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Cecil Mildred Lyon - A biography as seen through the eyes of her granddaughter, Judith Joyce Cook Overton

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Cecil Mildred Lyon
(A biography as seen through the eyes of her granddaughter, Judith Joyce Cook Overton)

My Grandmother, Cecil Mildred Lyon was born on November 2, 1899 and died of heart complications on September 16, 1990. As far as I know, she was born in DesMoines, Iowa and lived there for most of her life. Her son, Eugene Lyon moved her to Stuart, Iowa when he bought a house there in 1989. The house was a two story white building located on a gravel road. After the move, my Grandmother insisted to me that she had been in that house before. The house was a typical farm house and the interior design may have been similar to many other farm homes that had been built at the turn of the century.

My Grandmother was born as the fourth child to Sylvia Henrietta O’Gara Baker and Myer Greentree Baker. Her oldest sister, Mabel, was about five years older. She was closest to her two brothers who were slightly older than she was, and their nicknames were Goul and Con. She also had a younger sister, Ruth, who was about 6 years younger than Grandma.

One story that my Grandmother told me was about the time that she and her brothers were walking home from school. The three children decided to take a shortcut near the DesMoines River near the site where North High School now stands. The children’s shortcut was covered on that day by floodwaters, and the boys insisted that it would be safe to cross through the waters. My Grandmother made the journey safely, but she told me that she was terrified and being the shortest sibling could only keep her head above water by walking on her tiptoes.

My Grandmother recalled that when she was a girl, the streets of downtown DesMoines were “paved” with blocks of wood so that cars would not bounce around on the ruts in the road or become stuck in mud when the road was wet. One spring my Grandmother was walking with her Father along Locust Street. It had been raining for days, and flood waters from the DesMoines River entered the downtown area. She said that the rushing water lifted the blocks of wood up so that the entire street appeared to be magically floating and moving right before her eyes.

I usually called my Grandmother, “Grandma.” Grandma always talked fondly about her mother who taught her how to knit, sew, garden, clean and cook. Her mother also taught her how to play the piano. Grandma loved to play the piano and some of my best memories are of my Grandmother sitting on the piano bench with me and, later on, with my younger sister sitting beside her as well. Over time, she had played every song in every book and all of the sheet music that she owned for us. She would play as long as we were willing to listen. My favorites were church hymns and nursery rhymes, but we also learned many of the hits from the 1920’s through the 1940’s as well. Grandma often sang along with her piano music, and Janet and I sometimes joined her as we learned the words to songs such as “You Are My Sunshine,” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeeze,” by heart. It was the greatest entertainment.

When Grandma took care of me, it was all about me. I received her undivided attention for most of the time that I was there. Grandma did not have a lot of money, but we created a lot of playthings using scraps of paper cut from old catalogues and created stories by looking at the pictures in old calendars. Grandma loved flowers. I remember personalized tours of her perennial flower garden which eventually covered much of her back yard. She also gardened, and I remember spending time in her garden with her. She repeatedly told us to stay off of the dirt cave or cellar in her back yard, but when we thought that she was out of sight, we climbed on it and rolled down the small hill. It’s not that we didn’t respect her or not realize that it might really cave in, but the temptation was just too great to resist. Grandma canned the fruits of her garden and put the jars in the cave. Once she took me on a tour of the inside of the cave, partly so that I could see that it was dangerous and hollowed out inside. I remember rows of dusty jars, dampness, cobwebs and the smell of the earth in the darkness of the cave. It had a white wooden door with an old metal latch. Janet and I never tried to enter the cave without Grandma.

Grandma also told me a story that her mother, Sylvia, told her, and it was about her mother’s family when they lived on a farm. She said that sometimes local Native Americans would visit to see if the family had gifts or wanted to trade items. The parents feared that the Native Americans might steal their children, and when she was very small, they quietly hid my Grandma’s mother, Sylvia, in the Grandfather clock during the unannounced visits to ensure her safety.

During almost all of my childhood, my Grandparent’s lived at 2705 Adams in Des Moines. Grandma’s son, my uncle, who I called Uncle Gene, had hung a huge single board swing on a high limb of a very big oak tree and a large green swing that could hold at least four small children on a different limb of the same oak tree. There was a big white rock in the front yard that we loved to climb and play on in the summers. Uncle Gene had five or six vintage cars that we play in and on. We were careful not to break the lanterns that served as headlights or to damage the seats or scratch the black paint. As I look back, I am surprised that the adults let us climb in the cars, although we probably usually just pretended to drive them. At age eight, I learned to ride a large boy’s bike at my Grandma’s. The bike was old and rusty and had belonged to my Uncle. I was only allowed to ride it in the bumpy yard, so it was a challenge to ride. To dismount basically required crash landings.

I think that my Grandmother had a good childhood, and she must have been a bright child as she reported that she received very good grades in school. Grandma tried hard to please her parents and loved them both very much. Her life was turned upside down at age twelve when her mother, Sylvia, became very ill and died of a heart ailment.

Grandma took me to Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa and showed me where both her mother and father were buried. At the cemetery as we walked up to Sylvia Baker’s grave site, Grandma described in detail about her mother’s funeral. She said the casket was carried on the back of a horse drawn wagon and that it was dark, windy, and pouring rain. She could still remember the sounds of the horses’ hoofs as the horses came up over the top of the hill and descended down toward the group of mourners. She told us that it was scary because the adults and children were soaked and dressed in black. The hill was muddy, and slippery, and it seemed to her that all of the people were in tears. She said that it was the saddest moment of her life. At that time, there were not a lot of landmarks near her mother’s grave site and the weather was uncomfortable. Her brothers and sisters told her that she had to be the one to remember exactly where the grave was because she had the best memory. The children’s biggest fear at the moment was that they would not be able to find their mothers grave again. Of course, my Grandmother remembered where the grave was, and after my mother’s death, I was the one who would take my Grandma in the summers to visit her mother’s grave. I drove the car, and Grandma always gave the directions.

I was surprised to find out that Grandma talked out-loud to her mother when visiting the grave site as if somehow her mother could hear her or was still alive sitting there waiting for us. Grandma always referred to her mother as “Mama.” The first time that I took my Grandma alone to visit her mother’s grave, she introduced me to her mother with an audible, but muted joyous lilt to her voice, “Hi Mama, I’d like you to meet my granddaughter, Judy.” I could barely hold back the tears, and wished that I could really meet my great grandmother, Sylvia Baker. She must have been a wonderful person since my grandma loved her so much.

After her mother, Sylvia’s, death, most of the household duties fell to my Grandmother. My Grandmother’s oldest sister, Mabel, left home and got married; her younger sister, Ruth, was only six. During the early 1900’s, housework was considered to be women’s work; therefore, Grandma, at age twelve, began to cook and bake for the family, clean, do laundry, and still attend school. She no longer had much time to play, and so in a way, her childhood as she had known it, ended with the death of her mother.

Grandma continued caring for her family, attending school and getting good grades. While she was still attending West High School in DesMoines, she met her future husband, my Grandfather, Lloyd Lester Lyon. The first day that he met her, he announced to his buddies that she was the “one” - the girl that he would marry someday. My Grandmother quit school with just a semester of her senior year left in order to get married. Grandma and Grandpa Lyon were married on July 7, 1917 in Ankeny, Iowa at the First United Methodist Church. Grandma always told me that the number seven was her lucky number because there were three sevens in their wedding date. In 1974, my family and I moved to Ankeny and joined the First United Methodist Church not knowing at that time that that was also the same church where my Grandparents were married.

Because my Grandfather had a job as a mechanic in another town when they were first married, my Grandmother ended up initially living with her in-laws in DesMoines, Iowa while expecting their first child. A girl, Virginia Elizabeth Lyon, was born June 26th, 1918. My Grandparents corresponded during this separation and their first pregnancy by sending letters through the U.S. Mail, as my Grandfather did not get to return home as often as they would have liked. They were blessed with the birth of another girl, my mother, Berniece Louis Lyon, on September 30, 1919. My Grandfather continued to work successfully as a mechanic, and eventually opened his own auto repair business on Keo Way in Downtown DesMoines. Their only son, Eugene Clair Lyon, was born on May 23, 1926.

Financially, life improved for the young Lloyd Lyon family until 1929 when Wall Street collapsed and the United States and the rest of the industrialized nations in the world entered the time period that became known as the Great Depression. Once again, my Grandmother’s life, and her young family’s life as well, was turned upside down. During the Great Depression many people lost their jobs and could no longer afford to bring their cars to my Grandfather’s shop to be repaired. My Grandfather tried to keep his shop operating and even repaired some cars in exchange for apples sacks of potatoes, or other such items of trade, but unfortunately his business failed when his family needed his financial support the most.

My Grandmother put in a huge garden and canned food for the winter. She handmade all of the family’s clothing. She made her family’s underwear and many of the girl’s dresses from flour and or seed sacks and any remnants of material that could be found or reused. My mother constantly wore hand-me-downs. Everything, including old buttons and pencil stubs, were saved and reused if at all possible. If canned food was bought, the tin cans were reused as containers, and the back of the labels became scrap paper.
My Grandfather hunted in the city. He could no longer afford gas for his car, and had to walk. The only sources of meat that he could provide for his young family were the squirrels and rabbits that he was able to shoot. He was able to sell some of his squirrels and rabbits by going door to door. These small sales helped buy necessary items for his family. My mother reported times when she remembered going to bed hungry. One time, my mother told me that the only food left in the house was a jar of peanut butter which the family had to eat by the spoonful without bread or butter. My Grandmother remembered a time when they had only one nickel left. She used it to buy a loaf of bread. One December, my Grandmother had to tell her two daughters when they were twelve and thirteen that they would have no gifts for Christmas. Only the youngest, my Uncle Gene, would receive a small gift from Santa. My mother went to bed still believing that surely there would be something under the tree for her that Christmas, but her mother, my Grandmother, had told the truth, and the reality of poverty reigned.

My Grandfather entered into a depression of his own and never again held a job. My Grandmother, who had never learned to drive, was able to earn small amounts of money for the family as a babysitter and by performing other small jobs. My Grandmother always emphasized the importance of a complete education and all of her children graduated from high school.

The United States entered World War II, Grandmother’s first daughter, Virginia, entered the Women’s Army Corp and was sent overseas to serve. Virginia returned home several times while on military leave. Following the war, she married an Australian and moved to Australia. My Grandmother missed her first daughter terribly, and always prayed that her first child would return home to the United States, but this never happened except for several short visits. Her son, Eugene, became a mechanic, never married, lived at home and helped his parents financially. Her second daughter, Berniece, stayed in the DesMoines area except during her first year of marriage which was spent on a farm in Dexter, Iowa. Around this time, my Grandmother developed rheumatoid arthritis which over time severely limited her mobility and the dexterity of her hands and fingers. She eventually had knee replacement surgery on one knee. She always referred to that knee as her “good knee.” When the pain was severe, she coped by singing until she got up the steps or completed the task at hand.

My Grandmother was blessed with four grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Children were the light of her life, and she thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them. She loved family reunions and holiday family dinners at her daughter, Berniece’s home. She always called all of her children and grandchildren on their birthdays with her black rotary telephone and wished them a happy birthday. In addition, when she called, she sang the Happy Birthday song to the birthday “boy or girl” on the telephone. During the war, when her first daughter was unable to come home on her birthday, my grandmother still baked a cake, put Virginia’s picture on the cake, and sang “Happy Birthday.” She then proceeded to send an airmail letter to Virginia and tell her about the birthday that was celebrated in her absence. She celebrated family by trying to let each person know that they were loved and that she was thrilled that they were born and part of her life.

My Grandmother also had a strong belief in God, and purchased a Bible for each one of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her favorite song was “Count Your Many Blessings.” My Grandparent’s family attended First Federated Church in DesMoines. My mother remembered being a “raindrop” in a church play in the basement of this church which is the same church that I belonged to as a child. My husband, Chuck, and I were married in this very same church on December 22, 1962.

People lived without “modern” conveniences in the early 20th Century, although trains powered by steam and fueled by coal were traveling the rails. Although electricity was present before my Grandmother was born, some people in the city and most of the people living in rural areas used candles or kerosene lanterns for light. Homes were heated by fireplaces or by coal stoves. My Grandmother was four when crayons were invented, the manned airplane took its first flight, and ductile tungsten was first used in light bulbs. Most transportation was by foot or “hoof” during my Grandmother’s early years. She was nine years old when the first Model T car was sold, and thirteen when movie cameras became motorized and no longer had to be cranked by hand. Radio tuners that could receive different radio stations were invented when she was seventeen years old. During my Grandmother’s lifetime, other “miracles” unfolded before her eyes. She witnessed the introduction of refrigeration, central air conditioning, telephones, cell phones and computers. Transportation evolved to include passenger air travel. Rocket science paved the way for the United States to put a man on the moon.

Linked to  Cecil Mildred BAKER 

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