Nancy Owen Nelson’s entire life has been haunted by the death of her grandmother, Nannie B Russell Chandler, who passed away only an hour after giving birth to her mother. Nancy imagines her mother, also named Nannie, grappling with the knowledge that her birth was the cause of her mother’s death. It isn’t hard for her to imagine, as she too struggles with the void left by the early passing of her beloved grandmother, whom she knew virtually nothing about until she embarked on the journey, Searching for Nannie B.
How much influence do our ancestors have on our lives?
This question is the theme of Nancy’s odyssey which takes her through the small towns of Alabama to discover the stories of her grandmother that were never told and to locate the gravesite of this enigmatic, yet precious, person in her life. When she does find the grave, the stone itself is a representation of all that has been missing since Nannie B. passed away. There is no “Beloved wife of…” “Mother of …” or any details written to indicate who she was in life. Even her name is spelled incorrectly on the headstone. There are no dates of Nannie B.’s birth or death and the sculpture of a lamb sitting on top of the stone is missing its head. The journey to find this gravesite required great detective work using Ancestry.com, many phone calls, trips to churches and graveyards, with no shortage of dead ends, yet Nancy is persistent, and passionate, about uncovering all that has been buried almost from the day Nanny B. died.
Searching for Nannie B. is a love story of a granddaughter’s service to the ancestor she never met. At one point Nancy says, “All I can do is bring Nannie B. Russell Chandler to life so that the world will know she existed, that she lived and loved her husband and the child she would not nurture. There is some consolation in that.” In the end, Nancy goes to the expense and effort to give her grandmother a new gravestone, one which provides all of the warmth and recognition her first one was missing.
Searching for Nannie B. shows the adventure of doing family history and reveals how connected we are to those who have gone before, not only in appearance and name, but to the depths of our souls. Nancy observes the effect the death of her grandmother had on her mother, and sees it in herself as well. They have both carried a heavy coat of disconnect, an inability to find their place in the world and a continuous drive to not waste any time. Within the recognition of both of their profound restlessness and pain, Nancy expresses a sentiment which I believe will resonate with every reader who cares about the legacy they leave behind. She writes, “Like my mother, I will continue to teach and learn, even when I no longer enter a classroom of students. I will stay ‘above ground,’ visible and open to new ideas. I will not be buried, like my grandmother, Nannie B. Russell Chandler, without a story.”
For those engaged in genealogy work, this book will be a delight and a validation that the effort is more valuable that most people realize. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand life and the connection we have to each other, especially within families.The fact that the mysteries of Nannie B.’s life are real make it all the more thrilling as Nancy uncovers truths and discovers herself.
Reviewed by book review team member, Melanie Davis, author of The Triumph Book: HEROES