Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

To have and to hold, 36 years later May 15, 2018

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Audrey and Randy, May 15, 1982

 

I FLIP THROUGH THE PAGES of the photo album looking at the faces. Young. Smiling. Happy.

Thirty-six years have passed since those formal portraits were taken on my wedding day. It seems so long ago, 1982. We were just 25 then, Randy and I. But as anyone who’s now in their sixties knows, time has a way of flying. It’s not just a saying. It’s the truth.

 

A selfie of Randy and me taken in September 2017 at the walleye statue along Mille Lacs Lake in Garrison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Tomorrow soon becomes yesterday and all of a sudden you aren’t that newlywed on the cusp of life but rather that married nearly four decades couple entering the golden years of life.

I would be lying if I said married life is fairy tale perfect. Maybe in the fantasy world of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But not in real life. We’ve faced many challenges from health to personal and family issues to injuries and accidents and deaths of loved ones. We’ve managed tight budgets and long hours of hard work and even survived many home improvement projects. And we’ve come through on the other side stronger, more appreciative of each other and maybe even better people for having endured difficulties.

Recently, Randy informed me he’s a legend. I laughed, said I would need to treat him with a higher respect. He’d been dubbed a “legend” by a customer referred to my automotive machinist husband as an expert in his field. He is. Randy is really really smart about all things automotive. And with something like 40 years of experience, he rates as a legend. I don’t know what his customers will do when he retires in a few years. I don’t care, frankly.

A favorite photo of my husband holding our then 10-day-old granddaughter, Isabelle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016.

Life isn’t all about work. It’s about finding time for each other and those you love. And those we love has now expanded to include our two-year-old granddaughter. I love watching my husband in his relatively new role as Grandpa to Isabelle. There’s such sweetness and tenderness in the moments they share whether reading a book or crawling around on the floor pulling Brio trains.

Thirty-six years ago I didn’t see beyond the front of the church and the face of my groom on our wedding day. I saw only the man I loved. And still love, all these decades later.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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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

 

A mother’s reflections on her daughter’s birthday November 16, 2013

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EVEN AS A BABY, she was fiercely her own person.

Miranda didn’t snuggle. She cried way too much. In those early months, it was sometimes tough being her mother, dealing with a colicky infant while also nurturing my first-born, only 21 months older.

But that all seems so long ago now that my second daughter is turning 26 today.

Miranda and her dad, along the shore of Lake Winnebago near Appleton, when we last visited in October.

Miranda and her dad, along the shore of Lake Winnebago near Appleton in High Cliff State Park, when we last visited her in October.

Where have the years gone? I have asked myself that often this past year—the year in which my eldest daughter married, my 19-year-old son moved to Boston to attend college and my middle child, Miranda, is now edging away from 25. In many ways, it’s been a tough year for me as I adjust to life as an empty nester.

But then I consider my three and I can only be happy for them, proud of the independent adults they’ve become, seemingly content in their lives.

Take Miranda, the birthday girl. She’s lived and worked for the past three years as a Spanish medical interpreter in Appleton, Wisconsin, 300 miles from Faribault. She possesses a deep passion for her work and the people she serves. And there is nothing more noble in a job than to love what you do and to serve others.

Although I’m not privy to details due to patient confidentiality, I know Miranda has dealt with some difficult situations, interpreting for patients in hospital emergency rooms, physicians’ offices and elsewhere. It takes a special type of person to remain calm and professional and compassionate in the face of emotional stress and/or trauma. My daughter is all of those.

As a little girl, Miranda was all girly girl, wearing only skirts and donning ribbons in her hair. She also loved horses, including her stick horse, shown here in a photo taken when she was 5 1/2.

As a little girl, Miranda was all girly girl, wearing only skirts and donning ribbons in her hair. She also loved horses, including her stick horse, shown here in a photo taken when she was 5 1/2.

I wonder, sometimes, if that core strength and heartfelt empathy come from her own experiences. At age four, she underwent hernia surgery. Even now I can visualize my darling curly haired girl walking down the hospital hallway to the operating room, Big Bird clutched in one hand, the other hand held by a nurse. My preschooler never cried. I did.

And then, years later, she was diagnosed with scoliosis (an abnormal curvature of the spine) and wore a full torso back brace 24/7 for a year. That time we both cried at the diagnosis. But Miranda soldiered on and never complained although I know it had to be difficult for her. Life’s challenges often make us stronger.

Miranda is undeniably strong and independent. She’s studied, interned and vacationed in Argentina. On her second trip of three to South America, she was mugged. Not assaulted, thankfully. Thousands of miles away, I felt utterly helpless. Miranda managed, with the help of friends and my assistance back home, to work through the situation.

I need only look back at the baby and preschooler she was to see the roots of her independence and strength. I remember how, as a preschooler, Miranda would tell me to “go away” when she was playing alone in the toy room, now my office. So I would turn around and walk away, only semi understanding her desire for solitude.

That, I suppose, was the beginning of the letting go. As mothers, that is our ultimate goal—to let our children go. It is not easy, but that is our job from the moment they are born. I eased Miranda onto that path of independence early on, as much for myself as for her, by sending her to bible camp every summer, supporting her decisions to go on multiple mission trips (including two to clean up after Hurricane Katrina), sucking up my own worry and enthusing about her time in Argentina, and now, even though I wish she lived nearer than 300 miles away, accepting that she’s happy where she’s at in her life.

Now, on my daughter’s 26th birthday, I reflect on this beautiful young woman her dad and I raised. Miranda is a woman of faith, caring and compassionate and kind and giving, and, bonus, a darned good cook. Whenever we visit, she treats us to delicious home-cooked ethnic food. She worked two summers in the Concordia Spanish Language Village kitchen near Bemidji, where she learned to cook. I failed her in that skill.

But I succeeded where it counts, and that is in raising my girl to cherish God, family and friends and to pursue her passions in life.

Please join me in wishing Miranda a happy 26th birthday.

Happy birthday, Tib! I love you now and forever.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on Minnesota’s rural landscape November 5, 2013

Expansive sky and land inspire the poet in me. Photographed, as are all photos here, along Minnesota State Highway 60 between Faribault and Kenyon.

Expansive sky and land inspire the poet in me.

WHAT DRAWS YOUR EYE in a rural landscape?

Strong lines pull me in, lead me to wonder where that gravel road would take me.

Strong lines pull me in, lead me to wonder, “Where would that rugged gravel road take me?”

Or do you even notice your environment as you travel from point A to point B?

Noticing the geometry in these buildings clustered on a farm site.

I notice the geometry in these buildings, how they cluster and fit together on this farm site.

I challenge you, the next time you drive through rural Minnesota, or rural Anywhere, to truly see your surroundings. Don’t just look with glazed eyes. See. Once you see, you will appreciate.

A sense of history defines this farm in that strong barn which dominates.

A sense of history defines this farm in that strong barn which dominates and in the mishmash roof lines of the farmhouse. Both cause me to reflect upon my rural upbringing, upon my forefathers who settled 150 miles from here on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

History, point in life, memories, even your mood on a given day, will influence how you view the rural landscape, what draws your focus.

I see here trees huddled, protecting and sheltering that house from the elements. My thoughts turn introspective at this scene.

I see trees huddled, protecting and sheltering that house from the elements, from that threatening sky. My thoughts turn introspective as I consider how we are all sometimes vulnerable and huddled, drawn into ourselves.

Whether a writer or photographer, architect or historian, teacher or retiree, stay-at-home mom (or dad), a farmer or someone in between, you will lock onto a setting that inspires creativity or prompts thought or perhaps soothes your soul.

There is much to be said for noticing details, for understanding that the miles between small towns are more than space to be traveled.

FYI: These edited images were photographed nine days ago while traveling along Minnesota State Highway 60 between Faribault and Kenyon. In just that short time, the landscape has evolved with crops harvested, trees stripped of their leaves by strong winds and now, today, snow in the forecast.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering my mother-in-law, Betty October 18, 2013

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Tom and Betty

Tom and Betty in a vintage photo, date unknown.

YOU THINK YOU WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER.

But then the years, the decades, slip by and the memories begin to fade.

You can’t picture their smile, hear their voice, recall their mannerisms.

Twenty years ago on October 16, my mother-in-law, Betty Helbling, died after suffering a heart attack the previous evening. She was just weeks shy of turning sixty.

I still remember that phone call around 9 p.m. on a Friday. Not every detail. Not even who phoned with the devastating news that my husband’s mother was in the hospital. Alive. But not alert.

I remember the request that we drive northwest to Little Falls several hours away. But the hour was late, the fog as thick as the proverbial pea soup making travel impossible for my husband and me and our two daughters, ages seven and five.

To add to the concern, I was five months pregnant with our youngest, the baby Grandma Helbling hoped was a boy after a long string of granddaughters. I knew, for my unborn child’s sake, that I needed to remain as emotionally unstressed as possible, which was impossible given the situation.

It was a mostly sleepless night of tossing and turning, of prayer and worry. By morning we were making phone calls—me to my mother, another to a dear friend and my husband to the local Red Cross to get his brothers and a sister-in-law home from their respective military bases, one as far away as Germany.

We packed and left Faribault. By then, before our arrival, Betty had already passed.

Those next days on the family farm were a blur of grief and of condolences, phone calls and visits, food and family hugs. The wake and funeral and burial. I remember seeing my husband cry, for the first and only time. Ever.

Today, two decades later, I am thinking of my mother-in-law, of the woman who never saw the grandson I birthed in early February 1994. She would have loved my son, knitted him a baby blanket or a blue sweater or something equally adorable like she had for Caleb’s sisters. It saddens me to think that Betty never saw the grandson she so badly wanted to carry on the Helbling family name. It saddens me that my now 19-year-old never knew his paternal grandmother.

But I still have the memories, one occurring only weeks before her death, when we all gathered on the farm to celebrate the 40th wedding anniversary of my in-laws. I arose in the middle of the night to pee, descending the stairs to the first floor bathroom in the dark of a country night. I’d just settled onto the toilet when movement, that of a mouse, caught my eye. I hate mice, just hate them. And there I was, pregnant and stuck in a small bathroom with a mouse circling my feet. I could see no way out.

I calmed myself down between shrieks of fear, which I tried to hold in, not wanting to awaken the entire household. But apparently I was loud enough to rouse my mother-in-law. She simply thought I was in the bathroom with a sick child and did not investigate.

Eventually, after climbing onto the bathtub, I grabbed a pile of wet bath towels from the floor, tossed them onto the menacing mouse and fled up the stairs to my still sleeping husband.

That is the last memory I associate with my mother-in-law.

Tom and Betty. This may be from their 40th anniversary party, although I am not sure.

Tom and Betty. This may be from their 40th anniversary party, although I am not sure.

But there are other memories—that of a competitive Scrabble player who could beat me, the master of words. I loved the challenge of playing Scrabble with Betty, even if she usually won.

Cooking wasn’t her strength, but she made the best darned chicken and caramel rolls.

Once my husband, brother-in-law Neil and I rummaged through Betty’s cupboards while she was gone, seeking to spice up her bland hotdish baking in the oven. When a sister-in-law later praised the tastiness of the dish, we three could barely contain our laughter as Betty attributed the flavor to a dash of Mrs. Dash seasoning.

Four generations: Great Grandma Katherine Simon holding my daughter, Amber, with my mother-in-law behind them beside my husband, Randy. Photo taken in July 1986 at a family picnic, Pierz, Minnesota.

Four generations: Great Grandma Katherine Simon holding my daughter, Amber, with my mother-in-law, Betty, behind them beside my husband, Randy. Photo taken in July 1986 at a family picnic in Pierz, Minnesota.

I knew my mother-in-law for only 11 years. Not very long really. But long enough to know that she was a woman of deep faith who loved God and family. Above all.

On Thursday, October 16, 2013, twenty years after her death, Betty was joined in heaven by her brother, Steve.

Blessed be the memories of those we loved and those who loved us, sometimes even before we were born.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections on a prairie sunset June 30, 2013

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Sunset on the prairie

WE STOOD ALONG THE EDGE of the gravel road Saturday evening, my 13-year-old nephew and I, mesmerized by the glorious golden sun pinking the sky above and below a layer of blue grey.

I raised my camera. He lifted his phone. We snapped several photos, compared, wished for better zooms to photograph the prairie sky north of Lamberton in southwestern Minnesota.

Sunset on the prairie 2

“It’s what I miss most about this place, the sunrise and the sunset,” I said.

“And the stars,” Stephen added.

Sun and stars.

He was right. The stars, too.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

One family’s journey: Five years after the Cottonwood school bus crash February 13, 2013

SHE ASKS IF I REMEMBER “the cupcake thing.”

But I have only a vague recollection of lots and lots of cupcakes.

Traci Olson, though, remembers, like yesterday, the details of “the cupcake thing,” which she compares to the biblical account of the feeding of the 5,000.

First, the cupcakes started coming in, then more and more and more for her 9-year-old daughter Emilee’s funeral. There were enough left over to serve mourners at the funeral of the Javens brothers, Hunter, 9, and Jesse, 13. The cupcakes just kept coming, so the sweet treats were also offered at the funeral of Reed Stevens, 12.

Still, all the cupcakes had not been eaten. So whoever wanted the mini cakes could take them home.

Lakeview kitchen staff bakes cupcakes each February to celebrate the four students.

Lakeview kitchen staff bakes cupcakes each February to celebrate the four students.

“The cupcake thing” didn’t end in February 2008, when Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed, all students at Lakeview Public School in Cottonwood, died in the crash of their school bus and a mini van. Five years later, the tradition continues every February 19 (or the nearest date school is in session) at Lakeview. The cooks bake cupcakes and frost them in the students’ favorite colors—pink or purple for Emilee, red for Reed, green for Hunter and black for Jesse.

It is a way to celebrate the lives of the four, whom Traci describes as “fun, happy-go-lucky kids.”

“We don’t want the kids to be defined by how their lives ended,” she emphasizes.

Traci, who teaches early childhood special education at Lakeview, has, by default, she says, become the key organizer of Lakeview’s annual Journey of Hope, a community gathering to celebrate the lives of those lost and the healing that has taken place since that February 19 afternoon in 2008 when life forever changed in Cottonwood, a farming town of 1,200 in southwestern Minnesota.

Timberwolves mascot Crunch during an earlier appearance at Lakeview.

Timberwolves mascot Crunch during an earlier appearance at Lakeview.

This year’s celebration is slated for Valentine’s Day and starts with an afternoon presentation on bullying by Minnesota Timberwolves mascot Crunch followed by a community gathering in the evening. That includes serving of pulled pork sandwiches beginning at 5 p.m., photos with Crunch, a slam/dunk half-time show and three basketball games.

Traci says Journey of Hope has always focused on the positive, not on mourning the community’s loss.

Days before the five-year anniversary, Traci shared her thoughts with me, in an hour-long phone interview, about her daughter, life since the crash and the healing that has taken place. We did not discuss Olga Franco del Cid, who was driving the mini van that blew through a stop sign and slammed into the school bus. Franco del Cid was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and other charges and sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison.

Chun Wen (Emilee) in China

Chun Wen (Emilee) in China

TRACI REMEMBERS WITH CLARITY the first time she laid eyes on baby Emilee in China. Chun Wen, among about 20 babies, just sat and stared at her adoptive mom. “I picked her up and she was mine,” Traci says of her strong-willed, independent girl with the deep, raspy voice who came home to Minnesota at 10 months of age.

Emilee LaVanche, as Traci and Charlie Olson renamed their daughter after Traci’s grandparents Emil and LaVanche, fit right in with her older siblings, Bailee and Sidnee. She emulated Bailee’s piano playing, becoming an accomplished pianist, and eventually followed the family’s passion for showing horses. On her seventh birthday, Emilee got her own horse, Barbie.

“Everybody knew her,” Traci says of her outgoing and vivacious daughter who made friends wherever she went. She would light up a room or a show ring. And she was, most assuredly, Traci says, a blessing to her and Charlie’s family, which at the time of Emilee’s death included Bailee, 14; Sidnee, 11; and Rilee, 6.

Traci would later return to China for the third time (Rilee is also from China) to adopt seven-year-old Lucee. She makes it clear that Lucee is not meant to replace Emilee, noting rather her deep love of children: “I was meant to be with kids and to do stuff with kids.”

Emilee with her horse, Barbie

Emilee with her horse, Barbie

ON THE AFTERNOON OF THE CRASH, Traci, then a health and physical education teacher at Lakeview, told Emilee, “You need to ride the bus (home about two miles)… I love you.”

That marked the last time she spoke to her daughter.

A short while later her husband, a part-time school bus driver, phoned to tell Traci about a “bad bus accident” half a mile from their farm. Traci rushed to the crash site to help.  Then, upon realizing it was her children’s bus, she desperately began searching for her three kids riding the bus that day. She found Rilee, but could not locate Sidnee or Emilee.

As Traci recounts the aftermath of the crash which killed four and injured 17, she describes a chaotic scene, “a lot of hoping and praying,” racing to the hospital in nearby Marshall, helicopters coming and going, her desperate inquiries for information about “the only Chinese girl on the bus,” the family’s journey to Sioux Falls where Sidnee underwent emergency surgery for a lacerated eye, and the eventual visit to the funeral home to identify Emilee.

Traci recalls a phone conversation with her sister. “I can’t find Sidnee and Emilee. This is really, really bad.” In that moment, when she could not find her daughter, Traci says, “I knew right away.”

Emilee and Sidnee were sitting across from each other half way back on the bus, Emilee with Hunter. Jesse and Reed were behind them. Rilee was at the front of the bus.

Thinking back to that awful day, Traci says, “You never move on, but you’re forced to move forward. We can’t change it, we can’t make it go away.” But, she is determined that her surviving kids, now ages 9 – 19, not reference their lives “before and after Emilee.” And she is determined, too, to celebrate Emilee’s life.

For example, each year Traci celebrates Emilee’s November 2 birthday with her classmates. This past November, the now Lakeview 8th graders made and donated 30 fleece blankets to the Ronald McDonald house in Rochester. In the past, Emilee’s classmates have made Native American horse sticks and welcomed former WCCO TV news anchor Don Shelby in honor of their classmate’s birthday. Lakeview students got copies of Shelby’s inspirational book, The Season Never Ends.

The birthday party always focuses on honoring her daughter in an educational and memory-building way, Traci says. And it always ends with serving of Emilee’s favorite root beer floats.

Traci also coaches Emilee’s classmates’ basketball team.

“My saddest day will be when no one will remember who Emilie is,” Traci shares.

THAT IS NOT LIKELY to happen any time soon as Traci speaks of a caring community that continues to “wrap their arms around us and the other families.” Good friends before the crash, the Olson, Javens and Stevens families now lean on one another.

Not that there aren’t difficult days. Her family is open and honest enough, Traci says, to admit when they’re having a bad day. Sometimes that means stepping out of school for 20 minutes to cry in her car, or doing something with the horses or her family to deal with the grief. She’s especially grateful, Traci notes, for supportive school administrators and colleagues.

Losing a child “makes you totally rethink what’s important,” Traci says. And for her and Charlie, that’s being together as a family, participating in those competitive Ponies of America Club horse shows, celebrating Emilee’s birthday and more. “We’re not thinking coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

The Olsons also have adopted a new perspective on life as they’ve already endured the most difficult of losses. “If we lose a crop (the Olsons farm), we can live through that,” Traci says.

TODAY THE FAMILY CONTINUES to sense Emilee’s presence in their lives, whether in the pink and purple of a prairie sunset or someone mistakenly calling Lucee—now nine years old, the same age as Emilee five years ago—by her older sister’s name.

Traci tells me, too, “It is really hard to believe it has been that long.”

Five years.

But for this mother, the details of the day she lost Emilee remain as clear as the day she first locked eyes with her little girl in China.

Lakeview School graces the front of a thank you card I received a month after the bus crash.

Lakeview School graces the front of a thank you card I received a month after the 2008 bus crash.

FIVE YEARS AGO on February 19, I “knew” that an extended family member was on that same bus Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed rode.

My cousin Joyce Arends’ grandson, 8-year-old Bryce, suffered minor injuries in the crash. Wanting to show my concern, I mailed a book, teddy bear and candy to Bryce as well as a note and memorial gift to Lakeview School.

I received thank yous from Bryce and the school and I’ve saved both.

Bryce told me he’d named his bear Fluffy and was sleeping with him.

The school responded, in part, with this message:

The outpouring of response from across the state, the nation, and even the world has overwhelmed all of us at Lakeview School, but the power of that support has given us strength and has allowed us to begin the long process of healing. Please know that we are all grateful.

I expect on this, the five-year anniversary of the bus crash, that Lakeview School, the Olsons, Javens and Stevens families, and the community remain grateful for the ongoing support of those who remember their children, for Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed truly were all of their children.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Traci Olson