I first met Nancy Tanner in the early 1990s. We were both members of the local bird club: the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. She was also a regular at Ijams Nature Center where I work.
In time, I became an invited guest for lunches at her home in South Knoxville. Nancy had a nimble mind and needed to exercise it. A race horse has to run. She loved to converse, tell stories, jokes, unleash a sharp repartee. We'd talk birds, books, magazine articles recently read, current events and sports. And, of course, her Jim.
It was at one of those lunches in October of 2005 that a topic for a book came up. I was just finishing the manuscript for my first book "Natural Histories" published by the University of Tennessee Press. We were talking, as we often did, about her late husband Jim and his Cornell fieldwork in the 1930s on the ivory-billed woodpecker, when I said, "Someone needs to write a book." And after a short pause, I said, "That someone should be me."
Thus a project was born.
Nancy was the last living person to have a universally accepted sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker. That happened in December 1941. She was with her late husband Jim (James T. Tanner) in the Singer Tract in northeast Louisiana.
Over the past six years, Nancy and I became good friends. For most of that time, I would see or at least talk to her almost weekly.
The first three years: 2006-09, we met to discuss and assembly the piles of reference I needed to copy, absorb. Over time, I assembled three-ring binders of material, not knowing exacting what I would need when I actually sat down to write. Pulling together a book is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle except all the pieces do not come in one box. They are scattered helter-skelter. But, in time, the pieces just slowly fall into place.
Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 was published by UT in the fall of 2010. It was followed by an article in Smithsonian magazine about our research which I penned.
For the next two years Nancy and I worked to promote the book locally, doing numerous talks and book signings. We developed a playful banter, because she loved to laugh and make me laugh.
She called me her "young friend" and never wanted to talk about health, aches and pains or even aging in general. Those topics were for old people. When you were with Nancy, you were in a match of playful minds. And she used wit the way a fencer uses a foil. En garde. Prêt. Allez. Oh, yes. So true. Touché. Or the way Oscar Wilde used a well turned phrase like a craving knife: "Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them more." At times we both were laughing so hard, all conversation ceased. I always left her feeling better than before I arrived, her vitality and good humor were so contagious.
Her beloved Jim passed away 22 years ago. She couldn't understand divorce because losing her husband had been so painful. Nancy once told me that for five years after he died, she wanted to die too, but when she didn't, she decided she might as well go on living.
That she did, to the fullest, ten decades of indomitable determination to live each day as a quest. Like the Energizer bunny, she just kept going and going and going.
A week ago, I visited her in a local hospice facility. Her frail body was betraying her strong will. After my lunchtime visit—our last—as I got up to leave, I reached out. She took my hand and clasping it with both of hers, looked deep into my eyes. And with a tone as tender as the moment deemed due, she said, "Good bye love."
We both knew it was just that. Good bye.
To paraphrase the Belle of Amherst, "Because she did not stop for death, it kindly stopped for her, the carriage held but the two, and immortality."
After a short illness, Nancy died last Sunday, June 30 just sixteen days after her 96th birthday.
As a writer, you're taught to avoid clichés, nothing slows down a narrative like a worn out phrase. It's like the gritty build-up on the bottom of a snow ski. But in this case, I hope you forgive me. When God made Nancy, he broke the mold.
I will miss, miss, miss her dearly.