Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflecting on 2021 December 31, 2021

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This quarter-sized token, gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann, lies on my computer desk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

AS 2021 DRAWS to a close, thoughts naturally turn reflective as I look at the year behind and, tomorrow, to the beginning of a new year. Never did I think we would still be in this pandemic, entering year three.

For me, 2021 brought grief, hope, frustration and many other emotions. Grief at the death of my father-in-law (not from COVID) in February. Hope in the availability of COVID vaccines to protect us from severe illness and death. Frustration over the ongoing resistance to those life-saving vaccines. Frustration in the failure of too many to follow simple measures, like masking in public, to prevent the spread of the virus.

HOPE

I want to focus on the word “hope,” which surged within me when I received an email from my clinic that I could schedule an appointment to get the vaccine. I fit the high risk category. I’ve never determined exactly why, but I speculate due to a severe case of whooping cough 16 years ago which left me coughing uncontrollably, gasping for air and, eventually, using an inhaler and on Prednisone. I was sick for three months then. So when I got my COVID vaccine on March 14, I felt such joy, gratitude and hope. I felt the same following my second dose a month later and then after my booster in October.

Spring brought such hopefulness. I remember thinking this would be the summer of reclaiming my life as I once lived it. That proved short-lived as COVID cases surged once again. Yet, there were moments of normalcy pre-surge—attending outdoor events, dining out a few times, even attending church twice (until masking became optional, not required). The brief spring/early summer respite lifted my spirits. But now here we are, back to an out-of-control situation.

GRATITUDE

Despite how the pandemic has affected my life in negative ways, I have many reasons to feel grateful. Twice this year, my family circle has been together. All of us. Nothing surpasses the happiness of family togetherness. My grandchildren, especially, bring me such joy with their hugs, kisses, cuddles. I feel fortunate that they live only a half hour distant.

And several times this year I’ve been allowed to visit my mom in her long-term care center, most recently right before Christmas. Mom is in hospice. It’s not been easy. But I try to focus on the blessing of having her here on this earth for 89 years. Not everyone has their mother around for that long. My mother-in-law died at age 59, only months before the birth of my son.

PEACE

Time at a family lake cabin in central Minnesota also provided a break from everything. Thrice Randy and I headed north for some R & R. Our eldest daughter and her family joined us twice. Lots of time immersed in nature calmed, recharged, brought peace. Many country drives and hikes in parks produced similar feelings.

Now, as 2022 begins, I expect much the same as 2021. I wish I could feel more optimistic. But I just don’t. Not today. Yet, hope remains.

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TELL ME: How was your 2021? What proved challenging? What brought you joy?

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NOTE: If you are anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-science, anti-health, please don’t comment. I moderate all comments and will not publish those “anti” views and/or misinformation on this, my personal blog.

© Copyright 2021 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

 

Rural reflections in the season of autumn November 22, 2021

Harvest in Monkey Valley near Kenyon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2021)

NOVEMBER MARKS A MONTH of transition from autumn to winter here in Minnesota.

A tree frames an abandoned silo and the remains of a barn in Monkey Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Trees stand against an often grey sky, brisk winds stripping the last of their leaves to bare branches. Nests crafted by squirrels high in treetops appear vulnerable, unsheltered, exposed to the elements while far below these busy oversized rodents munch on maple seeds, hide walnuts, prepare for winter. Their smaller cousins find their way into our aged house and garage, necessitating a daily check of the trap-line.

Harvesting corn in Monkey Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Harvest is done. Corn and soybeans reaped. A once lush rural landscape now looks drab, awash in muted earth-tones.

Endless acres of corn defined the landscape near Kenyon pre-harvest. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

For farmers, long days and nights in the field are but a memory. Stress and rush easing into a slower rhythm of life.

Spotted along a gravel road near Kenyon, grazing cattle. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

The early days of autumn hold such beauty in landscape, such promise in anticipation of harvest. I’ve always loved September and October. This autumn, particularly, in the unchanging season of COVID-19, I’ve needed to reconnect with the earth. To witness the harvest. To view farm sites. To follow back country gravel roads, dust trailing the van. To find peace.

A farm site in the ghost town of Aspelund. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

My appreciation for rural traces to my rural roots. I shall always feel gratitude for my 18 years on the farm. The southwestern Minnesota prairie shaped me as a writer and a photographer in that I noticed, still notice, details. The brutal slice of the winter prairie wind. The remarkable beauty of a flaming sun edging down. The taste of earth in potatoes dug from the garden. The sound of silence in hearing nothing. The unmistakable smell of harvest carried from combine to farmyard.

Just another view of the farm site in Monkey Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

These farm memories I carry with me as autumn wanes, as November days move Minnesota toward winter. Harvest done.

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NOTE: All of these photos were taken a month ago. The landscape looks much different now. Grey. Stark.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on 9/11 after 20 years September 10, 2021

A drawing by my then young son of “something to remember” for a grade school assignment: A plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

TWENTY YEARS. TWO DECADES. Two hundred and forty months.

Whatever words are attached to the time that has passed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the reality of that day in our nation’s history remains forever imprinted upon our collective memories.

On the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, a plaque honors an alumna who died on 9/11. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

That day changed us. It changed how we view each other and the world. The acts of those terrorists not only claimed lives, but our sense of security. Our sense of peace. And much more.

I remember well that September morning, how my then seven-year-old son and his friend Sam reacted to scenes unfolding on our television set. My husband had phoned me from work, alerting me to the attacks. I switched on the TV. And the boys saw it all, right alongside me. Perhaps I should have been a responsible mother/caregiver and turned off the television. But I didn’t.

I reconstructed a tower using the same blocks my son and his friend used on September 11, 2001, to duplicate what they saw on television. These are also the same airplanes they flew into the tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2001.

Soon Caleb and Sam were building twin towers with wooden blocks and flying toy airplanes into the skyscrapers. It was heart-breaking to watch. Both reality unfolding on the screen and then the re-enactment on my living room floor.

For a Minnesota mom geographically far-removed from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, none of this seemed distant. I felt the collective fear. I felt the collective pain. I felt the collective grief.

A memorial at the Faribault Fire Department honoring those who died on 9/11. The department will host a commemoration this Saturday, September 11, beginning at 7:46 am. That includes a welcome by the fire chief, a flag presentation, ringing of the bell and a brief eulogy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

Today I remember, 20 years later, those who died. The families left without loved ones. The heroes. And those two little boys who saw, yet didn’t fully-understand, the events unfolding far from Minnesota. Yet too close.

Here’s a poem I wrote shortly after September 11, 2001:

September 11, 2001

You clutch your silver toy jetliners

then blast them into the twin towers,

blocks scattering across the floor.

Like that show on TV,

you tell me,

where the planes crashed

into those two tall buildings.

—————————————-

Somehow I must tell you

that this was no show on TV,

but real people

in real buildings.

Moms and Dads

with little boys just like you,

boys who build towers and fly toy airplanes.

—————————————————————

How do I begin to show you the truth

behind a scene so terrifying

that it keeps replaying in my mind?

Hollywood could have written the script,

the latest disaster film, grossing millions

for an industry embedded in itself.

You’re right; this could be a show on TV.

———————————————————-

Except this is very real,

so real that I want you to believe

those were just pretend buildings, pretend airplanes.

But you see the worry in my eyes,

hear the sadness in my voice.

You know the truth,

even before I tell you.

——————————-

My son, only seven years old,

too young to fully understand

the evil that has invaded the world,

the fear that grips the American heart, my heart,

the sense of security forever lost.

Like so many blocks scattered across the floor,

we must pick up the pieces and rebuild, peace by peace.

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Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections on this season of spring in Minnesota March 29, 2021

In this file photo, snow edges the patio as I’m about to hang laundry on the clothesline in early spring.

WHEN I STEP OUTSIDE to hang sheets and towels on the clothesline, I feel such gratitude for the arrival of spring in southern Minnesota. Winter gets long in these parts.

Crocuses are in full bloom in my front yard flowerbed.

I long for sunshine and blue skies and more light than darkness. Birds tweeting. Crocuses unfolding and tulips stretching above the earth. And no more freezing my fingers while hanging laundry in the morning. Early spring brings all of those.

Laundry on my clothesline. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I love hanging laundry outside. The rhythm of pulling items from the laundry basket then clipping and repeating soothes me. The physical task gives pause in my day, reconnects me with generations of women who did the same, connects me to nature via the warmth of the sun and the music of birds.

And then, when I reverse the task in the afternoon and carry the air-dried laundry indoors, I breathe in the scent of nature. The air of spring.

A biker swings his bike onto Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street past the Rice County Courthouse on a recent warm spring afternoon.

For others, spring signals biking season. And plenty of bikers have been out and about. Some even earlier, in winter.

My grandson hopscotching in his two-year-old way.

And the kids, oh, the kids. Taking them outside is so much easier with no snowpants or snowboots to pull on. Randy and I played with our grandkids in the driveway of their home last weekend with Izzy circling on her bike and Isaac jumping, rather than hopping, on chalked hopscotch squares. Then we headed to the neighborhood park with Izzy zooming ahead on her bike and me pushing her brother in the stroller, trying to keep up, but failing. At the playground, we pushed both kids in the swings with Isaac calling for “higher.”

Always the first flower of spring in my yard. The beautiful crocus.

How wonderful this time with our grandkids. To be in the moment. To feel their joy. To watch them soar and climb. To hear them laugh. To experience their delight. I feel blessed in this season of life.

TELL ME about your joyful spring moments.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections from Minnesota, in images & words June 4, 2020

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This photo of a 1960s print can represent chaos. Or it can also represent diversity and how we are all connected by our human-ness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS I CONSIDER THE EVENTS of the past week, thoughts and images flash. There’s so much to take in. The death of a black man in the hands of Minneapolis police. The protests that followed, initially violent but now mostly peaceful. At least in Minnesota. Scenes of buildings burning, looting, destruction. Crowds pulsing along streets and interstates. Police and National Guard massing.

 

I photographed this photo at an exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail,” at St. Olaf College in 2015. Those viewing the exhibit were invited to take Polaroid shots of the exhibit and add their thoughts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

And in all of it, the voices. Rising.

 

A vintage tray with a simple message. Peace. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo November 2015.

 

As I reflect on this, I think about the thousands of photos I’ve taken through the years that relate to the issues of today. And so I gathered a few of those to create a photo cloud of sorts.

 

Hands-on art created at July Family Night in Faribault to me symbolizes our diversity in the colors and patterns created by this young artist. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2019.

 

I share these in the spirit of humanity. Not to invite discord or to stir up political debate. I dislike conflict. Rather, let’s consider words like community, togetherness, positive change, peaceful dialogue, respect, justice, peace… Healing.

 

Photographed in August 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, I appreciated this message showcased in my diverse community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

No matter our skin color, our faith (or not), our education, our backgrounds, we each have the ability to be decent and kind and loving.

 

Photographed at LARK Toys in Kellogg, these two words resonate with me. Be kind. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I recognize the issues are much more complex and deeply rooted. But we must start somewhere.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on 2019 December 31, 2019

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Minnesota Prairie Roots edited sunset photo from February 2013.

 

ON THE CUSP of the new year, the final day of 2019 represents a day of reflection.

For me, the year past proved among the most challenging of my life. Situations stretched my strength. My patience. My endurance. My ability to cope.

I learned that I am stronger than I ever thought possible. I learned that I can be persistent and pushy and advocate for those I love. I learned to never give up hope, to rely on God (more than I already had) and that something good can come from difficulties.

I also experienced the goodness of so many people. Prayers. Compassionate words and actions and gifts. All uplifted me. Cards in the mail. Gift cards. Food. Help with medical expenses. Several unexpected Christmas gifts. Hugs. Visits. Texts and emails and phone calls of care.

I felt loved. And that helped me get through those days when I felt overwhelmed by circumstances and all I had to do as a mother, a daughter, a sister.

This past year is one I am ready to see gone. It was that hard. Not everything is all better. But as I step into 2020, I do so as a woman made stronger by that which I’ve endured. And survived.

TELL ME: How was your 2019? How have you changed/grown/experienced the goodness of others?

© Copyright 2019 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

 

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