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





Maw Maw’s German Chocolate Cake

5 08 2014

My Mom’s birthday party pictured below would have been on a hot August day in the hill country of Texas with all the children dressed in their Sunday best. I asked Mom if she remembered how old she was in this picture and she knew she was five. Shirley Temple had a new movie out, Curley Top, and her mother made her a dress fashioned after the one Shirley wore in the movie. Mom says she remembers it clearly because Shirley’s dress was made from silk and lace, while hers was made from pale pink organdy and was stiff, puffy and itchy. I wonder what cake my Maw Maw would have made her little girl dressed in her pretty, but uncomfortable Shirley Temple dress.

My Mother’s Fifth Birthday—August 5, 1933

Jimmie Dee— My Mother’s Fifth Birthday—August 5, 1933

Curley Top

Shirley Temple dancing in Curley Top

Decades have come and gone since this picture. This August Mom turns 86. I recently heard someone ask her if she was named after her Dad since her name is Jimmie. “No”, she proudly said, “I’m named after my Mom and my brother is named James!” Until I heard it said, I never thought about how unique that was.

I do know that having my grandmother, Jimmie Corrine’s recipes, her cooking tools and her dishes are a unique treasure from my history. I began my yearly ritual for my mom’s birthday and went through my grandmother’s handwritten recipes. I like to give my mom a taste of her childhood for her birthday. This is a cake I’ve never made. It’s not hard, but it is involved and has taken all afternoon. I even baked it in the heart shaped pans that three generations have used to bake cakes in. I know this cake is made with the love, just as it was back when Shirley Temple was dancing her way into this country’s heart.

Jimmie Corrine—My Grandmother's Handwritten Recipe

Jimmie Corrine—My Grandmother’s Handwritten Recipe

German Chocolate Cake

German choc cake

Cake
1/2 cup boiling water
4 (1 ounce) squares German sweet chocolate
1 cup softened, unsalted butter
2 cups white sugar
4 egg yolks, unbeaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
4 egg whites, stiffly beaten

Directions
1. Melt chocolate in boiling water in saucepan, let cool.
2. Sift flour with soda and salt in it’s own bowl.
3. Beat egg whites until stiff (it will form peaks like a meringue).
4. Cream butter until light and fluffy. Add each egg yolk one at a time, beating after each. Add vanilla and cooled chocolate. Mix until well blended.
5. Alternate adding flour mixture and buttermilk into batter, beating after each addition.
6. After batter is smooth, fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites.
7. Pour into 3 9-inch layer pans that are greased and floured.
8. Bake at 360° for 30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool on cake rack.

Coconut and Pecan Frosting
1 cup white sugar
1 cup evaporated milk
3 egg yolks, beaten
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cups flaked coconut
1 cup chopped pecans

Directions
Combine and cook sugar, evaporated milk, butter, beaten eggs and vanilla over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens (about 12 minutes). Remove saucepan from heat. Stir in coconut and pecans. Cool completely, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

To assemble
Trim off the “dome” of the bottom 2 layers to help level the cake. Make sure the cake and frosting are completely cooled. Put icing between the layers and as Maw Maw made note, do not frost side of the cake.

Enjoy! Other recipes you may like:

Maw Maw’s Hot Milk Cake


Maw Maw’s Cocoon Cookies


Maw Maw’s Fresh Apple Cake

I honor my maternal lineage: I am Connie Lee, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrine, daughter of Minnie Mae; mother of Jade Lee-Mei.





My Daughter’s Graduation Gift

12 05 2014

Dearest Daughter,

Mother’s Day and your college graduation are just a few days apart, which has me reflecting on our mother/daughter bond. You and this huge milestone are gifts that make me extremely proud. It makes me think of gifts from your heritage. You are only the second generation from my family to graduate from college. You may remember the closure that ended each mother/daughter class that we took at the Unitarian Church when you were a young girl. “I am Connie Lee, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrine, daughter of Minnie Mae; mother of Jade Lee-Mei.” You have inherited a beautiful legacy of mother/daughter connection.

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

I am grateful that your Nana has been such a part of your life. You already know that you have feisty, quirky, and funny DNA coursing through your veins. I have sweet memories of my Maw Maw. I remember being rocked by her on their front porch and her singing the lullaby “Hush Little Baby”. And I’ve heard similar sweet memories from Nana of her grandmother, Minnie Mae. It’s important for you to know that you come from a heritage of love.

That legacy includes the wonderful Dads in your lineage too. Even if your memories of your grandfather are vague, you’ve been raised with stories about him and your great grandfather too. If you ever wonder what your great grandfather was like, look no further than your Uncle Dudley. The warmth, love of family, wicked sense of humor, and even his looks were inherited from his dad, your great grandfather.

When you were little, you loved to look in my jewelry box and ask me if the jewelry was going to be yours someday. For your graduation gift I am giving you a piece of jewelry that is part of your heritage. It is yours; to keep, or wear, or sell, or save to pass on to a daughter you may have someday. It is the ring my grandfather gave me when I graduated from LSU.

The gift in the box that my held my mother's engagement ring.

Your ring in the box that  held your grandmother’s engagement ring.

You know this ring as my engagement ring. Because this ring meant so much to me, your Dad added the diamonds and we made it the ring that would represent our marriage. Your Dad and I may not be married anymore, but you do know that our love for you has never faltered. We have always believed in your abilities and your dreams. You were born to parents who planned for you and who wanted you, when we were young, happy and in love. That’s what this ring represents and it is now yours.

I am proud of the woman you’ve become. Congratulations on your college graduation milestone. Your adult life is just beginning. During the ups and downs of where your life will take you, always know that you come from a circle of love.

Love, Mom





My Sweet Ghostly Connection

20 10 2013

This ghostly image of my grandparents, my mom and her little brother recently appeared in my life. The double exposed photo from the 1930’s shows a smiling family posing for a camera and then walking away. My grandfather’s translucent image shows him tenderly reaching for his little boy. They are dressed up in their Sunday best. Perhaps this cake was the dessert my grandmother had baked and was waiting for them.

Ghost picture

I hear my grandmother‘s whisper to me across the decades. The first line of her yellowed, handwritten recipe says, “Here is a good cake recipe I want you to try,” and it concludes with “sure is a good moist cake.”

apple cake recipe

Maw Maw’s Fresh Apple Cake

apple cake

2 cups sifted flour
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. soda
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. cinnamon*
½ cup shortening
1 ½ cup grated peeled apple
½ cup apple sauce*
2 tbsp. milk
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

Optional: ½ cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)*

Sift the first 7 dry ingredients together. Add shortening, grated apples, applesauce and milk. Beat together for 2 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla and beat for another 2 minutes.  Fold in nuts. Pour batter in a greased and floured pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until done.

* Added to original recipe

combined photo

I treasure my grandmother’s handwritten recipes. I felt her spirit with me as I used her apple-coring tool, her apple-green Depression Glass plates and her silverware.  And Maw Maw was right, it sure is a good cake recipe and I’m glad I tried it.

Here are a few other of Maw Maw’s recipes I’m sure she’d love for you to try.
Maw Maw’s Hot Milk Cake
Maw Maw’s Cocoon Cookies

I honor my maternal lineage: I am Connie Lee, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrine, daughter of Minnie Mae; mother of Jade Lee-Mei.

 





Ambrosia

17 11 2012

I love Thanksgiving and it’s traditions. I bring out dishes and silver that have been handled by so many loving hands in my family. I love the connection to the past and to the future.

My grandparents with their two small children moved from a small town in east Texas to south Louisiana in the 30’s. It must have been such a culture shock to all they knew. They came from white gravy and chicken fried steak and everybody being Baptist to a land of roux and gumbo and diversity and not everyone being Baptist.

My mom tells me she remembers asking her mother who those women were that wore long black dresses and covered their hair in a long black drape. She was told they were holy women. My mom thought that meant that the long black clothes were covering the holes in their body.

The Naked Lady Bowl

My grandfather moved to Baton Rouge to be the advertising manager of the Coca- Cola Bottling Co. (It’s just dawning on me as I write this, the family heritage of being marketers…love that.) His boss was a sophisticated and learned man and was Jewish. He gave my grandfather a beautiful bowl set as a thank you for a job well done. It was a beautiful set with a large bowl with six smaller serving bowls. It’s bone china with gold inlay. It has Goddesses at play painted in the bottom of each piece.

That’s the part where I know it got complicated for my grandmother. You see, some of these goddess are bare breasted. I know my grandmother would have known the value of this gift. I can only imagine her Baptist horror over the nakedness of those ladies. And that the southern woman in her could never be anything but gracious over this generous gift. Her solution was to bring it out only at Thanksgiving and to keep the bowls filled with what else…Ambrosia…the food of the Gods.

A Tradition Continues

I will continue with that tradition this Thanksgiving. My mom will come over and supervise me making the fruit salad and be the official taster. My daughter will help as we peel the apples, juice the fresh lemons, add the bananas, oranges, pineapple, coconut and sugar to taste.  This is not my favorite thing to eat at the holiday, but it is my favorite dish.  I love that this recipe goes back to my great grandmother and has been passed down to four generations of daughters. The recipe is not written anywhere; it’s been learned by our hands making it together. Over countless conversations, laughter, teenage attitude at having to peel apples, it has been passed from mother to daughter.

Priceless

This small bowl is chipped and glued together making it even more precious to me.

This bowl set may be of some value. I sometimes imagine I could go on the Antiques Roadshow and be one of those people who gasp over how much it’s monetary value is. But I will never sell it. It’s not mine to sell. It’s my future great grandchild’s who I hope will still be making ambrosia that she learned from her mother and is teaching her daughter how to make. And will be putting it in the Naked Lady bowl.

Mother to Daughter

I am Connie Lee, mother of Jade Lee-Mei, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrine, daughter of Minnie Mae.

Amen. Blessed Be. Namaste.