On our way back to the care center, Mom noted dandelions popping yellow through the greening grass. I wish now that I had paused to pick a bouquet for her, to bring back those memories of a little girl gathering dandelions in her fist, of Mom plunging the sticky stems into a jelly jar to set upon the farmhouse kitchen table.


The log cabin in the park is a reminder of the passage of time. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.


This aging of parents is difficult. Roles reverse. I feel a mix of sadness and anger and then, because I have to, thankfulness that my mother is still here for me to hug and to kiss and to hear the words, “I love you.”


TELL ME: Do you have an aging parent? If so, how are you handling this stage of life?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A mother’s gift to her writer daughter May 11, 2018

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The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my oldest brother.


I SOMETIMES WONDER how my mom did it? How did she raise six kids and manage a household without the modern conveniences of today? No microwave. No bathroom or telephone or TV or automatic washing machine (for many years). An endless list of “no” whatever.

She planted a massive garden, canned and froze fruits and vegetables. Baked bread and assorted sweets from scratch. Mended clothes. She could do most anything.


Mom’s journals stacked in a tote.


And she wrote. Daily. Mom documented the happenings of farm life in southwestern Minnesota, even before she became a wife and a mother. I have those journals now, stacked inside a plastic tote. Musty-smelling spiral bound stenographer notebooks filled with her words. History inked in her beautiful signature flowing cursive.

They are my most treasured tangible part of her, a collection of information that is not personal, yet is. She writes not of feelings, but of weather and work, going to church and town and to relatives’ homes. She writes, too, of illness and new babies and skinned knees. While I’ve only read bits and pieces of assorted journals, I know that eventually I will read every word. Her single-paragraph daily entries of three to six lines or so document rural life. From her perspective as a wife and mother.

She became a mother in mid-July of 1955, two months shy of celebrating her first wedding anniversary. She writes:

Got to the hospital at 1:15 a.m. & baby was born at 3:20 a.m. He weighed 8 lb. Has a lot of hair. Folks visited me.

On her first Mother’s Day—months before my birth—Mom visited her parents, noting that her mother had gone to the Heart Hospital two days prior. Seven months later her mother died of a heart attack. I was only months old. I will always hold a certain sadness in my grandma’s early untimely death, knowing her only through the memories of others who spoke of a woman with the kindest of hearts. Just like my mom.

Through all the challenges of life, Mom has maintained a positive and cheerful attitude. She’s kind and compassionate and uncomplaining. That has been part of her gift to us, her six children, born between 1955 and 1967. Three girls. Three boys.


My mom and I at our extended family Christmas gathering in late December 2017.


Eight days before my birth, Mom put up 32 jars of grape jelly and 18 ½ quarts of tomato juice with her sister Dorothy. “Sure was tired,” she wrote. If I was about to give birth, I’d feel tired, too. But she never complained.

On my birthday, Mom writes:

Woke up at 3:00 a.m. Got to hospital at 4:20 & baby was born at 4:56 a.m. She weighed 8 lb. 12 oz.

Talk about cutting it close. But then the hospital was a 20-mile drive and my parents had to find someone to watch my oldest brother. Dorothy stayed on for several days after my birth to help with washing, ironing, cleaning and other tasks while Mom recovered and adjusted to having two kids under two.


My mom saved everything, including this Mother’s Day card I made for her in elementary school. I cut a flower from a seed catalog to create the front of this card.


And so the years passed with more babies birthed. I wondered if Mom had any special memories of Mother’s Day. I paged through several journals from the 1960s to find entries about Mother’s Day programs at Vesta Elementary School. She noted the gifts we three oldest kids gave her—tomato plants, a hammered dish and on May 8, 1964, a writing pad. From me.


I took this photo nearly two years ago of my mom holding my granddaughter’s hand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.

Now more than ever, as age steals my mom’s memory and she no longer keeps a journal, I appreciate her writing. Her words reveal a hardworking woman who valued her family and faith and farm life. That Mom took the time to write shows her deep appreciation, too, for the written word. She passed that along to me. I am grateful. But most of all I am grateful for a mom who loved me and my siblings with such depth. She was, and remains even in her advancing octogenarian years, an example of kindness and compassion and goodness that I strive to emulate. She is my mother. And I love her.


© 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


Minnesota Faces: My mom, Arlene May 8, 2015

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Portrait #20: Arlene


My mom counts jars of horseradish with my sister-in-law after a family gathering to make horseradish.

My mom counts jars of horseradish with my sister-in-law after a family gathering to process horseradish. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

We sometimes call her Ma Cat. With fondness. It’s a fitting pet name for a woman who sing-songed The Three Little Kittens Have Lost Their Mittens while rocking wee ones in a cranberry-hued Naugahyde rocker in an aged woodframe farmhouse on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my brother Doug.

The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my brother Doug.

Mom devoted her life to raising her three sons and three daughters, born between 1955 and 1967. I am second oldest and the oldest girl.

I love my mom and I understand that her life was not always easy. She lost her own mother within months of my birth. Life as a young wife and mother on the farm, without a bathroom, no phone, a Maytag wringer washer to wash filthy barn clothes and little money, had to be challenging.

We were poor. But I didn’t know that, which is an absolute testament to my mom. She kept us fed with garden produce, baked goods and beef from our own cattle. She, somehow, managed to keep us clothed. We never got birthday gifts. We never knew to expect them. Instead, each birthday Mom baked a special animal-shaped cake for the birthday celebrant, the cake design chosen from a booklet she pulled out only on birthdays.

Mom instilled in all of us a deep faith in God. We attended church and Sunday School every week. We prayed. And, even more important, Mom has always lived out her faith in kindness and compassion shown to others. She once advised me, “Don’t talk about anyone else’s kids because you never know what your own kids will do.” In other words, do not gossip and keep your mouth shut if you have nothing good to say. And when others tell you something in confidence, keep it to yourself. I’ve tried to follow that advice throughout my life.

The past year has been a difficult one for my mom. In early 2014, physical problems forced her into a nursing home. Eventually, she grew strong enough to move into assisted living. But then, on a Sunday morning in August, she fell and suffered severe injuries that landed her in an ICU Trauma Unit. Eventually, Mom recovered and is now back in her apartment. But she knew she could never return to her home and the decision was made to sell her house.

Through it all, Mom has not complained. That is so typical of her, to adopt a positive attitude and make the best of whatever happens in her life. Because of that, and more, people love her. Her positivity shines as does her faithfulness.

She is a survivor of open heart surgery and breast cancer and a multitude of other medical emergencies and surgeries that should have killed her. But she always fought to survive and medical teams often marveled at her rallying. Sometimes I think of her as the cat with nine lives.

But mostly, I consider every day we have her to be a blessing.


This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

To all of you mothers, Happy Mother’s Day.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A letter to my daughter on her birthday November 16, 2014

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Miranda, celebrating her birthday today.

Miranda, celebrating her birthday today. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2014.

Dearest Miranda,

I never imagined, before I had children—before you or your sister or your brother were born—how deeply I could love a child.

But the day you were born, my heart opened wider, my love deepened to depths unimaginable. There was room in my heart for you and your sister and then, six years later, your brother.

Some day, when you become a mom, you will understand the fierceness with which a mother loves—how she hurts and cries and rejoices and desires nothing more than the best for her children.

I think of you every single day. Some days my heart aches at your absence. And I wish I could wrap my arms around you and hug you and feel the softness of your beautiful curls.

You are a beautiful, strong, caring and compassionate young woman with a mind of her own. Remember how, as a preschooler, you shut yourself in the toy room and played alone for hours? When I’d check on you, you’d ask me to leave. And even though I did, it wasn’t easy to walk away, to feel like you didn’t need me.

But I’d like to think we always need each other, that our love for one another runs deep through our veins, that no matter the distance between us, we remain connected.

I consider how strong you’ve been. At age four you clutched your Big Bird, took a nurse’s hand and walked toward the operating room while I dissolved into tears in your father’s arms. You never cried.

And years later, when you had to wear a back brace 23/7 for a year, you didn’t complain. I cried. But you soldiered on and did what you had to do.

Miranda in Valles Calchaquies, near the town of Cafayate in the Salta province.

Miranda in Valles Calchaquies, near the town of Cafayate in the Salta province of Argentina. File photo 2013.

You’ve always seemed fearless to me, ready for any new adventure. You flew solo to Argentina to study abroad and then back twice thereafter, fighting off a mugger once. I don’t like to think about that attack even now because the thought of anyone ever remotely coming close to harming you scares me. I love you so much and want you always to be safe.

You give of yourself with selfless compassion from a faith-filled heart. Not once, but twice, you helped with clean-up after Hurricane Katrina. Even in your life’s chosen profession as a Spanish medical interpreter, you continue to give.

I am proud of you. Your name means “admirable.” That seems fitting for you, my precious daughter.

I love you now and forever. Happy birthday!

With love,


Celebrating her granddaughter’s wedding September 8, 2014

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SHE WAS DETERMINED to attend her granddaughter’s wedding. And she did, one day shy of three weeks after suffering traumatic injuries in a fall.

Three of my mom's granddaughter's visit with her after the wedding.

Three of my mom’s granddaughter’s (including my daughter, middle) visit with her after the wedding.

She would be my 82-year-old mother.

About the only photo I managed during the ceremony, taken from my place in the pew.

About the only photo I managed during the ceremony, taken from my place in the pew.

Saturday afternoon Mom was among some 400 guests packing English Lutheran Church in Walnut Grove for the marriage of Carlyn and Jared.

The day marked a milestone for Mom, her first outing in three weeks except for the long ambulance ride from a southwestern Minnesota hospital to the trauma unit at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale and the car ride back to a nursing home five days later.

The reception was held at the community center in the bride and groom's hometown of Westbrook.

The reception was held at the community center in the bride and groom’s hometown of Westbrook.

Already while hospitalized, Mom set a goal to attend the wedding. Then she decided that she might like to go to the reception for awhile also. She accomplished both.

Guests shower Jared and Carlyn with birdseed as they leave the church.

Guests shower Jared and Carlyn with birdseed as they leave the church.

It is good to have goals when you are eighty-two, or any time really.

I laughed because my mom's nails were painted and I forgot to paint mine.

Nursing home staff painted Mom’s nails for the wedding.

I am thankful to the staff of Parkview Home in Belview for encouraging and working with my mom and even painting her nails for the wedding.

I am grateful, too, for a family that has been there for her every step of the way, encouraging, supporting, loving.

And for prayers. Yes, prayers.

Mom faces a long road toward full recovery. I understand that. But she has already come so far.

Yet, it is not easy to see the fading purple bruises, the oversized bump that still mars her forehead, the neck collar that locks her broken neck in place, her frailness…

There are times when sadness overwhelms me. But then I remind myself to be grateful. For every single day I have my mother.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


So thankful to celebrate my mom’s birthday May 29, 2014

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THIS TIME IT was my turn to bake the cake, using the same recipe she used all those decades of baking birthday cakes for her six children.

While she crafted animal-shaped cakes for me, my three brothers and two sisters, I opted for the simple, pouring the batter for Crazy Cake into a 9 x 13-inch pan. Later, after the homemade chocolate cake cooled, I topped it with homemade chocolate frosting and a rainbow of sprinkles.

Saturday afternoon my husband and I carried the treat and two jugs of lemonade into Parkview Home in Belview to celebrate my Mom’s birthday.

Not wanting to set off the nursing home sprinkler system, Randy lit nine candles rather than 82.

My mom celebrates her birthday with family at Parkview Home in Belview, Minnesota.

My mom celebrates her birthday with family at Parkview Home in Belview, Minnesota.

And while a small group of us sang “Happy birthday” and Mom blew out her candles, I considered the blessings of having her with us another year. Here she sat, albeit in a nursing home, but much healthier and in less pain than a month prior. She is walking again (slowly and with a walker), rising from chairs without assistance, making the best of this unexpected change in her life.

But one thing remains constant. Mom continues, as she always has, to show us all that she is one strong woman. She handles whatever comes her way with grace. She sees the best in everyone and possesses the kindest of hearts.

Me with my mom in her Parkview Home room.

Me with my mom in her Parkview Home room.

When a Parkview staff member asked if I was Arlene’s daughter and told me I look like my mother, I accepted that as the highest of compliments. I can only hope that I also emulate Mom’s goodness, kindness, faith, strength and gentleness of spirit.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


For my mother May 12, 2013

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My parents with my brother and me in a photo dated January 1957, but likely taken a few months earlier.

My parents with my brother and me in a photo dated January 1957, but likely taken a few months earlier at my maternal grandpa’s house.

I WONDER SOMETIMES what my mother’s life would have been like had she not chosen motherhood over career.

Not that long-term employment was truly an option for a young woman of the 1950s, unless you chose teaching or nursing, neither of which fit my mother’s professional talents or interests.

After graduating from Wabasso High School in 1951, as valedictorian no less, she attended Mankato Business College then landed a job with the state employment office in Marshall.

By September of 1954, she had quit her job and married. In July 1955 she gave birth to her first son. Within a dozen years, my mother and father would have six children.

Raising a family in rural southwestern Minnesota, in a cramped and drafty three bedroom house with no bathroom, could not have been easy.

I retain memories of my mother striking farmer matches to light the oil burning stove centered in the living room, heating a house wrapped in brown paper, straw bales snugged to the foundation.

I see her dumping buckets of hot water into the galvanized bathtub positioned before the kitchen stove on Saturday nights.

I feel her hands lacing through my stick-straight hair as I lie face-up on the kitchen counter, head draped over the sink, as she works shampoo onto my scalp.

I watch her dump cups of flour and sugar into the white bowl of her Hamilton Beach mixer, stirring up batches of bars too quickly consumed by six hungry kids. I remember, too, the treat of a few chocolate chips dropped into hands.

I smell the yeasty scent of her homemade bread pulled from the oven, remember the snippets of dough she parceled out for me and my sisters to shape miniature buns.

I hear the hiss of hot iron against cotton cloth she’s sprinkled with water.

I watch her grasp the iron ring on the kitchen floor trap door as she sends me down the creaky stairs to the dirt-floored cellar for a jar of golden peaches. Memories of summer days, of wooden crates lugged home from the local grocer, of peaches wrapped in pink tissue, of fruit slipped into boiling water, linger.

I can feel her strength as she stirs the clothes in her Maytag wringer washer with a grey stick propped always against a wall in the porch where smelly chore clothes hung.

She traded a career for all of this.

Was she happy? Did she regret giving up a well-paying and stable job for six kids and poverty?

I’ve never asked.

But I’d like to think she was happy raising a family, instilling in each of her children a strong faith in God and an appreciation and love of family, and of life.

The old farmhouse to the left, where I grew up with the "new house," built in the late 1960s.

The old farmhouse to the left, where I lived until about age 12, with the “new house” in the background. That’s my sister, Lanae, standing on the front steps leading into the porch. Was the house really that small? Apparently so.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Celebrating the 80th birthday of a remarkable woman April 17, 2012

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My mother, Arlene, at her 80th birthday party.

THEY TRAVELED FROM AS far away as Arkansas to rural southwestern Minnesota to celebrate the life of an incredible woman.

They came from nursing homes and farms, retirement communities and apartment buildings. They came from the house two doors down and from several blocks away.

All ages—from 11 months to 100 years old—came to celebrate the 80th birthday of a remarkable woman.

The youngest guest, 11-month-old Sophia.

The oldest guest, my mom's aunt Gladys who recently turned 100.

She’s done nothing particularly remarkable in the sense of worldly accomplishments. But she—my mother—is kind and sweet and good. She’s lived a simple life, content as a wife, mother and grandmother and as an avid volunteer.

On Sunday afternoon, in the community hall of the place she’s called home for nearly 60 years, family and friends gathered to honor her. When I stood there surveying the crowd, my emotions threatened to spill into tears as I realized how much my mother is cherished.

Guests plate up food at the birthday celebration in the Vesta Community Hall.

She is one of the strongest, kindest women I know, someone who seldom speaks ill of another and who, on more than one occasion, has given her grown children this sage advice: “Never talk about anyone else’s children (in a negative way), because you never know what your own children may do.”

Many times I have considered those words of wisdom, opting not to repeat negative comments but rather choosing to uplift a young person in praise. My mother taught me to see the good in people.

She taught me to love God and family, to put them first. Above all.

My youngest, left, and my oldest with their grandma. My middle daughter, who lives in eastern Wisconsin, was unable to attend the birthday party.

She has shown me the definition of “strong” in the face of many health challenges. We nearly lost her more than 30 years ago to a viral infection of her heart. Later she would undergo open heart surgery to replace a leaky heart valve. She battled breast cancer. In recent years, when she nearly died again, the medical staff shared their amazement at how, surrounded by her children and other family members, she rallied to live.

My mother is determined—to live life to the fullest. Each Monday morning she still gathers with friends at the cafe for coffee. And, up until recently, she enrolled in senior college classes at a nearby university. She still volunteers at church whenever she can, although she finally gave up her role as head of the Funeral Committee. She attends a monthly craft club. Every month she visited the bookmobile when it stopped on Main Street, until bookmobile service to Vesta was ended in a cost-cutting move. She is an avid reader.

She doesn’t cook much anymore, but instead often eats her noon meal at the Vesta Cafe. When Mom tells me in a phone call that she’s eaten four times at the cafe in one week, I reassure her that’s OK. She can dine out in the company of others, getting a balanced meal for less than $5. She deserves it. Lord knows she spent enough decades cooking for her six children and her farmer-husband.

This is the woman we celebrated on Sunday, this remarkable woman who has blessed my life beyond measure as my mother.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling