Beth Ripley Lyon
I never remember seeing my mother in the kitchen. I do remember seeing her crawl under a car to change the oil during a course she took after she joined The Red Cross Motor Corps.
The year was 1944. During World War 1, the Red Cross organized the Motor Corps. The volunteers, all women, supplied transport support for the military hospitals, camps and canteens. They provided the same invaluable service during the second world war. Part of the training included an emergency first aid class. My mother, an excellent driver, was already a Red Cross first aid instructor so when she heard about the Motor Corps, she signed up.
For weeks, she’d come home tired, dirty and greasy. My mother, who had always dressed with impeccable care, was a strange sight to my eyes. At the end of the training, she and twenty one others graduated, surrounded by amazed but proud husbands and children. The women looked stunning in their newly purchased gray uniforms with the red cross badge sewn on the shoulder.
My Mom’s first assignment was to drive the Red Cross canteen truck. She loaded it with coffee and treats and drove to locations all over the city where lonely, anxious soldiers were bivouacked awaiting their overseas assignments. When she arrived at her destination, she opened the long window and, looking snazzy in her uniform, became the charming hostess.
From 1940 to 1942, she served as president of B’nai Jehudah Temple’s sisterhood, a role her mother-in-law, Anna Lyon, had pioneered some forty years before. Obviously, my mother had little time for my nonsense. It seemed to me she was always on the phone.
My parents met on a blind date when Beth was at Smith College (remember? that’s where Oma Rose had sent her and maybe now we know why) and Leslie at Harvard. She’d recently had the chicken pox but was determined to go to the dance. She donned a large-brimmed black hat with a heavy veil to cover her scabby face and bravely took the train to Cambridge. But the hat and veil couldn’t cover up her slim figure and alluring charm. Dad fell in love with her and they married soon after graduation.
Beth looked gorgeous in an ankle length pure silk gown covered with tiny seed pearls and sparkling glass beads. A fashionable bubble of fine net sat atop her stylishly bobbed black hair and trailed delicately to the floor. Though handsome in formal attire, and barely twenty two years old, my father’s curly hair, more red than brown, was already thinning.
They made their home in Kansas City, Missouri where my father joined his grandfather Morris and his father Lee’s hide business.
My brother Lee arrived three years later and four years after that I came on the scene. Both of us were cared for by a German speaking nurse in a white uniform and cap, in hopes, I suppose, that we’d learn to speak the language. Neither of us did.
When not otherwise occupied, my mother always had some sort of needle work in her hands; cross-stitching, knitting or needlepoint. For my trousseau, she cross stitched an elegant dinner size tablecloth, two bridge table size cloths, and 24 napkins with brown thread on cream colored linen.
Mom became interested in the blind when she learned that National Council of Jewish Women and The Missouri Vocational Service offered weaving courses. She and some of her friends took the course and learned how to make table mats and napkins . Then they gathered together seven blind women and taught them how to weave the beautiful table mats and napkins.
With my mother as chairman, fourteen volunteers staffed, displayed and sold the mats and napkins for profit and divided the proceeds among the blind workers. It was a groundbreaking endeavor and for the first time, provided the sightless women with a means to make money. The shop was open from 9:30 to 3:30 Monday through Thursday. My mother and the other volunteers helped the workers with whatever they needed and later hemmed the finished products. Can you guess who supplied the transportation for the workers? The Red Cross Motor Corps.
Mom and her NCJW friends discovered that the blind women had limited social experiences so they organized a monthly party which included transportation, food and entertainment. The parties, funded by NCJW, continue to this day.
Meanwhile, my mother found another outlet for her compassion and energy. She discovered an organization that catered to the needs of blind children, birth through school age. Intrigued, she heard that the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired needed volunteers to read to the children. Going to CCVI became part of her weekly routine. The children adored her and called her Oma Beth.
With tutelage from Oma Rose, my mother became adept at investing in the stock market. She kept meticulous books in her neat but sometimes illegible handwriting. By now, Oma Rose had come to live with my parents. They adored her and hated leaving her alone at night so they often either took her along or stayed home. Bridge games flourished.
My dad’s death in 1967 set mom adrift. One day, I spotted an easel and a box of oil paint in a Cook Paint and Varnish Store. On an impulse, I bought them and took them to her. She was delighted and made immediate arrangements to take painting lessons from Frank Szasz, a Hungarian instructor at the Kansas City Art Institute. They became great friends and she went to Europe several times with a group he led to study the masters. Frank Szasz was to become an internationally known portrait artist.
That was the start of a whole new chapter in my mother’s life. She traveled alone and with friends to such places as India, Japan and the great wall of China. She continued to paint until she died of complications from a fall. She was ninety seven years old. Her latest needlepoint piece sat nearing completion on a table by her favorite chair.