Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflections upon 40 years of marriage May 13, 2022

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Wedding guests toss rice at Randy and me as we exit St. John’s Lutheran Church following our May 15, 1982, wedding. (Photo credit: William’s Studio, Redwood Falls)

FORTY YEARS. May 15, 2022, marks a milestone for Randy and me as we celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. Where did the years, then the decades, go?

Audrey and Randy, May 15, 1982. (Photo credit: William’s Studio)

It seems only yesterday I walked down the aisle of St. John’s Lutheran Church, my slim hand clenching my farmer father’s massive hand. I walked with confidence and joy in my $82 off-the-rack high-necked lace wedding dress from Maurices, floral wreath encircling my head, left hand holding a bouquet of yellow roses, daisies and babies breath with ballerina flats pinching my toes.

Randy waited there, before the altar, at the front of the rural southwestern Minnesota church. In his charcoal grey rental suit with matching bow tie accenting his white shirt, single yellow rose pinned to his lapel. He even managed to scrub the grease from his fingernails just for our wedding day. The proof is in the professional photo of our hands focusing our shiny wedding bands. I haven’t seen Randy’s fingernails that clean since given his job as an automotive machinist.

The Vesta Hall, a community gathering place in my hometown, and our wedding reception site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

While details of our wedding day aren’t as sharp as they once were, I have photos and my mom’s May 15, 1982, journal entry to refresh my memory. Mom noted that the supper of ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, fresh fruit salad, cabbage slaw, buns, relishes and beverages catered from Toni’s in nearby Marshall cost $2.65 a plate or $500 total. That covered the meal for 172, taxes and the cost of punch. Delicious punch, but in a putrid shade of green, as Randy reminds me to this day. Our colors were green and yellow.

Now, 40 years after that cool spring day which began with light rain opening to evening sunshine, it’s not details of the celebration which matter as much as the vows we made to each other before God, family and friends. For better or worse, in sickness and in health…

When you’re young—we were both not quite 26—and in love, the possibilities of challenges ahead seem unfathomable. But life happens with all its sorrows and joys and moments of incredible difficulties. And through all of those trying times, of which we’ve had plenty, Randy and I have stood together. We balance each other. He with calm. Me with organization and a plan of action. Our shared faith in God upholds us.

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

And now here we are, 40 years removed from our 2 pm wedding ceremony that included singing my favorite hymn, “Beautiful Savior,” with the congregation; listening to the pastor read Genesis 2:22-24; exchanging vows and rings; lighting the unity candle…

Randy in the automotive machine shop at NAPA Northfield, where he has worked for 39 years. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

Here we are, still united. United as loving parents of three children, now adults. United as loving grandparents of a 3 and 6-year-old. And united now in facing the unexpected loss of Randy’s job (due to a change in ownership and resulting closure of the automotive machine shop) after 39 years at the same workplace. It is yet another challenge to manage, to navigate. Together.

Randy, as cliché as it sounds, remains a rock of strength as he has throughout our marriage. I appreciate that about him, as much today as I did on May 15, 1982, the day I married the man I love. And still love.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A letter to Dad on Veterans Day November 11, 2021

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

DEAR DAD,

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to ask. And then to listen.

I’m sorry I didn’t recognize earlier that you were suffering.

I’m sorry I was too busy with my own life and family to realize that I could have, should have, tried to understand.

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 while killing a sniper. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2011)

Nearly 19 years have passed now since your burial, since that brutally cold early April day when I wrapped my arm around Mom in the wind-swept hilltop Vesta Cemetery. I felt her body shivering, shaking with grief as she accepted a folded American flag.

Moments like that imprint upon me as I remember you—husband, father, grandfather, son, brother…and veteran.

You were buried with military honors. The firing of guns. The mournful playing of taps. An in-ground military marker notes your final rank as a sergeant in the US Army. Awarded the Purple Heart, albeit 47 years after you were wounded on Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, left, with two of his soldier buddies in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

Today, on Veterans Day, I think of you. Honor you. And consider how fighting as a boots-on-the-ground combat soldier in the mountains of Korea forever changed you.

I recall the few stories you shared through the decades. You watched as a mortar killed your friend Ray, who was scheduled to leave Korea the next day. He left behind a wife and infant daughter. Dad, your grief led me to search for that “baby” two years after your death. I found Teri living in Iowa and with only minimal knowledge of her birth father. I have yet to meet her, but want to some day.

Some day. Days and weeks and months and years pass and then some day is too late. Now I hold a shoebox brimming with curled black-and-white photos and other items from your time in the Army. Your Selective Service System registration certificate. A well-worn mini black book of prayers, hymns and devotions from the Ladies Aid in Vesta. Faith and prayer carried you through many a hellish day and night in Korea.

On the back of this photo, my dad simply penned “a letter from home.” I appreciate this photo of my dad taken by an unknown buddy in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

In a letter to your parents, a copy tucked into a folder labeled “Korea” in my office file cabinet, you termed the war-torn Asian country a “hell hole.” Likewise, an over-sized embroidered decal declares “RETURNED FROM HELL.”

I have no doubt that war was hell for you. “Shoot or be shot,” I remember you saying. You spoke, too, of bitter cold, of hunger, of orphans begging for food across barbed wire fences. Of horrible war-time atrocities that I can’t bear to write here.

My dad carried this memorial service bulletin home from Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe. (From my father’s collection)

And then when you arrived home—bringing with you a folded memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea, dated July 31, 1953, and including your buddy Ray’s name—the horror and grief you experienced remained. But few, if any, acknowledged your struggles back then. You were expected to resume life as usual, returning to rural Minnesota to farm the land, to milk cows, to marry and raise a family. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not yet recognized.

I’m sorry, Dad. Sorry about the neighbor who laughed as you dove to the ground when a rifle fired during pheasant hunting.

I’m sorry, Dad, for the fear you felt when guns fired during a small town parade.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you like I should have been.

Near the end of your life, you found empathy and care in your veterans’ support group. That comforts me. Those men understood what you’d experienced. For that I am grateful. They provided the emotional support I failed to give you. I’m sorry, Dad. So sorry.

With love,

Audrey

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the backroads of Rice County with Mr. Bluebird August 17, 2021

Mr. Bluebird, Keith Radel. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

DOWN THE GRAVEL ROAD, I saw him exit the ditch, cross the roadway and then climb into his red pick-up truck.

A man on a mission, to save bluebirds. Those are nesting boxes in the truck bed. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

“That’s Keith,” I told Randy. Even from a distance I recognized the tall, lean profile of Keith Radel. Known as Mr. Bluebird, he travels the backroads of Rice County checking bluebird nests.

Keith puts on countless miles in his red pick-up truck. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Randy and I had just finished a short hike at the nearby Cannon River Wilderness Park when I spotted Keith on a gravel road in rural Dundas. We paused, his pick-up and our van pulled side-by-side, windows rolled down, the three of us conversing like farmers meeting on a rural road to talk crops.

Keith’s simple mission statement. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Except we were talking bluebirds. Not that I know much about these songbirds. But Keith, who’s been tracking, counting and caring for bluebirds for nearly 40 years, does. He’s relentless in his passion to assure this bird thrives. And that devotion drives him to drive miles upon endless miles to check nest boxes and count eggs and do whatever it takes to assure bluebird survival. Rice County has the most successful bluebird recovery program in Minnesota.

A nesting box for bluebirds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I didn’t take notes when we were talking, although I recall Keith saying major ice storms in Texas this year had a devastating effect on the current bluebird population. He keeps meticulous notes on each nesting box.

Bluebird eggs. We didn’t see any bluebirds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Mostly, I focused on being in the moment. When Keith offered to show us two bluebird nesting boxes just down the road, we didn’t hesitate, reversed course, our van following his truck in a trail of dust. Once parked, Keith led us down the side of a ditch, lifting the nest cylinder from its post to reveal three beautiful blue eggs inside. The next nest held only a single egg.

Keith checks a bluebird nest. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Soon we were on our way, Randy and I looking for a place to eat a picnic lunch and Keith continuing with his bluebird checks.

The personalized license plate on Keith’s pick-up truck. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

But there’s more to this story than that of a man sporting a MINNESOTA BLUEBIRD RECOVERY PROGRAM cap with a specialty BLUEBRD license plate and a window sticker on his pick-up that proclaims his mission, Helping Bluebirds. There’s a personal connection. Keith is from my hometown of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. He grew up north of town. I grew up south of town. Both of us on family farms.

I photographed this cornfield and farm site from the gravel road where we stopped with Keith to check a bluebird nesting box. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Place connects us. Most people in Rice County are clueless as to the location of Vesta, or even our home county of Redwood some 120 miles to the west. So whenever I see Keith, I feel this sense of connection to my home area, to the land. When we met on that gravel road on a July afternoon, Keith understood my need to exit Faribault, to follow gravel roads, to reconnect with the land. And, yes, even to look at the crops.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Wedding memories after 39 years May 14, 2021

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Wedding guests toss rice at Randy and me as we exit St. John’s Lutheran Church following our May 15, 1982, wedding. Photo by Williams Studio, Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

THIRTY-NINE YEARS AGO on May 15, Randy and I were married at St. John’s Lutheran Church in my hometown of Vesta. The church sits about a half-mile north of the crop and dairy farm where I grew up. Since few people have a clue as to my hometown’s location, here are general directions: Go west of Mankato, west of New Ulm, west of Redwood Falls and follow Minnesota State Highway 19 half-way to Marshall. Vesta is a short distance from the first curve curving south.

When I reflect on that Saturday in 1982, I remember how the morning began with light rain, how I worried about my $82 wedding dress from Maurice’s getting dirty on the gravel farm driveway. Photos from that day show the sidewalk to the church dampened by rain before the 2 pm ceremony and after, when guests lined the walkway to toss rice.

That exit photo is perhaps my favorite from our wedding day. The joy on our faces and that of our guests is in-the-moment natural. Journalistic style. Slice-of-life. While I value the posed professional portraits, I especially value this celebratory image. When I study it, I see loved ones who are no longer living. My Grandma Kletscher back in the corner, daisy corsage pinned to her dress, snow white hair spilling from her red scarf. My bachelor uncle, Mike, dressed to the nines in a suit and tie and smiling broadly. And then my Aunt Sue, the beautiful and classy aunt of Italian descent, fashionably dressed, clutching rice, smiling. I miss all of them.

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

Detailed memories fade after nearly 40 years. But the highlights of that day remain. The joy in marrying the man I loved, and still love. The congregation singing my favorite hymn, “Beautiful Savior,” during the ceremony. The joy of celebrating with all those friends and family, including two of Randy’s soon-to-give-birth sisters. The joy of dancing across the old wooden floor inside the Vesta Community Hall. And, if Randy, could insert his memory here, he would remind me of the awful green hue of the punch my mom made. It was tasty; but he’s right about the color.

Our colors were green and yellow. Not John Deere green and yellow. Just green and yellow, my favorite colors. Randy didn’t care much about color choices, as I recall. I even stitched aprons for our waitresses from green and yellow gingham. Oh, how I’d love to have one of those ruffled aprons my younger cousins wore as they waited on tables.

The Vesta Municipal Liquor Store (no longer a municipal liquor store). Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

I appreciate that we were married during a time when weddings were simple. Simple as in twisted crepe paper streamers running the length of bare wooden banquet tables. Tables where locals piled corn kernels to mark BINGO cards once a year during BINGO Night. Tables that were pushed aside to open dance floor space for the Bunny Hop and the Chicken Dance and modern dancing. Dances, too, with the bride and with the groom. Randy would insert his memory here of dancing with a cousin who asked if he was sure he really wanted to get married. We still laugh about that question. But then the liquor store was just a half-block away.

Audrey and Randy, May 15, 1982. Photo by Williams Studio.

May 15 is certainly a day of reflection. But more important, it is a day of honoring our vows to one another. Of pledging to be there for one another. Always. Through the good times and the challenging times. And we’ve had plenty of both. It is a day also of celebrating what brought us together—love.

To my dear husband, Randy, thank you for loving me and for always being here for me and for our family. I appreciate you, cherish you, love you. In 40 years of knowing you and in 39 years of marriage, those feelings have only deepened. Happy anniversary! And I’m sorry about that green punch.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Small towns, through the lenses of nostalgia & possibilities March 17, 2021

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My uncle’s gas station with the fuel delivery truck parked by The Old Log Cabin. Photo from Envisioning a Century, Vesta, 1900-2000. The Miland station and the restaurant across Highway 19 in Vesta no longer exist. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

GROWING UP IN SMALL TOWN Minnesota in the 60s and 70s, I saw local businesses thriving. There were two hardware stores, two grocery stores, a lumberyard, feed mill, grain elevator, bank, restaurants, corner bar, barbershop, several service stations, post office and more in my hometown of Vesta, population 365. But today, the one-block Main Street stands mostly empty, pocked by vacant lots from long-ago torn down buildings. A few businesses remain. The elementary school closed decades ago.

Downtown Belview, Minnesota, photographed last Saturday, March 13, 2021.

In Belview seven miles to the north and east, the story repeats. I recall driving to Belview with my grandma in the early 1970s to shop for fabric so I could sew dresses for her. That dry goods store is long gone. Belview has, like most rural communities, experienced the closure of many businesses as locals headed to regional shopping hubs to shop at Big Box stores and also embraced online shopping.

An historic anchor building in downtown Redwood Falls. Sward Kemp Snyder Drug recently moved out of downtown to the new hospital and clinic on the east edge of Redwood.

Likewise, Redwood Falls, to the east of Belview along Minnesota State Highway 19, has changed considerably. That Redwood County seat and the Lyon County seat of Marshall were our family’s go-to larger towns to shop for clothes, shoes and other necessities when I was growing up on the prairie. Last Saturday when Randy and I stopped in downtown Redwood, I found the streets nearly empty and few businesses open. Nothing like the bustling downtown I remember.

Vintage Vinyl, a newly-opened business in the heart of Redwood Falls.

I can sit here and write about this with nostalgia and sadness, wishing these rural communities remained self-sufficient. But wishes are not reality. And wishing does not change things. Action does.

An overview of Vintage Vinyl, packed with albums plus gaming and trading cards, books, video games, DVDs and VHSs, figurines and more. The tables provide a place for folks to play checkers, etc., and/or just hang out.
Vinyl galore…in all musical genres.
Randy files through vinyl selections.

While in Redwood Falls, I met a young man, Nate Rohlik, who recently opened Vintage Vinyl, Toys & Games. He’s passionate about improving his community, about providing a place for young people to gather, about growing opportunities.

Looking for a poster? You’ll find them in Nate’s shop.
I spotted this Buddy Holly album leaning against the wall on the floor.
In the basement, an array of merchandise.

He’s friendly, outgoing, welcoming. Everything you want in a shopkeeper. But Nate also carries a sense of responsibility, it seems. He recently-returned to his home area after a stint with the military that took him around the world. He could have settled elsewhere. But he chose to return to his roots. (He graduated from nearby Wabasso High School, my alma mater, in 2004.) That says something.

Endless musical options…

We didn’t chat all that long. But my brief conversation with Nate gives me hope. Hope that his positive attitude, his efforts—including purchasing two arcade games—and his drive will ignite a fire of possibilities.

PLEASE CHECK BACK to read my thoughts on small towns and what draws me to them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

For the love of ice skating in Minnesota February 1, 2021

This mural of “Ice Skating on the Straight River” graces the side of 10,000 Drops in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

WAY BACK IN THE DAY, in the exuberant days of my youth, when I truly enjoyed winter, I loved to ice skate. I wore my Aunt Dorothy’s white figure skates, passed along to me. I was happy to have them.

And I was happy to find a patch of ice upon which to skate in my hometown of Vesta. Near the grain elevator. Nothing fancy. Just an open space flooded in the winter for skating.

Now my hometown is looking to offer youth more than simply a patch of ice. Local resident Jacob Kolander has started a gofundme page to raise $6,000 for a Community Outdoor Hockey Skating Rink. His goal is to erect boards and an entry gate around a rink to provide a safe place for kids to skate. So far, he’s raised $950. If you’re interested in contributing to the cause, click here.

Up in Warroad, in the northwest section of Minnesota right next to Canada, locals have created a 2.5-mile Riverbend Skate Path which has grabbed lots of media attention. It started with two families wanting to connect their ice rinks. Yes, hockey/skating is big in this part of Minnesota. Well, that initial connection expanded to include five more rinks linked via the Warroad River. And now locals are clearing and grooming the ice and looking to buy a Zamboni. Various fundraisers, like concession stands along the skating path, are aiming to generate the needed funds.

Much farther to the south in the small town of Pierz, the local library also embraces skating via lending out ice skates for a week at a time. Varied sizes, from kids to adult, are available for check out. I love this idea—just in case there are kids without an Aunt Dorothy.

TELL ME: Have you ice skated? Let’s hear your skating experiences.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing winter in Minnesota January 6, 2021

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My two-year-old grandson with his new snow shovel.

WHEN YOU LIVE IN A NORTHERN state like Minnesota, where winter defines at least half the year, preparation for cold and snowy weather is a necessity, not an option.

It’s a lesson taught from early on. Snowsuit, waterproof mittens and snow boots for the kids. Check. Check. Check. Sled. Check. Snow shovel. Check.

No matter your age, dressing properly to protect from the elements and then having the right tools to deal with the snow are essentials. So we’ve equipped our grandchildren, Isabelle and Isaac, with snow shovels and sleds. Izzy got her mama’s childhood snow shovel and Lion King sled. Isaac got a new shovel purchased at the local hardware store. And we bought bright new sleds for both at a regional retailer.

Then it’s up to the parents, or the grandparents, to bundle the kids and get them outdoors. It’s a process. But important in teaching the little people that winter can be fun.

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

I loved winter as a child growing up on the wind-swept southwestern Minnesota prairie. There snow drifted into rock-hard mountains around the house and farm outbuildings. There Dad shoved snow with the John Deere tractor and loader into more mountains, where my siblings and I played for endless hours. We carved out snow caves and raced on a vintage runner sled. Such is the stuff of memories. And of winter in Minnesota.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo, rural Vesta, Minnesota. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse.

While my grandchildren’s memories will be different—they live in a new housing development in the south metro—I hope they continue to embrace winter with joy and enthusiasm. Just as their mom (Dad grew up in warm and sunny California) and maternal grandparents did before them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering & honoring my hardworking dad this Labor Day September 7, 2020

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern Kletscher, taken in 1980. He died in 2003.

 

MY DAD WORKED HARD. Really hard. He was a farmer, beginning back in the day when farming was incredibly labor intensive. Pitching manure. Throwing hay bales. Milking cows by hand. Cultivating corn. He worked from the rising of the sun to beyond sunset. Hours and hours in the barn. Long days in the field. Few, if any, days off.

 

The milkhouse, attached to the barn on the farm where I grew up just outside of Vesta, MN. I spent a lot of time in these two buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

It was a life he knew from childhood, as the son of a southwestern Minnesota farmer. Dad quit school after eighth grade to work on his family’s farm in the 1940s. And when he grew into adulthood, he served on the frontlines during the Korean War, then returned to farm just down the road from the home place. There he worked his own land, milked cows and raised (along with my mom) his family of six children.

 

Some of the acreage my dad farmed in Redwood County, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Like my father, I grew up with a strong work ethic rooted in the land. Walking bean fields to pull unwanted weeds. Picking rock. Throwing hay bales into feed bunks for the Holsteins. Carrying buckets of milk replacer to thirsty calves. Climbing up the silo and forking smelly silage down the chute. The work never ended. And the next day we repeated the process.

 

Corn and soybean fields define southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But it was, in many ways, a good life. Time together. Time outdoors. Time to reflect. Time to learn and grow and stretch, just like the corn stretching toward the sky.

 

Growing up on our crop and dairy farm, my eldest brother, Doug, photographed the cows and recorded details about them. My middle brother treasures this compilation of information from our farm. And so do I. Memories… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Working on the farm made me strong and resilient and fostered a sense of independence. I have always been a self-starter, preferring to work on my own. I trace that to the spirit of independence I observed in my farmer dad, who stood up for what he believed. I remember him dumping milk down the drain as the National Farmers Organization aimed to get better prices. I possess a streak of that feistiness, especially when it comes to those who are bullied/oppressed/looked down upon. I do what I can, with the talents I have, to make a positive difference. To uplift and encourage. And to really listen rather than talk.

I always told my dad I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. He didn’t encourage that thought. None of my five siblings farm, although two work in ag-related businesses. It’s a credit to my parents that each of us pursued diverse careers as a partsman (and part owner) at an implement dealership, as a writer and photographer, a florist, CEO of an ethanol plant, teacher and lawyer. That’s a wide range of occupations among siblings. Our parents did not tell us what to do, and for that I shall always be grateful.

 

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

 

We were not a perfect family. Still aren’t. There were, and are, struggles. Financial and other. We were poor as in outhouse poor and no gifts for birthdays poor and wearing hand-me-downs poor and only rice for dinner poor. And only two vacations my entire childhood—one at age four to Duluth and one to the Black Hills at around age 12. Yet, I never felt like we were missing anything. We had enough. Food. Shelter. Clothes. And hardworking parents—for my mom worked equally as hard as my dad—who loved and provided for us.

My parents may not have hugged us or told us they loved us. But they showed their love by their care, their provision, their raising us in the faith. Their efforts, from parenting to farming, were a labor of love. And I shall always feel gratitude for that.

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CLICK HERE TO READ my post, “Many Reasons to Feel Blessed this Labor Day,” published last week on the Warner Press blog.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I’ll miss you, family July 26, 2020

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The potluck offerings at a past Kletscher Family Reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ON THIS, THE LAST SUNDAY in July, for decades, the descendants of Henry and Ida Kletscher have reunited in the small southwestern Minnesota community of Vesta. We—siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles and in-laws—gather in the Vesta City Park to reconnect. To share updates on our lives. To laugh. To enjoy a potluck meal of homemade dishes that cover several picnic tables. We are a big group given my grandparents raised 10 children. And we know how to cook and bake. Hotdish. Desserts. Too much food, but, oh, so good.

 

In this game, played at a past reunion, contestants race to move gummy worms from a pie plate into a cup, with their mouths. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This is our annual July tradition of family, fun and food. Our one time a year, other than funerals, when we now meet. Most years I attend. Last year I couldn’t. So I anticipated the Kletscher Family Reunion of 2020.

 

The one-block Main Street of downtown Vesta. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But, because of COVID-19, the reunion is canceled. And rightly so. Even though my home county of Redwood has only 28 cases (as of Saturday), many of us come from hotbed areas. Like the Twin Cities metro. Or my county of Rice with 944 cases, including eight deaths.

Sometimes I think it’s easy to feel insulated, protected, from the virus in rural areas. But COVID-19 knows no geographical boundaries. No age limits. No nothing. COVID cases in Minnesota’s more rural counties are increasing.

 

Contestants in the Minute-to-Win-It competitions gather around a table right after the potluck at a reunion held several years ago in the Vesta Community Hall because of the heat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The call to cancel the reunion was the right one. I would not have attended had it been a go. I have been careful for five months about trying to protect myself and reduce my risk. And, as much as I love visiting with family, it’s not worth the risk to see them. I can wait.

Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota’s infectious disease director, reported this week that her department is seeing more cases directly linked to family gatherings. I am not surprised. The relaxed setting, the desire to hug and get close and more, seems the making of the perfect storm.

 

My plated food from a previous reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

And so today, on the final Sunday of July, I won’t see the extended family that means so much to me. I won’t indulge in a plate filled with incredibly delicious homemade foods. I won’t engage in conversations with cousins or admire the newest babies. But I will think of them and hope that, next summer, I can reconnect in the community of our roots with the family I love.

© 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