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Former Nivervillian’s Second Book Reflects on Grandparents

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Angeline Schellenberg has released her second book, Fields of Light and Stone.

Poet, author, and former Niverville area resident Angeline Schellenberg has released her second book. Fields of Light and Stone, a collection of poems, pays tribute to the lives and memories of her maternal and paternal grandparents.

Schellenberg first won acclaim with her debut book of poems, Tell Them It Was Mozart, in May 2017. The collection won in three separate categories at the Manitoba Book Awards. The poems in that first book reflect on Schellenberg’s unique relationship with her two children, both of whom are on the autism spectrum.

Fields of Light and Stone establishes a similarly intimate mood as Schellenberg explores the relationship she had with her two sets of grandparents before their passing.

“I wrote about them for the same reason I wrote about my children,” Schellenberg says. “Because I love them. My grandparents helped raise me. Parents of young children are busy with the day-to-day of earning a living, keeping house, policing homework; grandparents have time to just be. When my dad was in the barn and my mom was in the garden, Oma would be sitting beside me, shelling peas and telling stories. I missed them all terribly when they were gone. I processed that loss through poetry.”

Many will be able to relate to Schellenberg’s thoughtful reminiscences on her Russian Mennonite forefathers, who immigrated to Canada near the turn of the twentieth century in search of freedom and a better life.

Her Oma and Opa were born in the villages of Lichtfelde and Steinfeld, which translates to “light field” and “stone field,” from which the book’s title was derived. They came to live in the Niverville area as young adults, where they met and married.

Schellenberg grew up on the property adjoining her grandparents’ farm.

“I have many happy childhood memories of Christmas gatherings, shopping trips, Sunday lunches at Chicken Chef, shucking corn in the garden or roguing in the fields together,” Schellenberg says. “My Oma was a matriarchal force to be reckoned with!”

Also farmers, her maternal grandparents lived in Boissevain and pastored churches in the area.

“Grandma had a hard childhood,” says Schellenberg. “Her mother died in childbirth when my grandma was only two. My great-grandparents had a beautiful love story, but after his wife’s death my great-grandpa married her sister, who was a cruel stepmother to my grandma. Despite being motherless and mistreated, my grandma was never harsh or bitter. She was one of the most gentle, maternal people I know.”

While most of the book’s poems are based on personal connections Schellenberg built with her grandparents over the years, she also explores topics of their ancestry, immigration, and courtship. This required digging into Mennonite heritage archives and sifting through early love letters and journals belonging to her grandparents.

Some of the poems touch on the poignant theme of loss, too, as each of the beloved grandparents left their mark on her heart as they departed this world.

“A lot of the poems are reflections on watching my grandparents die,” she says. “Sitting with them in the hospital, relearning who these industrious people were, without things to do or the strength to do them. Those times were precious.”

One particular poem, entitled “Deep Breathing,” looks at the parallel hospital experiences Schellenberg had while bringing a child into the world and, on the other hand, watching a grandparent leave it.

“This is a very personal book, but the people in it lived through both private sorrows, such as stillbirth or betrayal, and world-changing events like war and famine,” she says. “And their immigration stories are still relevant to our global reality now. If we remind ourselves how our ancestors struggled to integrate to a new country, and even resisted integrating, we’ll have more compassion for immigrants struggling to adjust to a new life in Canada while preserving their traditions today.”

Unfortunately for Schellenberg, the book launch originally scheduled for McNally Robinson in April had to be indefinitely postponed due to COVID-19. Instead she took part in an online reading as part of the Pandemic Response Reading Series, hosted by Manitoba author Lauren Carter. The reading series was created to provide authors with a chance to celebrate and promote their new books during lockdown.

“It was disappointing to not be able to see the audience, but the benefit was that people from across the country could share the experience,” Schellenberg says. “And I could show them photos and artifacts from my grandparents’ lives… Some 60 [people] logged in and were commenting on their favourite lines and poems in the chat sidebar.”

In the end, she hopes others will be challenged to consider the treasure received through the sacrifice, resilience, and love of those who have gone before them.

“In a capitalistic society, I think it’s important to celebrate people as they age,” Schellenberg concludes. “Especially now, with some leaders speaking of sacrificing the elderly to the coronavirus for the sake of the economy. We do not cease to be human when our memory, strength, or productivity wane. My last months with my grandparents were some of the most precious times we shared and I felt that was an important story to tell.”

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