Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Missing Mom: Grief during the holidays December 22, 2022

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The photo of my mom and son which prompted my grief to surface. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 1994)

MY FOREFINGER SLID UP the photo toward her face, circling repeatedly as if I could somehow reach into the image and connect with my mom.

It was Sunday afternoon and I was filing through a stash of old photos given to me by a sibling at a family holiday gathering the day prior. I’d never seen the photo taken nearly 29 years ago of Mom cradling my chunky newborn son on her lap. She was 60 then, younger than I am now. The two would eventually form a special bond, despite the geographical distance. When Caleb headed off to college, he would call his grandma occasionally. She shared about the lengthy conversations and I felt thankful. Those phone calls benefited both of them.

Now here I was sitting at my dining room table, caressing that photo, missing the two of them. Mom died in early January. Caleb will, weather permitting, fly into Minnesota later this week for a short stay. I last saw him in early January, shortly before his grandma passed; he couldn’t return for the funeral.

Sunday marked about a year since my final visit with Mom in her long-term care center. That anniversary date and the photo, along with Randy asking me if I was familiar with the song “The Christmas Shoes” (I was) prompted my emotions to swell into full-blown grief. He found the lyrics for me, then played the song about a young boy buying shoes for his dying mother on Christmas Eve. That did it. The lyrics penned by Eddie Carswell and Leonard Ahlstrom in the song released by NewSong in 2000 moved me to tears.

The gingersnap cookies I baked for Mom in 2020. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo December 2020)

I sobbed, tears gushing down my cheeks. “I miss my mom,” I sputtered, the words emerging as my shoulders heaved in sorrow, my breath ragged. I miss her kindness, her smile, her gentle way. I miss baking gingersnap cookies for her, as I did each Christmas because they were her favorite. I miss hugging her and talking to her, even if she couldn’t respond as her health deteriorated. I miss the essence of her, simply being in her presence. I miss sharing with her about her grandchildren, including that baby boy she cuddled. I miss telling her about the next generation, my two grandchildren. I miss sharing about my latest writing projects. She was always my strongest supporter, happy to hear that I’d had another poem or short story published.

A sampling of the many sympathy cards I received when my mom died in January. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2022)

This will be my first Christmas without Mom. Those firsts can be tough. I recognize that I am not alone, that many of you have lost loved ones, too, within the past year. I’m sorry. Grief often has a way of erupting during the holidays when families come together, memories surface. Time softens the edges of grief, yet never fully erases it. And that’s OK. To grieve is to have loved.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My message to you on election day November 8, 2022

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A message posted on a house in Dundas. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2020)

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. December 21, 2021

After the Community Christmas Dinner. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo December 2012)

IN THE DAYS LEADING to Christmas, busyness can cause us to lose focus. Busy baking. Busy cleaning. Busy buying. Busy wrapping and trying to do too much. I invite you to pause and reflect.

Reflect on hope.

Reflect on peace.

Reflect on joy.

Reflect on love.

Those four words centered a bulletin board display I photographed in 2012 at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church. I love this image. For the message. And for the story behind it. The Faribault church annually (except during COVID) hosts a free Community Christmas Dinner in mid-December. Volunteers serve a full holiday meal in the church basement. I’ve attended many times and enjoyed not only the food, but also the coming together of my community.

In this particular photo, a woman awaits a ride home. I’d just finished my meal and came across her standing at the top of the stairs, poinsettia in hand. The holiday flowers decorated dinner tables and diners were welcome to take them home. She was unaware of my presence. I framed the moment. A moment that, against the backdrop Advent message, captures the reason for the season.

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. May all be yours as we draw near to Christmas.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Portrait in a pandemic June 20, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots photo, May 15, 2020.

 

EVERY TIME I AM IN PUBLIC, I am reminded that we are living during a global pandemic. But even before I leave the house, I do a mental check list. Got my mask? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. Hands washed? Check.

I admit, even after several months of this new way of living, pulling two elastic bands over my ears to hold a cloth face mask in place feels unnatural. Uncomfortable. Odd. But it’s necessary to protect others and to reduce my risk.

And then I need to remember to use hand sanitizer. Upon leaving a store. Before I re-enter my vehicle. Back home, no grocery bags set on counters. Hands washed. I’m learning.

A month ago, while attending the May Faribault Car Cruise Night, I took the above portrait of a man walking along Central Avenue in the heart of our downtown. I appreciate the story this image tells. It represents, to me, the portrait of a pandemic.

In my city of some 24,000, there have been 653 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, June 19. That’s a fairly high number for our population, in my opinion. County-wide, we’ve had 743 positives, according to information on the Rice County Public Health Services web page. Our state prison accounts for 26 percent of those cases. We have the sixth highest incidence rate of the virus in Minnesota. Four county residents have died.

This virus knows no boundaries. Rural-ness offers no protection. We are all, by the fact that we are human, part of this pandemic. Part of the story. Part of history. Portraits in a pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Gratitude for Mother’s Day photos & the love of a rural Minnesota care center staff May 11, 2020

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I printed this message inside a handmade Mother’s Day card for my mom back in elementary school. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

SUNDAY PROVED A MOTHER’S DAY unlike any other due to COVID-19. A day of mixed emotions—of laughter and of sadness. Of smiles. Of missing those I love with an unexplainable pain that comes from separation and of wanting nothing more than to hold and hug those I love most. My mom, who is on hospice. My daughters and son and two grandchildren. Hugs for the sons-in-law, too.

I began the day with no expectations. There would be no seeing family in person, only in a video chat late in the afternoon. Randy tried his best to make my day special. And I am grateful for his effort. For the brunch he cooked, the delicious pork he smoked and grilled. And for the afternoon drive in the country, which proved joyful and therapeutic.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2009. Used for illustration only.

 

But two things stand out from Sunday above all. Mid-morning, my eldest sent a photo of her with my sweet grandchildren—Isabelle, 4, and Isaac, 16 months. Izzy beamed a wide smile with Amber in the background holding an open box of specialty doughnuts. While the girls looked at the camera, Isaac did not. His eyes fixed on those doughnuts. I laughed, oh, how I laughed. The image couldn’t have been more perfect.

 

My sweet mom, featured on the Parkview Facebook page.

 

Then hours later, after that delicious supper of smoked pork, grilled veggies and s’mores, Amber texted a photo of my mom posted on the Parkview Senior Living Center Facebook page. It was the most lovely photo of Mom, with oxygen tubes momentarily removed, a slight smile curving her lips and a corsage pinned to her plum fleece jacket. I broke down. Crying. Tears of gratitude. Tears of happiness mixed with sadness. But mostly, above all, thankfulness for this Mother’s Day gift.

To the staff at Parkview, who took the time to pamper the resident mothers and then photograph them, I am especially grateful. I’ve always known them to be a caring and compassionate family in small town southwestern Minnesota. But these images reaffirm that. I am thankful for the extra love given to these moms, and indirectly to us, their families, on Mother’s Day. What a gift. What a blessing.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photo from Parkview Senior Living Center Facebook page

 

Welcome to Wisconsin February 18, 2020

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An ice fisherman photographed at the La Crosse, Wisconsin, rest stop.

 

I OFTEN WONDER, what do outsiders think? And, by outsiders, I mean those of you unfamiliar with a Midwest winter, specifically with the sport of ice fishing.

I mean, let’s say you’re from Miami or LA or Dallas and you’ve never seen a village of fish houses atop a frozen lake let alone vehicles driving onto and across the ice. For Minnesotans and Wisconsinites, scenes like this are simply part of our winters.

Or let’s say you pull off the interstate, like we did on Saturday along I-90 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and you spot two guys loading fishing equipment onto a sled in a rest area parking lot. Randy and I saw exactly that.

The scene seemed so Midwest Norman Rockwell-like. Bucket and fishing gear atop a simple pull-behind sled. Fisherman layered in warm outdoor outerwear topping a red-and-black buffalo plaid flannel shirt. Paul Bunyan fashion at its finest.

As we exited the parking lot, I managed a photo. Iconic. A guy on his way to ice fish in the backwaters of the Mississippi River on a Saturday morning in mid-February. Love it.

TELL ME: Have you ever been ice fishing, or even observed an angler ice fishing? And, yes, I’ve fished through a hole in the ice on a frozen lake. Just not in recent years.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In honor of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. January 21, 2019

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Photographed in 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. —from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

 

© Photo 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

 

Promoting Faribault March 10, 2017

A snippet of Faribault’s just-published 2017 tourism guide cover shows Faribault’s signature angled name graphic overlaid on a photo taken along Central Avenue.

 

NEARLY 35 YEARS AGO, I moved to Faribault, relocating to this southeastern Minnesota city after my May 1982 marriage. My husband had the more secure job in an area with more employment opportunities.

I’ve grown to love this community and its people. I can go almost anywhere in town and run into a friend or acquaintance. While Faribault, with a population of around 23,000 still seems big to me in comparison to my rural southwestern Minnesota hometown of under 400, I feel here the closeness of a small town. Paths cross at events and in churches, schools, grocery stores, shops, restaurants, parks and more. That creates a sense of community.

Among events fostering community closeness is the monthly May – August Car Cruise Night along Central Avenue in our historic downtown. The well-kept aged buildings in Faribault’s central commercial district are among our strongest assets and provide an ideal backdrop for car enthusiasts to gather.

For a blogger like me, Car Cruise Night presents an abundance of photographic opportunities. I enjoy the challenge of coming up with new and creative ways to photograph the car show, showcased many times on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

 

My July 2016 Car Cruise Night photo is the cover of the 2017 Faribault tourism guide.

 

Now my car shoots have extended beyond this space to tourism. A photo I shot at the July 2016 Car Cruise Night graces the cover of the just-released 2017 Visit Faribault Minnesota tourism guide published by the Faribault Daily News in collaboration with the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. I am delighted and honored to have my work chosen by a committee for this placement.

In a single photo, potential visitors get a snapshot of Faribault. In the backdrop architecture, they see the history and the care Faribault has taken to preserve historic buildings. In the people and cars, they see a fun event. In the green Faribault banner and lush, hanging flower basket, they see community pride.

 

My original photo from the July 2016 Car Cruise Night. The left side of this photo is printed on page 22 of the tourism guide in the section titled “Explore historic downtown.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But there’s more to this photo than seen in the vertical tourism guide cover. I shot the image in a horizontal format, my view stretching along nearly the entire length of the 200 block (west side) of Central Avenue. The 1884 Fleckenstein building, beautifully renovated and restored by Faribault-based Restoration Services, Inc., anchors the image on the right. But just look at all those buildings beyond. I cannot say enough about how lovely the historic architecture in downtown Faribault.

Of course, Faribault is about much more, so much more. I’ve also had the opportunity recently to pen pieces on River Bend Nature Center and the historic murals in our downtown for the tourism website. I’m proud to promote Faribault, pronounced fair-uh-boh. That would be French in a community that’s today culturally diverse.

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TELL ME: What would you like to know about Faribault? Or, what do you know about Faribault? Or, what do you love about Faribault?

FYI: In addition to my cover photo, my Midway photo from the Rice County Fair is printed in an ad on page 20 and a photo I took of Twiehoff Gardens & Nursery is published on page 30.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Picnic perfect January 16, 2017

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WINTERS TEND TO GROW long here in Minnesota. Double-digit below zero temps, windchills, snow, ice and too much darkness wear on even the heartiest of native Minnesotans. Like me.

So I force myself sometimes to embrace this season. This weekend, which yielded balmy temps in the 30s and sunny skies, brought a smile and lifted my spirits. As did this photo, shot Sunday afternoon while hiking snow-packed paths at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault:

 

picnic-table-on-snow-at-river-bend-nature-center-135

 

I am struck by this scene—by the contrast of seasons (thoughts of summer in the reality of winter), by the lone picnic table set upon snow on the prairie’s edge. I expect the table placement was intentional, for a purpose. But the creative side of me likes to imagine otherwise—that perhaps an artist or a comedian staged the table here to make a point/prompt conversation/elicit laughter.

I am applauding. Because I am laughing. And in a Minnesota winter, laughter is good.

TELL ME: What’s your response to this “picnic perfect” scene?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling