Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Buried in snow March 26, 2013

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I WANTED TO VISIT his grave, touch the cold stone with my gloved hands, allow my eyes to linger on his name, to remember my dad, dead 10 years now on April 3.

A trip back to my hometown to visit my mom had thrown me into a temporary melancholy mood as I lounged on her loveseat, head crooked into a pillow, legs angled up as we talked about aging and death and funerals (too many recently).

When I mentioned that I’d often thought about the safety layers of generations separating me from death, my husband glanced at me like I was crazy. My 80-year-old mom understood, though.

The road past the Vesta Cemetery, which sits just outside of this southwestern Minnesota town of some 330.

The road past the Vesta Cemetery, left, which sits just outside of this southwestern Minnesota town of some 330. You can see a portion of Vesta’s grain complex to the right.

Later, she stayed back at her house while Randy and I drove out to the cemetery, to honor my dad whose gravesite I do not visit often enough because busyness and blizzards have kept me from the prairie in recent months.

We headed north out of town along Cemetery Road, tires crunching on gravel, toward the cemetery edged by evergreen trees. At my feet, the short black snowboots I’d borrowed from my mom bumped against my legs.

Some of the gravestones are barely peeking out of the snow.

Some of the gravestones are barely peeking out of the snow.

I wondered aloud whether the cemetery roads would be plowed of snow swept in by prairie winds. A few blocks later I spotted waves of snow washing over tombstones and roadways. I could not reach my dad’s grave without snowshoes or a snowmobile.

The closest I would get to my dad's grave was viewing the cemetery through t

The closest I would get to my dad’s grave was viewing the cemetery through the van windows.

We eased past the cemetery, drove down to the first farm place to the north, turned around in the driveway and crept past the cemetery again, back into town.

I carried my mom’s boots inside, snugged them into a corner of her kitchen, before reclaiming my place on her loveseat.

I told her about the tombstones buried in snow. Then we talked about dad’s funeral—the bitter cold of that April day, the cutting wind.

And I remembered, although I did not speak this, how I’d perched on a hard folding chair in that hilltop cemetery 10 years ago, leaned toward my mother shivering in cold and in grief, and wrapped my arm around her.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The veterans of Vesta May 30, 2011

A flag placed on a veteran's grave at the Vesta Cemetery in southwestern Minnesota.


On this Memorial Day weekend, I have come to this hilltop cemetery outside of my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota to remember.

I walk the rows, between the tombstones, lean in close, read the names, memories only a thought away.

My focus is on my father and the other veterans buried here whose names I know, whose stories of war I will never fully know.

An in-ground marker honors my father, Elvern Kletscher, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.

How did they feel leaving family and farm? Were they scared? Were they honored to serve their country? Did they yearn for home as they shouldered their weapons? Did they leave as boys, come home as men? Were they scarred by war, forever changed?

I wondered as strong prairie winds whipped flags attached to white wooden crosses. So many flags. So many graves of men who’ve served.

If only I’d asked them to tell me their stories, these men whom I’d never thought of as soldiers, until I saw their graves marked by crosses and stars and American flags.

The local American Legion marks veterans' graves with white crosses.

Barb Schmidt teaches her grandchildren about their ancestors as they place flowers on the graves of loved ones Saturday evening at the Vesta Cemetery.

Set atop a hill, the wind catches the flags marking vets' graves.

I was surprised by the number of veterans buried in the Vesta Cemetery, their graves marked by small flags attached to white crosses. This photo shows only one small portion of the graveyard.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling