Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One Minnesota family’s emotional story: Graduating during COVID-19 May 20, 2020

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2016.

 

FOR WEEKS, WE’VE HEARD and read news stories about the Class of 2020 and the disappointment students feel in missing out on so much of their senior year due to COVID-19. It is the tradition of the graduation ceremony, complete with caps, gowns, speeches and “Pomp and Circumstance,” that seems the greatest loss. And the gathering of family and friends afterward to celebrate.

 

Graduates toss their caps following a past graduation ceremony at Faribault High School. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

All of that said, schools are getting creative with their celebrations. Faribault High School is planning a Graduation Drive Thru to award diplomas. That includes inviting students, over the next two weeks, to walk across an outdoor stage and pose for photos with cut-outs of the school superintendent, principal and others. This will be pulled together in a video for a virtual graduation ceremony.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Westbrook-Walnut Grove High School graduation in 2010.

 

Down in the extreme southwestern corner of Minnesota, Worthington High School is also planning a virtual graduation ceremony followed by a car parade. One vehicle per graduate and family. Rural Nobles County is among the hardest hit in our state by COVID-19 following a virus outbreak in a meat-packing plant. In a county of just under 22,000, there have been 1,394 confirmed cases of the virus (as of Tuesday).

But this isn’t just another list of statistics. My friend Gretchen and her family live in Worthington. And eldest daughter, Katie, graduates this month as valedictorian of the WHS Class of 2020. She is heartbroken. Her mom also feels the emotional let-down of this long-anticipated day.

Gretchen is also an exceptional writer. When I asked her to write about graduation for the blogging ministry I lead at Warner Press, she quickly agreed. The result is a powerful post that tells her family’s story with uncut, raw emotion. I invite you to click here and read through the pain, the disappointment and then, the words of a high school grad wise beyond her years. I promise, you will feel moved by this family’s story. A story that personalizes the challenges for the Class of 2020 in a way you will remember.

 

A Tufts University graduate decorated her graduation hat in 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo. There will be no high school or college graduation ceremonies like these this year.

 

I encourage you to leave a comment for Katie and Gretchen on the Warner Press blog post or on the Warner Press Facebook page in addition to here. I am grateful to my friend and her daughter for sharing their thoughts. It is stories like theirs that reveal how COVID-19 is affecting the Class of 2020 in a deeply heart-wrenching way.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections after 38 years of marriage May 15, 2020

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My husband, Randy, and I exit St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta following our May 15, 1982, wedding. Photo by William’s Studio, Redwood Falls.

 

TODAY RANDY AND I CELEBRATE our 38th wedding anniversary. He is taking the day off from his job as an automotive machinist. It’s a much-needed break in this, his especially busy season. COVID-19 or not, vehicles, tractors, recreational toys and more still need repair. And rare are the specialists like Randy who do this type of work anymore. It’s labor intensive, demanding and requires knowledge that comes from decades of experience.

But I digress. Today is our anniversary, a day to reflect on our marriage and each other, not on a global pandemic and work.

 

MAY 15, 1982

Thirty-eight years ago, I married Randy in my small southwestern Minnesota home church, surrounded by family and friends. The ceremony included singing of my favorite hymn, “Beautiful Savior,” by the congregation and a solo of “O, Perfect Love” by a friend. The selected scripture reading was Genesis 2:22-24. There are no recordings of our wedding service, only still photos and a worship service bulletin. And memories.

 

The Vesta Hall, a community gathering place in my hometown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

After the ceremony at St. John’s Lutheran, we gathered at the Vesta Community Hall a few blocks away for a meal catered by HyVee, followed by socializing and then a dance, with a live band. There was nothing fancy about any of this. Strips of twisted crepe paper and vases of single carnations decorated long tables. My cousins waited on guests, green and yellow gingham cotton aprons, stitched by me, protecting their dresses. Diners sat on metal folding chairs pulled up to uncovered tables.

Randy and I toasted with green punch my mom prepared. Randy still reminds me of the putrid hue. Hey, our colors were green and yellow. Not John Deere shades, though. We posed for photos with our three-layered wedding cake with my husband insisting we not smash cake into each other’s faces. I’m thankful for that request. Smart guy.

Afterward, we danced across the worn wooden floor, twirling and linking arms and enjoying the evening with family and friends. I kicked off the ballet style shoes that pinched my toes. Around midnight we left for the short drive to nearby Marshall and a hotel room that reeked of cigar smoke. Funny how you remember details like that.

 

MAY 15, 2020

Fast forward to today. It seems unfathomable that 38 years have passed since our May 15, 1982, wedding. Three kids and two grandkids later, here we are, much older, much more seasoned in life. When I think on all that’s transpired in nearly four decades, I feel especially thankful for Randy. He remains the calm and steady man I married, a good balance for me.

 

Me, next to my poem, River Stories, posted along the River Walk in Mankato as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Photo by Randy Helbling, November 2019.

 

Together we have grieved the loss of parents and other loved ones, dealt with family crisis, faced health issues, raised a family, found joy in the simple things in life, been there for one another. When he married me 38 years ago, I doubt Randy ever envisioned attending poetry readings. But he has, many times, supporting me in my writing. That says a lot for a guy who likely never cracked open a poetry book before marrying a writer. I appreciate, too, that Randy supports my photography, sometimes even pointing out photo ops I miss.

We both enjoy country drives, small towns, craft breweries, summer concerts in the park, church dinners, time with our grown children and now, especially, our sweet grandchildren. I’ve learned to like car shows, but not for the same reasons as Randy. While he’s looking under hoods, I’m looking at hood ornaments, appreciating the artistic aspect of vintage vehicles. He enjoys reading historical non-fiction. I prefer fiction. He does Sudoku. I tried once, but failed miserably. Our interests are similar, yet separate.

 

Randy grills nearly every weekend year-round. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I appreciate Randy’s many talents, from his grilling skills (and, yes, he even grills veggies like Brussels sprouts and broccoli for me) to his ability to fix almost any mechanical issue with our vehicles to his compassion in “leading” Sunday morning video church services at a local nursing home (pre-COVID).

My love for Randy remains as strong as 38 years ago. Changed, yes. But not at its core. We have done life together. Celebrated good times and, together, managed many difficult times. He has been there for me and I for him. For 38 years. And for that I am grateful.

© 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

 

Mother’s Day 2020 from southern Minnesota May 8, 2020

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Me with my mom during a January visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling.

 

I STOOD BEFORE THE CARD RACK at the dollar store, pink cotton print mask covering my face, eyes scanning the choices before me. I filtered through a few Mother’s Day cards before choosing one for my eldest daughter and one for my mom.

It was an emotional moment for me as I selected the card to send to my mom, who lives in a senior care center 120 miles away in southwestern Minnesota. I last saw her on March 7, the weekend before Parkview closed to visitors to protect them from COVID-19.

Mom is on hospice, which makes a difficult situation even more emotionally challenging. How do you work through the guilt of not being there for your mom when she most needs family? How? The intellectual part of me understands the closure. The “I love my mom” side does not.

So I stood there, in front of that display rack of flowery cards with sweet messages, and considered that this could be the last time I would buy a Mother’s Day card for Mom. I wanted to rip off that mask and plop down on the floor and cry away my pain in heart-wrenching sobs. Because that’s how I felt. Overcome with sadness.

But, instead, I clutched my two cards and walked to the check-out lane, strips of orange tape marking social distancing lines on the worn carpet. I waited while the cashier scanned the biggest pile of merchandise I’ve ever seen a shopper purchase at a dollar store. I tried to be patient and wait my turn while an unmasked young woman edged closer to me, closer than my comfort level. It didn’t help that I’d just heard someone coughing repeatedly minutes earlier.

I recognize my heightened awareness created by COVID-19. I recognize, too, my heightened emotions. I considered for a moment just leaving the cards and walking out of the store. But I wanted, needed, to get the card for Mom without another visit to another store and more possible virus exposure.

So I refocused, wondering about that heap of merchandise the masked woman ahead of me was buying. Teacher, I thought to myself, then asked, “You must be buying for a bunch of kids?” Her answer surprised me. She was not. The goods were rewards for potty training. I nearly laughed aloud. Not because of the concept. But because of the sheer volume of rewards purchased for a preschooler who might just be smart enough to manipulate Mom.

Humor got me through that check-out line and out the door with a card for my mom and another for my daughter. Memories will carry me through this Mother’s Day as I think of Mom. Still here on this earth, yet so far away.

To all of you who have lost your moms, I am sorry. To those of you who still have your moms, cherish them. And to those of you who are mothers, like me, Happy Mother’s Day!

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The progression of COVID-19 in Minnesota & my thoughts May 6, 2020

The marquee at the Paradise Center for the Arts, photographed on March 17, 2020. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

A SERIES OF PHOTOS I’ve taken in historic downtown Faribault represent, in many ways, a visual timeline documentation of the progression of COVID-19 in Minnesota.

Just three days after touring the annual Faribault Area Student Art Exhibit and shopping the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market at the Paradise Center for the Arts, I photographed this message on the PCA marquee:

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 17, 2020.

 

That was 10 days before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issued his initial Stay-at-Home executive order. On the date of that first photo, March 17, the state was already shutting down due to the global pandemic that has changed every facet of our lives. Among the closures, our local center for the arts.

 

PCA marquee photographed on April 11, 2020. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I next photographed the marquee on April 11, when the “closed until” date had changed to May 1.

 

Photographed on April 19, 2020. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

And then, only eight days later, I stopped to photograph the marquee message again. This time no “closed until” date was noted. Rather, the posted words offer encouragement. That seems the best approach. One of hopefulness, of unity and of strength rather than focusing on dates that continue to change.

None of us really knows how long COVID-19 will be around, although every indication is that it will be here for a long time. Infection and deaths are rising at a rapid rate here in Minnesota. Yes, testing has increased, resulting in higher numbers. But so has the spread. Just ask my friend who lives in Worthington. Or my extended family who live in Stearns County. Even in my county of Rice, which still has a low rate—30 positive cases as of Tuesday—in comparison to many other counties, numbers are on the rise.

 

A helpful reminder posted on the Paradise Center for the Arts marquee. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

 

These are difficult days for so many of us. My heart breaks for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Like my friends Raquel and Bob. Randy and I are concerned about my mom and his dad, both in the high risk elderly group living in care centers. But worry doesn’t fix anything. So we do what we can to tamp our fears, use common sense, and try to keep ourselves and others safe. We aren’t gathering with family or friends. We limit our travel to local. Shop only for necessities. Wear masks. Social distance. Wash our hands often and use hand sanitizer.

 

Posted in the front window of the Paradise Center for the Arts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2020.

 

But this is about much more than just our individual behavior. The current marquee message at the Paradise states, WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Our choices, our actions, our decisions affect others. Our families, friends, neighbors, strangers… That, I believe, is especially important to remember during this global pandemic. This is about the health and safety of all of us.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Lean on me or let me lean on you April 28, 2020

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A portrait I took of my mom during my last visit with her in early March. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

 

I HIT A WALL late yesterday afternoon. Maybe you’ve reached that point. Maybe not. But, after weeks of shelter-in-place and concern for loved ones, I felt overwhelmed.

A health update on my mom, who is in hospice in a care center 120 miles distant, caused sadness to sweep over me. I long to see her, to be there for her in the final stages of her life. But I can’t. And that breaks my heart. Then, I thought, how selfish of me. She is the one without family surrounding her. Not me. She is the one who is alone. Not me. So I re-framed my thinking, feeling gratitude for the last time I visited her, the weekend prior to care centers closing to visitors. What a gift.

 

I love this message in the Second Street pocket garden in downtown Faribault. It’s a wonderful reminder to love one another. I photographed this just the other day.

 

And then I called my uncle and updated him on his sister and talked to him about my aunt, his wife, who is undergoing chemo for terminal cancer. We discussed the challenges of this situation during COVID-19. And, in that conversation, we talked also about Zoom and mashed potatoes and gravy, and phoning his cousin, a pork producer. Laughter mingled with near tears.

I thought of his hog farmer cousin and all the other farmers facing unprecedented challenges now with regional meat processing plants shutting down and no place to send animals. And I considered my friend and her family in Worthington, a community in southwestern Minnesota hard hit by COVID-19. Nobles County, with a population of some 22,000, had 399 confirmed cases of the virus on Monday, most traced to a local meatpacking plant. No place is exempt. I worry about my friend…

We are all dealing with something, right? Missing family. Job loss. Concern about loved ones living in care centers with diagnosed cases of COVID. Grieving, like friends who last week lost a sister/sister-in-law to COVID and an uncle to a farm accident. It’s a lot.

 

My prayer list, written on a whiteboard propped against the entertainment center in my living room. This photo is from a few weeks ago. I update this list nearly daily with some names/concerns removed, others added.

 

In all of this, the need to support and love one another seems more important than ever. I’ve found myself reaching out and connecting every day with friends and family dealing with situations that are difficult any time, but even more so now. Mental illness. Cancer. Unemployment. I try to listen and encourage. And I continue to pray, updating my whiteboard daily by adding new names of those in need of prayer.

We’ll all get through this. I know we will. But there are days when we will struggle, when we will feel overwhelmed, when we will grieve and even feel angry. On those days, especially those days, I reach out to others. Not for sympathy, but to be that person they can lean on.

TELL ME: Are you struggling at times? How do you handle those moments? And how are you helping others? I’d like to hear, because we can all learn from one another as we continue to deal with this global pandemic and the resulting challenges.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Welcoming spring in southern Minnesota April 24, 2020

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Photographed in Faribault’s North Alexander Park, along the shore of the Cannon River.

 

THIS TIME OF YEAR in Minnesota, after six-plus months of cold and grey, we welcome the greening of the land.

 

A patch of green in the woods along a recreational trail in Faribault.

 

Slowly, on those days when the sun shines with warmth and strength, dormant grasses and plants push through the earth.

 

Singled out in the woods.

 

Buds form.

 

A duck swims at Two Rivers Park in Faribault, where the Cannon and Straight Rivers join.

 

Rivers, now free of ice, flow. And waterfowl paddle the waters, hug the shorelines. Nesting.

 

Photographed recently from the Rice County Courthouse lawn, bikers on Fourth Street/Minnesota State Highway 60.

 

People, too, are breaking free of winter constraints with motorcycles pulled from storage and now roaring down streets and highways.

 

Here the Straight River Trail in Faribault crosses the Cannon River.

 

Recreational trails offer a natural respite from everything. A place to walk or jog or bike. A place to just get away from it all for awhile. To take a mental break and renew one’s spirit.

 

A scene in North Alexander Park, near the Cannon River.

 

Quieter spots exist, too, to sit for awhile. Not to contemplate that which we’ve lost. But to embrace that which we still have—a world greening with spring in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling