Gracious and Generous in Equal Measure: A True Southern Lady
by Diane McMahon
Photography by Christian Lee
Nancy Dennis, accompanied by her dog Buster, greeted me on the lane leading to their waterfront home near Land’s End on St. Helena Island. Once out of my car, I stood mesmerized by the 180-degree view of marsh meeting Port Royal Sound, glistening in the afternoon light.
Nancy and her husband Joe moved from Spartanburg to the Lowcountry 18 years ago. Joe designed their house; together they’ve created a haven inside and out that showcases three massive live oaks (which Joe designed around), heirlooms passed down from their families and treasures collected during their world travels. It is a home steeped in personal history, beauty and tranquility. Like Nancy.
Nancy transcends the normal restraints of time; she could’ve stepped from any era graced by accomplished Southern women who wear afternoon pearls, and whose gentility is as refreshing as sweet tea. She’s also fun, effervescent and an avid shag dancer, like her husband Joe. Nancy and Joe met in Columbia, when he knocked her off her feet—literally—running to catch a football as she stepped out of her car. She obviously fell very hard for him; they’ve been married since 1971.
After graduating from Columbia College, Nancy became Mrs. Dennis at a home wedding in Spartanburg, where they resided until moving to St. Helena. Nancy spent her career working with children as a librarian and teaching remedial reading. After she and Joe retired to St. Helena, Nancy realized she wasn’t quite done working and spent five more years teaching at Beaufort Academy.
According to Joe, Nancy will never quit working; for over a decade her time has been devoted to serving as a volunteer member on boards and for organizations too numerous to list. She is a master calligrapher and watercolor artist. Her legacy from her grandmother and mother is a refinement and generosity of spirit that imbues everything she does. Nancy credits her mother as a “modern woman” who encouraged Nancy’s active civic involvement and community service—by example in her own life.
One of the volunteer jobs Nancy finds most rewarding is her work as a student bereavement volunteer for children in kindergarten through high school in the Beaufort County Public School System. She counsels students who have lost a sibling, parent, or caretaker through suicide, accident, or illness. Often she works with a family of siblings. She said, “These children are so emotionally upset they don’t want to talk about their feelings initially. My job is to encourage them to open up and then to just listen. Each time, I say a prayer before I go in to put the right words in my mouth. Sometimes, it takes two or three sessions before anyone talks, but once one person opens up, they all realize they have something in common and they begin to share.”
Nancy is too modest to acknowledge how gifted she is with the children, but her devotion and deep caring for these kids comes through clearly. Many of the circumstances these students are exposed to—parents murdering each other, siblings being gunned down—are terrifying and bewildering. As gentle as Nancy is, there is a steely courage and strength that allows her to be right there with her students as they process their rage and pain; and because of her authenticity, they trust her to guide them through it. It is an emotional and demanding effort for everyone. Nancy has been doing it for eight years.
One Christmas, after her own mother died, she let her students choose from a box of ornaments she had found in her mother’s attic. Each student chose one ornament to represent the loved one who was gone. Nancy had Christmas tags and they wrote the name of the loved one and the date they died on one side and the date they chose the ornament on the other side. Nancy then wrapped each one in special tissue and put them in Christmas gift bags for the children to take home and put on their tree. “They loved it,” she said. “I hope they still have this, because I chose an angel ornament and that one goes up first every year.”
She continued, “I encourage the students to talk about their loved one during the holidays. Even though they are gone, they are still in our hearts and we should remember the fun moments they shared while they were alive. I also encourage the students to write something they would like to say to the person who died. I do a letter, too, and we all read and sometimes tears are shed. But we work through that and smiles soon reappear. The more they talk, the better they are in going through the grieving process. They let their emotions come to the surface and together they share their grief and sadness.”
Nancy Dennis’s understanding of grief and loss is not just for her students. Her wisdom can enable each of us to reach out and offer solace to people who are experiencing sadness this Christmas. Encourage them to talk. Find the love and stillness in your heart to listen. That is a true gift.