How Ancestral Research Can Lead to Memoir

March 16, 2017 | By | Reply More

In November, 2011, ten years and one month after the death of my mother, Nannie B Chandler Nelson at age ninety-six, I found myself eager to explore my ancestral roots through her blood line.  The challenge was more significant than me, I believe, than for a person who has visited with, and heard tales of family from earlier generations: my mother was, in the deepest spiritual and physical sense, orphaned, when her mother, whose name she bore, died an hour after her birth.

I can’t explain why I sat down at the computer and googled my grandparents, Nannie B Russell Chandler and Robert Chandler. I do remember, though, how my heart raced when their marriage certificate, “State of Alabama, July 26, 1904,” appeared, a faded document which I had to enlarge to see the signatures of Nannie B and Robert, of the minister, the probate judge who confirmed their marriage.  Something about the document haunted me. It was my blood and flesh history reaching out to touch me.

I was hooked.

A new account in became my “go to” place when I had finished grading student papers for my college composition classes. In fact, I lost hours, but I found more and more family connections, green leaves attached to names on the tree I was building.

The more I put together this side of the family, the more urgent it seemed to bring my grandmother to life after her premature death at twenty-six years of age, less than one year after she and Robert signed the certificate.

Questions that I had buried in my subconscious began to surface:  Why had no one spoken to my mother about her mother? Why had my step-grandmother, in particular, changed the subject whenever little Nannie B asked? Why did her father say nothing, except that his little girl played the piano like her mother?  Why were there no records—photos, letters—to help rebuild an image of the past?

After months of searching on the Internet, I was able to locate an obscure graveyard record of “Nanie B Chandler, wife of R. E. Chandler.”  Was that all there was to commemorate the woman to whom I owe my existence? I asked myself.  At other times, I would ask, why does this even matter? Certainly, I had a loving grandmother also named Nannie, whom we called “Big Mama,” and who had provided love and hugs and wonderful southern dinners of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, greens, corn on the cob, and pies and cakes to bring on a sugar coma.

Yet this wasn’t enough.  I had to know more.  My mother’s voice spoke to me in my memory and my dreams.  She, too, wanted to know more.

Then began my writing project. With a small group of writers who met once a month, I submitted chapter after chapter of Searching for Nannie B. I began to realize that, as I researched and searched, made phone calls and wrote letters, this writing project was itself a journey of discovery.  I was writing chapters in the present time as I discovered new truths about myself—sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, sometimes frightening. I never knew what the next chapter, the next discovery, the next turn in the road would bring.

After I had discovered the graveyard listing through, I solicited Priscilla, a generous and helpful genealogist from New Hope Alabama, to go to Bethel Cemetery and send me photos.  Seeing the sparseness of the gravestone, I was determined that I would bring Nannie B Russell Chandler out of the shadows.  Over the summer of 2012, I traveled to Alabama, making an appointment to meet with Priscilla and visit the gravesite.

Let me pause here to say that, all the while as I pursued research, something was happening inside me.  I was finding roots that I had not discovered before.  My upbringing as a military “brat,” while it gave me the advantages of flexibility, social skills, and exposure to diversity, had kept me from being grounded in the way a child is grounded when she goes from kindergarten through high school with the same friends, stays in a home town, marries, and joins the ancestral parade of family members who create a cultural history in the community.

Now I was beginning to actually feel the cultural history of my maternal bloodline. I was getting a real sense of my grandmother, who completed 11th grade in a one-room school house, whose best friend described her to a relative as beautiful, dignified, and having a lovely singing voice.  I could see Nannie B Russell in the Bethel Baptist Church near the graveyard, when I visited and participated in a church service one Sunday night.  Echoes of history reverberated in my head and heart as I offered a prayer for my vanished grandmother, as I requested “Amazing Grace,” one of my mother’s favorite hymns. I imagined Nannie B Russell Chandler singing it a cappella in this Primitive Baptist Church where the only instruments allowed were human voices.

During my process, I connected with a long-lost distant cousin, who at ninety-two would live only a year after we spoke, after she told me stories passed down about my grandmother, stories about knowing my mother when both were young women.  From her I acquired buttons from Nannie B Russell Chandler’s clothing, but as important, I acquired an understanding of the effects of trauma and loss as it had moved from her, through her new-born daughter, and into my body as I was born.

I wrote as I discovered, as I went along.  At the end, I had an understanding of the importance of our past, of our ancestors, in understanding ourselves.  I had searched and found Nannie B.

Nancy Owen Nelson has published poetry and creative nonfiction.  As an academic, she has edited or co-edited three academic books and published several articles in journals and anthologies.   She has taught college composition since earning her PhD from Auburn University.  She continues to write and teach memoir workshops and College English.  She recently published her memoir, Searching for Nannie B:  Connecting Three Generations of Southern Women and is seeking publishers for her novel, Four Women, and another memoir, Divine Aphasia.

Nancy Owen Nelson
author web site / Twitter / Facebook / Book / Amazon / Goodreads

Tags: ,

Category: On Writing

Leave a Reply