Janie's grandmother has no name. She is simply "Nanny" to Janie because that is what the white children that she takes care of call her. Born into slavery, Nanny tells Janie her life story when the girl is sixteen. Her experiences make her sadly aware of what can happen to an attractive woman. Her daughter, Leafy, was the product of the attentions of a white master. Nanny fled the plantation to escape a brutal beating promised by her mistress. Soon afterward, she experienced the excitement of emancipation, and she found a place in Florida where she could live, work, and raise her daughter. This child, she hoped, would become a schoolteacher. Her hopes were dashed when Leafy was raped, ironically by the town schoolteacher, who abandoned both mother and child.
Nanny's life revolves around her love for Janie and her loyalty to her employer, Mrs. Washburn. Within the limits of this small world, Nanny is an ambitious woman. With the help of Mrs. Washburn, she buys land and a little house, an unusual undertaking for a lone woman. She has aspirations for Janie, who has never had to work in a white woman's kitchen because Nanny did that labor for her.
Without a doubt, Nanny loves Janie, but it is a love based on duty and responsibility. It may be a transference of the dreams that she never achieved for herself. In any case, the two women need each other, because they have no other family. All Nanny asks for in return is that Janie grow up to be a decent girl.
When Janie comes to her with questions about the kind of love that should exist between husband and wife, Nanny can provide no answers. That sort of love has never been a part of her own life. Logan Killicks can offer this child security with his 60-acre potato farm. Nanny sees no need for the love that Janie asks about.
A month after this conversation, Nanny is dead, and Janie is alone and unloved.