Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reuniting after a year of separation March 15, 2021

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The main street through Belview, Minnesota.

WE ARRIVED NEARLY A HALF HOUR early in the small southwestern Minnesota community. But I didn’t want to be late for my scheduled 10:30 am visit. So, after a brief tour around Belview and stopping for several photo ops, Randy pulled the van into the parking lot next to the low-slung building adjoining the city park.

I slid the back passenger side door open, camera secured over my shoulder, and grabbed a cloth tote bag from the seat. Inside I’d stashed several family photos, my bible, a devotional and two pictures colored by my nearly 5-year-old granddaughter. Randy eased out a vase of flowers secured in a bucket.

Our destination. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Then we headed across the parking lot on this Saturday morning in March, aiming west a short distance to the front entry. I looked for the doorbell I was told to ring. I pushed the button. We waited, the cold prairie wind sweeping around the care center. I shivered. Randy punched the button again. Peering through the double glass doors, I saw figures at the far end of the hallway. Soon a woman approached and invited us inside. I leaned into the heavy interior door, barely able to push its weight inward.

Once in the building, staff checked us in, took our temps, asked if we were experiencing any symptoms of illness. Apparently I didn’t answer. “If you were, you wouldn’t be here, right?” the young aide prompted. I nodded. Then I grabbed the goggles I was told to take and slipped them over my prescription eyeglasses with some hesitancy.

AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT

That’s when I saw her. My mom. Staff wheeling her across the carpet toward me. A short distance from her room to our designated meeting spot in the day room. In that moment, profound emotions overtook me and I cried. Not uncontrollable crying. But crying that represented a year of separation. One year had passed since I last saw Mom face-to-face. “Are you OK?” a staffer asked with concern.

I was. And I wasn’t. I understood that I needed to pull myself together, that this was not about me and how I felt, but about my mom. My arms ached to reach out and hug her, to hold her hand, to touch her and never let go. To kiss her cheeks.

RECONNECTING

Staff wheeled Mom to the end of a table in the day room. Randy and I were advised to keep a six-foot distance. We knew enough to keep our masks on. A screen provided some privacy. But I was cognizant of people occasionally moving on the other side. Yet, it really didn’t matter. I was here. In the same room with my sweet mom. Randy and I would have 15 minutes with her together before he had to leave and I could move into her room for a compassionate care visit. Mom is in hospice.

Mom’s health is such that conversation with her is one-sided. Us talking. Her listening, if she could hear us over the whir of her oxygen machine. Randy and I talked in raised voices. And when I showed her photos of my grandchildren, her great grandchildren, the skin around her eyes crinkled, indicating a smile beneath her face mask. There were more smiles and moments of connection, of understanding, of recognition. And those were enough to bring me joy. And her, too. I could see it in her reaction.

When Randy told Mom goodbye, she didn’t understand why he had to leave. Mercifully, her cognition and memory are such that she doesn’t comprehend COVID and all that entails, including the reason we haven’t seen her face-to-face in exactly one year.

CURIOUS GEORGE AND GOOD SAMARITANS AND A SMILEY FACE

Mom holds her Curious George.

We moved to her room, me carrying the vase of vivid flowers. Once there, I asked the aide to switch off the Curious George DVD playing on the TV. Mom was already fixated on the cartoon, which she loves. A stack of DVDs featuring the mischievous monkey rested on a table below the television and a stuffed animal Curious George sat on a recliner in the corner. I picked it up and gave it to her and Mom cuddled the monkey on her lap.

I looked around her room, bulletin boards crammed with family photos. I commented on the picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd that graced her bedroom wall on the farm. And I admired the bright over-sized smiley face posted on the bathroom door and felt gratitude to my aunt and uncle, who live just blocks away, for making this for Mom. Below, I saw a picture of a dog fish colored by my granddaughter in a rainbow of hues.

I talked with Mom about cream cheese roll-out cookies and my older brother sneaking ice cream from the freezer and eating it atop the haystack. She laughed. I talked about how she worked so hard to raise a family of six children and that now it was time for her to rest. Occasionally her eyes fluttered shut and I could tell she was growing tired. I continued to talk on other topics, although I’m uncertain how much she heard or comprehended. Yet, I have to think my mere presence, the sound of my voice, comforted her.

A staffer popped in for a moment, praising Mom for eating her pancake and drinking her juice and milk at breakfast. “Good job, Mom,” I said, feeling like I was the mom and she the child. And, in many ways, that would be accurate.

Soon the staffer returned and handed me a sheet of paper and said Mom might like it if I read some of the information thereon. My eyes landed on a story about Neil Sedaka, then quickly shifted to an article about National Good Samaritan Day on March 13. I scanned the piece, chose tidbits to share about the Good Samaritan parable from the bible. To show kindness. To help others. It seemed fitting for this day, in this small town care center where staff show great compassion. I will always feel grateful to the healthcare workers and other staff who have cared for my mom like a family member.

SAYING GOODBYE

The smiley face poster, from Mom’s in-laws, on the exterior bathroom door.

As time ticked toward 11:30 and lunch and the end of my hour-long allotted visit, I knew I needed to leave. “I have to go. Maybe next time I can take you outside so you can hear the birds, see the trees.” Mom smiled beneath her face mask. “I love you, Mom.” Tears brimmed.

“I love you,” she replied. Her words felt like a hug, a kiss. Bringing us together after a year of separation caused by a pandemic.

In the doorway I stopped, turned for one final look at Mom. “I love you,” I repeated, then crossed the lobby to the staffer monitoring the front door. “I’ll need you to sign out,” she said. By then I was already crying, barely able to find a pen to note my departure time. I thanked her, observed the compassion in her eyes.

Then I walked into the sunshine of an incredibly beautiful Saturday in March in southwestern Minnesota. I turned left toward the parking lot where Randy waited. I opened the van door, swung onto the seat, removed my face mask and then sobbed uncontrollably, shoulders heaving, face in my hands. Emotionally-exhausted.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Happiness November 9, 2018

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This photograph was taken at a Helbling Family Reunion in August 2017, the last time our three adult children were all back home in Faribault. Here my husband and granddaughter play bean bag toss. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

TWO FLY IN from Boston. One drives 260 miles from Madison, Wisconsin. Three arrive from an hour away.

They will all be here on Saturday. In my southern Minnesota home. It will be the first time in 15 months that we have all been together—our once nuclear family plus a son-in-law, a granddaughter and the son’s girlfriend.

I cannot wait.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating family at the annual Kletscher reunion in southwestern Minnesota July 30, 2013

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Referees watch over the competition in which contestants filled cups, attached to their feet, with popcorn and raced to fill ice cream buckets.

Referees watch over the competition in which contestants fill cups, attached to their feet, with popcorn and race to fill ice cream buckets.

THIS YEAR THEY CALLED in the referees to control the competitors.

The competitors would be the descendants (and spouses) of Henry and Ida Kletscher, gathered on Sunday afternoon in the Vesta City Park for the annual family reunion. My aunts and uncles and cousins and their kids and their kids’ kids; my mom; four of my siblings and two of their spouses; and a single nephew.

P)lating food at the potluck meal spread across several picnic tables in the Vesta City Park shelter.

Plating food at the potluck meal spread across several picnic tables in the Vesta City Park shelter.

My first plate of food. I made sure to grab a piece of the blueberry dessert, which my Aunt Elaine brings each year. Wait too long and you miss out on a piece.

My first plate of food. I made sure to grab a piece of the blueberry dessert, which my Aunt Marilyn brings each year. Wait too long and you miss out on a piece.

Fueled by a potluck meal, preschoolers to my 90-year-old Aunt Elaine participated in an afternoon of organized competitive activities ranging from puzzle making to relay races to nail pounding to Kletscher family trivia.

In the flag race, contestants carry flags from one ice cream bucket to another.

In the flag race, contestants carry flags from one ice cream bucket to another.

Laughter erupted. Legs pounded the parched and hardened lawn. Good-natured kidding abounded.

Winners in the puzzle making competition celebrate.

Winners in the puzzle making competition celebrate. Contestants assembled 25-piece puzzles.

Teams cheered.

My cousin Greg cheats in the popcorn game in which contestants were supposed to fill cups. attached to their feet, with popcorn. He found his hands to work much better.

My cousin Greg cheats in the popcorn game in which contestants were supposed to fill cups, attached to their feet, with popcorn. He found his hands to work much better.

Cheating ran rampant, despite the two referees, who couldn’t possibly spot every rule infringement.

That would be my Aunt Janice helping to fill a squirt gun.

That would be my Aunt Janice filling a squirt gun.

In order to protect my camera, I keep my distance from the water balloon toss.

In order to protect my camera, I keep my distance from the water balloon toss.

I stepped back from the water balloon toss, dodged squirt gun fire, held my camera above the chaos to photograph the competition.

The games begin with assembling 25-piece puzzles.

The games begin with assembling 25-piece puzzles.

To a distant passerby, the goings-on may have appeared crazy and chaotic and perhaps worthy of a call to the Redwood County Sheriff’s Department.

In the nail driving contest, entrants had one minute to pound as many nails as they could into a section of wood.

In the nail driving contest, entrants had one minute to pound as many nails as they could into a section of wood.

But I observed fun—a family connecting and building memories.

Team Red poses for a photo.

Team Red poses for a photo.

In many ways, the reunion took me back to decades earlier and evenings of gathering at the farms of extended family members to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Then I was the kid, the girl racing across a pitch black farm yard playing “Starlight Moonlight” with my cousins—connecting, building memories.

In this game, competitors soak up water with sponges and race to fill ice cream buckets.

In this game, competitors soak up water with sponges and race to fill ice cream buckets.

Today I am the photographer, capturing those memories, reveling in the blessings of belonging to a family that cares enough to come together every July in a rural southwestern Minnesota city park a skip over gravel roads from acres of cropland.

My Aunt Jeanette holds one of her newest great grandsons, who traveled from near Milwaukee with his parents and twin brother to attend the reunion. I'm guessing this is 5-month-old Landon.

My Aunt Jeanette holds one of her newest great grandsons, who traveled from near Milwaukee with his parents and twin brother to attend the reunion. At five months, Landon (or Garrett, I’m unsure which twin) is among the youngest of Henry and Ida Kletscher’s descendants. This image was shot at the Saturday evening get together. In recent years the reunion expanded to begin on Saturday evening, resuming with the Sunday noon potluck. Games were also added within the past five years to keep the young people coming and to mingle the generations.

This the land of our forefathers, the home of our hearts, the place where family memories are rooted, here on the prairie.

CHECK BACK FOR MORE photos of family reunion fun.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reunion stories: A rabbit tale and a tale of murder August 30, 2010

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THIS WEEKEND my husband, Randy, and I attended mini high school class reunions, albeit impromptu ones.

On Saturday afternoon I met a Wabasso High School graduate while touring Betsy’s house in Mankato. That would be Betsy Ray, as in Maud Hart Lovelace’s main character in her Betsy-Tacy books. Betsy is Maud, who really did live in the restored Center Street house now owned by the Betsy-Tacy Society.

But back to that reunion. Penny, our tour guide, asked where I grew up and I responded, “between Redwood Falls and Marshall” since few people have ever heard of my hometown, Vesta.

Imagine my surprise when Penny says she graduated from Wabasso High School, about 20 miles from my hometown.

“I graduated from Wabasso High School too.”

That led to a bit of reminiscing between me, a 1974 grad, and Penny, a 1964 WHS graduate. Because of our 10-year age span, we didn’t know each other during our school days. Yet, we share that common bond of attending the small-town high school with the white rabbit mascot.

“Another white rabbit,” Penny says several times. Just as an explanation, the town’s name originated in an Indian legend about the creation of the earth. Wabasso, a son of the mighty creator of nations, fled north and was changed into a white rabbit. He was considered a great spirit. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even writes about Wabasso in his The Song of Hiawatha poem.

A white rabbit statue sits along Minnesota Highway 68 in Wabasso.

But I digress. Penny and I enjoyed our new-found white rabbit connection and our shared love for the Betsy-Tacy books. And then we discovered one more link. Penny taught German at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. I attended the college and, at one time, intended to major in German.

Now, flash forward to Sunday afternoon, when Randy and I are at a reunion of The Trinity King’s softball team. It’s been a day of remembering root beer barrels (the team drink), belly bumps (exactly what you think) and an injured leg splinted with softball bats.

Then Jane and Larry show up. Larry subbed a few times with the team, so we never really knew him. But as the conversation ebbs and flows, we learn that Jane graduated in 1969 from Pierz Healy High School, Randy’s alma mater. Randy graduated in 1974 with Jane’s sister, Nancy.

Soon the two are tossing out family names and memories with the ease of those who grew up in the same geographical area.

Then I mention the murder. One day after classes, a school librarian used his necktie to strangle a student in the audio-visual room. Jane tells us her brother was working in the adjoining room at the time of the late 1960s murder, but heard nothing.

Revelation of this horrendous crime to outsiders always draws the same reaction—stunned disbelief. How could this happen in a school? But it did.

As the Pierz Healy High School graduates continue to discuss other common topics, I wonder: What happened to the murderer/librarian? Is he out of prison? Is he still alive?

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling