Thimbles is a book of poems that documents the kind of love story that exists between granddaughters and grandmothers. Vanessa Shields, a Windsor poet, writes about her grandmother’s life—from her youth in Italy, to her newly adopted Canadian home in Windsor—and then through raising a family, grandchildren, ending with her decline and death. The result is a book of poems that is a poignant gathering of pieces of one woman’s life. In “her past unravels,” Shields writes of her nonna, Maria, and of how “She sews through a world war. Thinks less of the bombs than/the bobbins and basting. Thinks about her heart reaching for my/Nonno. Handsome. Religious. Soon they will spend time alone/in the mountains.” With each stitch, the poet’s grandmother verbally recounts her life’s story, allowing her granddaughter to draw it in, jot notes down, and make poems to remember her by.
What stays as a comforting constant—through her whole life—is the way she sewed her way through both good and bad times, as well as her faith in God and in the love of family. Shields speaks of how her nonna is the centre of the universe, wonders how she will fare after her death: “if the light comes from her what happens when she dies?/will i still shine?/whose tongue will carry her story?” The poet asks the question, then answers, with love and certainty, “my tongue/my tongue/my tongue.” Shields has written the story of a woman who likely didn’t think her life was all that interesting. To an outsider, though, the life story of Maria Giuditta Merlo Bison is beyond fascinating.
Thimbles maps out the close relationship between Maria and her granddaughter, from the poet’s childhood to the time of her grandmother’s death. As she moves into documenting her grandmother’s decline, Shields is more and more aware of serving as a witness to her nonna’s life—being sure to ask questions, to listen carefully, and then to record the answers and transmute them into a poetic form. In “i didn’t pay attention to her service,” Shields writes of how her grandmother “was a working woman ahead of her time” with “full-time work at the hospital with the nuns/then full-time work at home with the family/plus church volunteering and embracing new immigrants like they were family.” Then, in “i dream of going into your bedroom,” the poet imagines she is opening her grandmother’s closet door, “pulling my fingertips across the/shoulders of your hand-made dresses” and feeling “the days it took/you to make these clothes.” She dreams that she can feel “what you felt as you pulled/thread through the bobbin as your/hard-bottomed slipper pressed the motor/for the sewing machine under the table.” Here is a woman who made a new life in Canada, who sewed her way through her life, who gathered people together in her community. It’s the story of many who had to flee from Europe after WWII, searching for a peaceful place to live and raise families, away from the bloodshed and horror that they’d witnessed in their homelands.
Some of those most heart wrenching poems come in the last part of the book, when Shields records her grandmother’s physical and mental decline, speaking of confusion and of pain. In “on this day she is different,” her grandmother is angry when touched, so much so that the granddaughter pulls away so as not to further upset her because, as she writes, “I do not know this version.” Who has not sat with a dying person and recognized that their own heart needs to expand further, so that they can accept someone lashing out at them without reason? Sitting with the dying is a gift, but also a challenge. There is that way station between life and death, when you sit with the dying, and Shields captures this shift as she writes: “sleep is a border crossing/her body is an ocean liner/with death at the helm.” Then, closer to her grandmother’s going, the poet speaks of that strange time when a person is about to die, but still struggles against it. She captures it brilliantly: “I can’t exist without her/but she can’t exist like this—/an overflowing thimble/beautifully escaping our grasp.” The loss of a person during a pandemic, too, is recorded here in Thimbles. How we’ve grieved those who have died during the pandemic has transformed the way we celebrate and mourn a person’s life.
In “the pandemic funeral,” Shields writes of how mourners arrive with their “noses/mouths/chins shrouded,” full of “fear and loss/like family/gathered & grieving.” In “seven hours of visitation,” the people who visit the funeral home “drone in like vibrating memories/by appointment only.” In one particularly poignant piece, the poet writes “today/is a question mark infused to my spine/I hunch into it.” Her grandmother’s death is a deep wound, but the pandemic only serves to make the loss seem less real. Everything, it seems, is surreal and otherworldly when we mourn someone we love, but to lose someone in a pandemic offers up even less closure.
Thimbles is a collection of poetry that records one woman’s journey. There is a sense here, at the end of the book, that Shields has lovingly taken on the responsibility of serving as a witness in telling her grandmother’s story. Here is a gathering of poems that speaks to the close matrilineal bonds that lace themselves through an Italian family. So often, we read of how mothers interact with daughters, but these pieces document the connection between grandmothers and granddaughters. In her work, Vanessa Shields serves as listener, witness, and recorder as she ensures that her grandmother lives on in the poems she has written here in tribute to Maria.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She was poet laureate in Sudbury from 2016-18, and was the first woman appointed to the role. Kim's latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). She's a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario representative of The Writers' Union of Canada (2020-22), and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim can be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com