We were saddened to hear this week that Zelda Peterson passed away just short of her 102nd birthday. As early as last year Zelda was still getting around amazingly well and chalked up her longevity to a positive attitude and the love that surrounded her throughout her life. Zelda even managed to make the best of the isolation years of the pandemic. We wrote about Zelda during the height of the pandemic in 2020 in our publication entitled Life Goes On. We are honored to reprint that article this week once again in honor of Zelda and the life she lived Long Time Gone.
Zelda White Peterson was born in the year 1920, which, as it turns out, was a pretty big year in a pretty big decade that produced pretty astounding inventions.
Eskimo pies. The jungle gym. Traffic lights. Band Aids. The hair dryer. Convertibles. Water skiing. Cotton swabs. Cheeseburgers. Masking tape. Pop-up toasters. Sunglasses. Ice cube trays. Bubble gum. And, last but far from least, Penicillin.
All of these once extraordinary—now ordinary items came into creation around the same year Zelda did, and all of them—from Eskimo Pies to Mrs. Peterson—are still going strong.
Yes, it is possible that, to some, those things may seem to be loosely connected, at best. But there is actually an important lesson to be learned from what and who came out of that period in time, and it can all be summed up in a single word.
Durability. The ability to withstand wear, pressure, damage or change.
When Zelda Peterson was born in May of 1920, the 1918 flu pandemic known as the “Spanish flu” was slowly coming to an end. Described as one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history, the influenza had caused the death of somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide and 500,000 in the United States.
The risk to any child was enormous. Yet, baby Zelda was unaffected. This woman, who never grew past being 5 feet tall, seems to have been blessed with being as tough as she is tiny.
Born to Edith and Glen White as the oldest of six children, Zelda grew up on the family farm just 12 miles northeast of Eads, not far from Rush Creek. Things being what they were, she also grew up with the clear understanding that life is hard, and hardship can come in all forms.
The Whites lost three children in their infancy—one son and a set of twins—and there is nothing harder than the loss of a child. In the dirty thirties, it wasn’t uncommon for dust storms to slowly grow on the horizon and transform into dark, ominous clouds rolling in on their farm from the north. “If we were doing the wash and saw that dark cloud,” Zelda recalls, “we knew to take everything off the line, bring it inside and button down because that dust would permeate everything. It could make its way through a tiny crack in the window or a space between the boards in the wall.” There were surprise spring blizzards that came out of nowhere when it “snowed and snowed and snowed”, and the only thing that kept children safe was their mothers relying on their instinct more than their eyes. And there was always the threat of tornadoes like the one that wrecked a neighbor’s house and killed an entire family.
The one constant that ran through everybody’s day was work. As the oldest child, Zelda helped her mother with washing, ironing, cleaning, sewing and all the daily needs generated by a house full of seven children living on a dryland farm. She and her mother made clothes out of feed sacks that were printed with pretty patterns. She made a pair of trousers for her brother because he was too skinny for store bought clothes. The family made their own butter, butchered their own beef, and weekend trips to town were prompted by selling cream to ship to Pueblo and eggs to apply against the grocery bill. Sometimes, while there, the family went to a movie, but, more often, they did not.
“It was the same old thing, every day,” Zelda recalls. “There was no time to kill and always something that needed to be done. If we needed something, we figured out a way to get it. If we couldn’t figure out a way, we’d just go without. And if there was time to play, my sisters and I had a doll to play with, but…no…we didn’t complain. It never occurred to me. I was just a plain old country girl. It was the only life I knew.”
The lives people led in those times would be viewed as grueling and harsh today, as if something had gone wrong somewhere. But therein lies one of the most startling differences between the past and the present, for people from that era rarely felt they had been cheated out of the life they should have led. How many times was the question asked, Whoever said it was going to be any different? And how many times was it met with the answer, No one, that’s who.
The days may have been long, the times may have been hard but they were the same days, the same times experienced by everyone they knew.
And yet, the farmer hasn’t been born who doesn’t think about the seasons up ahead, and Glen Barber, Zelda’s father, was no different. Growing up, Glen’s family wasn’t able to provide him with an expensive education. Now, with a family of his own, Glen wanted an easier life, a self-sufficient life, for his children. He wanted a better future for his family. Both he and Zelda’s mother, Edith, knew education was the answer.
Despite working all day coaxing crops from land that was less than giving, Glen still made time to be on the local School Board and drive the school bus that picked up all the kids. And from the time Zelda first started going to school as one of a handful of students in a one room schoolhouse named “Rush Creek School”, she was told she was going to go to high school, graduate and then go a trade school, after that.
And that’s exactly what she did. Eight years at Rush Creek School, some of them taught by a favorite teacher, Mr. Darlington, followed by four years of high school at Eads Senior High.
Despite it being a time when wages were low, rain was scarce and there was no certainty of better times up ahead, it’s when Zelda speaks of her high school years that a hint of the school girl comes into her voice. Were there dances in high school? Yes, on some Saturday nights. Did she play any sports? Yes. Volleyball. Sort of. She wasn’t even five feet tall, after all. Did she like to watch sports? Oh, yes. Baseball. She loved baseball and watched it all the time. Did she have a job? As a matter of fact, yes, and she earned $6 a month. Did she have a boyfriend? She did, but when the war broke out, he enlisted and ended up in the Philippines. So much time passed with no word that she assumed that he’d been killed and only found out different when she saw him at a high school reunion years later.
Zelda’s father had always told her, “To make the best of an opportunity, choose something that you like to do and you’ll do a better job.” So, after graduation from high school, Zelda went to business school in Colorado Springs. While she was there, she met her husband—“at a party, of course,” she says. “He was Swedish.” And then, with no small amount of pride, she adds, “We were married for 64 years.”
In the course of Zelda’s life, she’s lived through the end of the 1918 pandemic, three assassinations, five wars, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the invention of computers, cellphones and cars that run on batteries. And now, she’s experiencing another pandemic from a virus that is the first of its kind. Yet, when asked what impacted her the most over the 100 years she’s been alive so far, Zelda doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Seeing them put a man on the moon,” she says. “I can’t believe we could do that. Get a man all the way up to the moon and then bring him back to earth, safely.” A sense of wonder could be heard in the centenarian’s voice.
When Zelda was asked if she remembered her high school graduation and being handed her diploma, it was one of the few questions she answered with a no. Surprising but understandable. That was, after all, 82 years ago. But, perhaps, there is another, equally real explanation.
Graduation is a ceremony of accomplishment that symbolizes the move from childhood to being an adult. Sadly, it’s a ceremony that countless young people are missing out on right now. However, people like Zelda, people who were born and raised so many years ago, often grew up long before their time. The move from childhood to self-sufficient adulthood couldn’t be contained in a single ceremony any more than a river could be contained in a glass.
At this time of year when cellphones should be full of photos with high school seniors clad in caps and gowns but are not…
When freshly graduated seniors should be laughing and crying and already reminiscing about the end of their high school years but are not…
When parents should be sitting in folding chairs and bleachers and watching their kids cross the stage as they wonder how they grew up so fast but are not…
Maybe the self-sufficient strength and determination of people like Zelda Peterson will remind us all that, no matter how hard or frightening at times, somehow life—in all its glory—still goes on.