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