Love is Eternal

10 04 2015

Over the last few months I’ve come to realize that my baby girl is a grown up. No where was it more apparent than when I watched this poised, confident, beautiful woman deliver a eulogy at her beloved Nana’s memorial service. Here it is:

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A Eulogy for Jimmie Dee Lehew McLeod

By Jade Lee-Mei Th’ng

Over the past few months, my mom and I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by friends and family paying tribute to my Nana. These visits were, naturally, filled with stories and pictures of a vibrant, younger woman who lived a full, happy life. My whole life I’ve been told stories about the “good old days” and tales of “old Baton Rouge.” I would always eat these up because they added new dimensions to the woman that was Jimmie Dee.

It wasn’t until recently that something dawned on me: the woman in these stories wasn’t really the woman that I knew. Yes, the woman is these stories seemed happy, but she was also a woman who lived in the shadow of her larger-than-life husband. It’s not that she was a timid, unheard voice, but she just lived happily supporting her husband and his business.

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When I was five, in the spring of 1996, my grandfather Lloyd McLeod passed away. My Nana moved in with us for a span. After his death, she had a major health decline that seemed bleak, but despite everything, she recovered a new woman. She was a woman who no longer lived in the shadow of someone else, but demanded her own spotlight.

This is truly the only version of her that I know: a woman whose voice was heard. She made sure of it. This is also a quality that she has passed down to my mom and me. Three generations of women who strive to have their voices heard.

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An experience that made me realize how special our intergenerational bond was when my Nana, my mom, and I were cast by the Quaker Oats Company in a (non-aired) commercial in 2002, when I was 12.

oatmeal bowlOne day, my mom told me that Nana had seen a casting call in the paper  for a Quaker Oatmeal commercial looking to cast multi-generations of family members. To appease her, we went to casting armed with a secret weapon: an old family oatmeal bowl. As the story goes (a story I only heard about that day) when my great grandfather, Jimmie Dee’s father, left home at 18, he was given a hundred dollars, a new pair of shoes, and a sturdy white bowl that he proceeded to eat oatmeal out of every day.

Needless to say, the Quaker Oats folks ate it up! Next thing I know, the three of us are being flown first class to Boston to film a national oatmeal ad. They put us up in an expensive, trendy hotel, walking distance to more sights than we even had time for. They also paid us each quite a chunk of cash, so as a seventh grader, probably missing school for this by the way, this was unreal.

In spite of all the luxury, the best part of the whole trip was actually the day we filmed the commercial. While Nana’s greatness could not be captured in 30 seconds, all the people and crew on set could most definitely appreciate it.

When it was our turn to be on camera, they had rolled out a prop of a giant 6-foot tall can of Quaker Oats. The director asked us various oatmeal-related questions, but after a while we just didn’t have quite what they wanted. To play around a little, the director pulled my mom and me out, and left Jimmie Dee in front of the camera. He asked her, “So why do you like Quaker Oatmeal?” She paused briefly, and then responded, “Well, it helps keep you regular!” Everybody on set died trying to keep their laughter quiet.

“Do you think the Quaker Oats man is sexy?” he asked, reading her personality like a book. She looked up at the face of the giant, smiling Quaker and turned back to the camera, “Well, I’d have to see the rest of him first.”

Her greatness was eventually left on the cutting room floor, but who knows what could have happened if viral videos existed then. Most importantly though, I know that somewhere, someplace, someone still thinks about that and laughs. And I’ll be damned if she didn’t make the day of everyone in that room.

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In addition to her feisty personality, Jimmie Dee was also a woman known for her style. A special moment for my mom and me happened a couple of days after Nana’s death when we went to the nursing home to clean out her belongings. Not long after we started, a lady comes into the room and asks, “I’m sorry, but I would just love to have one of her hats.” Moved by this, we let the woman pick a hat (one that she said she always admired) and gave her another one of Nana’s favorites.

The special moment that day was when an elderly lady in a wheelchair came in. She couldn’t speak, but sat there looking longingly at us. After a moment my mom asked sweetly, “Would you like a hat?” The woman nodded. We picked one out and put it on her head. Then, she hugged my mom and suddenly began sobbing. Naturally, my mom and I burst into tears too. After she left the room, we finally realized how special the hats were.

A few minutes later the same woman reentered the room, and mom asked, “Would you like another hat?” She nodded. This time she picked out the leopard print hat. “You know that when you wear this hat you’re going to have to be sassy just like Jimmie Dee, okay?” As quickly as this lady erupted into tears before, she erupted into laughter. It was infectious. When we left later that day, we saw her with that leopard print hat (which was really a few sizes to small) perched on the top of her head, her face beaming.

I know that this would touch Nana because she genuinely loved putting smiles on people’s faces. She was a woman who learned to use her voice to speak her mind, but she also used her voice to bring people joy. I can say that that is one of the greatest lessons that I have learned from my grandmother, Jimmie Dee. She lived the life that she wanted to live and found happiness in bringing others joy.

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In the last few months of her life, Nana slipped away a little more every day. Some days she was disoriented, some days she hallucinated, but never once did she not know who I was. That was our relationship. I am her only grandchild, and she is basically the only grandparent I’ve ever known. The love that she showed me was unconditional and unfiltered. In her final weeks, she was having a lot of trouble communicating and getting all of her words and thoughts out. But no matter how bad the day, whenever I told her, “I love you, Nana,” she would hold my hand and respond clear as day, “I love you too.” These were her last words to me, and her love is eternal.

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

I am Jade Lee-Mei, daughter of Connie Lee, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrinne, daughter of Minnie May

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The Sandwich Generation

4 08 2012

My mom, my daughter and me at a family crawfish boil.

I was born on the cusp of the baby boom. What that has meant to my life is that I have been in the middle of every trend for the past 50 years. Schools were built to accommodate my generation. I’ve been a backpacker across Europe, a YUPPY, a DINK, a New Ager, married, older parent, soccer mom, Girl Scout leader, divorced, single mom, and online dater. I’ve been upsized, downsized, done yoga, fad diets and the no-diet diet, become a foodie and lover of good wine, done self-help and life coaching and now blogging. Every time I have discovered something new, it’s the next day’s headline of the country’s latest trend.

The hardest trend I’ve been a part of was joining “The Sandwich Generation.” This is the when you’re still raising your kids while caring for aging parents.

My parent’s wedding, September 2, 1955

My mom moved in the day my dad suddenly died from a heart attack. I’m an only child and my Mom has epilepsy, so because of Mom’s health and financial resources, this was the only choice I felt I could make. While the decision was easy, the reality was more difficult. In hindsight, Mom moved in as my marriage was falling apart. My ex and I suffered from having to have the last word, which made for long, loud arguments. Mom was often in the eye of the storm. I blamed her drawing inward on our family dynamics. I really related to a comment I heard Wynona Judd make—she said her family could suck the oxygen right out of a room.

I helplessly watched Mom’s health decline. I kept expecting her to “get a life,” and found it difficult to understand when I came home from a full exhausting day to realize she had just sat in her bed doing word puzzles. I couldn’t accept the fact that that it was her life and that if all she could do was watch TV all day that it had to be OK with me. I kept thinking she would soon start to blossom in her new life. I would make list of things I thought she should do: call the Council on Aging, contact the Epilepsy foundation, join a widow’s support group. What I came realize was that all she needed was a hug and for me to allow her to just be.

On the eve of the anniversary of my Dad’s death, she got sick with a bad cold that my family all had. It had her in the hospital in 24 hours, and in 48 hours I was discussing “do not resuscitate” orders with her doctor.  The immediate crisis passed but she was eventually in the hospital for over a month. At that time, I didn’t expect her to ever be the mom I knew her to be and longed for again. I believed she was at the end of her life and the next thing I’d be planning was her funeral. During this time I continued to work full-time, taking lunch breaks at the hospital, juggling my life and family’s activities.  I came to the realization with the loving help of my family and friends that I would no longer be able to care for Mom at home when she would eventually be released. She needed constant nursing care, 24hours a day and, no matter how much I juggled, I couldn’t do it.

I started the process of finding a new home for Mom. She had little awareness of anything during this period. By the time she left the hospital she seemed to understand and seemed perfectly comfortable with all the decisions I had made for her. I found a nice nursing home less than one mile from my house. And soon, I had her furniture, pictures and clothes in her new room.

She has made a recovery that no one expected. She slowly regained her strength and with the stabilization of 24-hour nursing care, her seizures have almost disappeared. She’s now got a boyfriend. She says she has no interest in getting married, but she did make her fiancé buy her an engagement ring. While still frail, she is once again the smart, clear-minded, feisty woman who loves to be outrageous and the center of attention. Most importantly, she got that life I was hoping for.

My Mom and me, 1961

She recently gave me a gift that I didn’t know I needed.  Even though I know she is in the best place for her I still had a deep hidden seed of guilt that I hadn’t done enough for her.  Then one evening my daughter and I dropped by. My daughter, Mom, her nurse and I were all looking at a bunch of cats that people had abandoned behind the nursing home. Mom said that she felt that there were some people at that home who were like those cats…abandoned. And that maybe God had wanted her to reach this stage in her life, so she could be there for someone who didn’t have anyone.  And I thankfully realized that Mom had reached another place in her life’s journey, just as I had.

And me…I’ve found love again with a widower. As my daughter grew up and moved out and I became an empty nester, he moved in. Yeah, over 50-somethings not bothering to get married, that’s yet another trend I’m part of.