Week 18: #52Ancestors – Close Up
By Eilene Lyon
Being an Army brat, I didn’t grow up close to my extended family. But I always had a special affinity for my paternal grandmother, Reatha (Gusso) Halse. Her home was in Corvallis, Oregon, and she worked at Oregon State University in the chemical lab supply room.
The mother of four boys, she was widowed at age 45 in 1961 – just before I was born. We lived with Grandma for a short time when I was finishing first grade, and also during the first half of my sophomore year of high school.
The last time I lived with Grandma Halse was after I graduated college in the summer of 1985. It was just the two of us in her warm, embracing home. We enjoyed our morning coffee together, chatting amiably, then I would go out job hunting. Later, I would work on painting the outside of the house (my rent payment). That time with her will always be a fond memory for me.
Reatha Gusso (right) with her younger sister, Eleanor, about 1920
Reatha Mary Gusso was born on March 5, 1916, in Florence, South Dakota, the eldest child of Walter and Stella (Crandall) Gusso. She was petite, vivacious, hard-working, and intelligent, but scholastics were not her main concern in 1932, the year she turned 16.
Probably nothing can bring you closer to understanding someone than a personal diary. In 1932, Reatha dedicated herself to recording a daily recital of her activities for an entire year. And an eventful year it was. As far as is known, it was the only diary she ever kept, because the following year, Reatha was a busy wife and mother.
The opening pages of Reatha’s 1932 diary
Reatha was what we would call a “social butterfly.” Growing up in the Prohibition era didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for partying on a weekly basis. Every night, she diligently recorded her bedtime – frequently after 2 a.m. on weekends. Her evening activities included basketball games, movies, dances – and parking.
She had her eye on one man in particular, Everett Halse (yes, man – he was 15 years her senior), but she also went out with other boys and men, and in mixed groups. It seems strange from my present-day perspective, but Reatha’s social circle ranged from pre-teens to adults in their 30s, seemingly without regard for age differences. Perhaps it was just a consequence of living in the rural northern Great Plains.
One interesting aspect of Reatha’s bulls-eye on Everett was that he also dated her second cousin, Delma Zirbel. Delma was much closer to Everett in age and quite attractive and stylish. A 16-year-old-girl would struggle to not appear childish by comparison.
Delma Zirbel and Everett Halse in December 1931 at the Halse family farm
I learned about Grandma’s diary when I started a family newsletter to share my genealogy research. My uncle mentioned the diary and he has been contributing installments for years, generally a week’s worth at a time. The extended family, even those not related to her, have enjoyed reading about Reatha’s South Dakota teen life.
Here is how she started off the diary on Friday, January 1 (she was just 15 then):
“Happy New Year everybody. Had oyster stew for dinner. Grandma C. [Crandall] was here. Ervin York & [cousin] Grace were here awhile this P.M. Everett came about 5:30. He stayed for supper until about 8:00. We then decided to go to a show. We went to ‘Spooky’ at the Colonial. It sure was good. Had ice cream at Tuck’s Cafe. Stopped at Nelsons Garage for oil. Everett & I had a real long talk tonite. When we got nearly to Florence we parked for at least an hour. You’ll have to guess what we did. I really started the New Year right by going with Everett today. Had a good time. Bed 2:00.”
Perhaps you can see why my family is hooked on this intimate look at someone so dear, who is no longer with us.
Feature image: Reatha Mary Gusso with dahlias, about age 15.