Gwen Wilder

The girl with the golden smile, Gwen has lead troupes and companies throughout her entire life. She has broken gender roles and has been the sole bread winner for her children since being torn from the nuclear family lifestyle of the 1950s.

Gwen grew up poor yet well-liked along with her younger sister and brother. Trouble and mischief rarely found Gwen, she was well behaved and often sang songs about corned beef, cabbage and beer with her father after school.

Gwen quickly fell into the role of chef, and by the age of nine was frying chicken and rabbit and frequent family trips to Aunt Josephine’s ranch to eat pine nuts and play on old farm equipment.

Moving to Willows at 12, a town of 4,000. Lorraine, her mom, would always ask boys “Who do you think is the prettiest Ruth or Gwen?” Both sisters were very popular with the boys in Willows, and were quickly paired up with the two most popular. Shortly after moving to Willows, the Gwen and Ruth were both the town’s papergirls and were a large presence in an incredibly small town.

Gwen and her sister Ruth took home-ec in school and would sew their own dresses for special events, making certain that they had the prettiest clothes at school. Her mom would pester Gwen to get a boyfriend. A boy once gave Gwen a ride on his bike’s handlebars. When he put his arms around her and another school chum yelled, “Look! Look!” Gwen hit him and hauled off in embarrassment. He lost 2 teeth.

Family at a glance

  • Gail Haggard
  • Wesley Costa
  • Greg Costa
  • Randy Hurlbut
Gwen's elementary class
Gwen, third from the right second row.
Gwen's highschool yearbook
Gwen's highschool yearbook.

Enter Wes

Gwen first saw Wes while she was working at the movie theater. He had brought his wife in a few times, and they shortly divorced. Wes and Gwen dated for about a year before he asked to marry her. Wes, his brothers, and dad were all volunteer firemen in Willows, and a staple of the town.

After having lost weight due to pneumonia, the town doctor advised Gwen to regain her weight by either drinking beer or getting pregnant. Surprise surprise, shortly after that, Gail was born! Wes started a job at the California Highway Patrol as a patrollman where Gwen had worked for 5 years prior.

Wes put in a request to transfer to Susanville because there was no opening in Willows and the three of them packed up their things expecting to have housing ready through another officer. They arrived with no place to stay. After searching all day they found a storage warehouse to unload their things and stayed in the one bedroom apartment attached. Shortly after moving in the pipes froze, burst, and flooded the entire apartment. They moved into a house after that.

Gwen and Gail

Gwen and Gail
Gwen and her daughter Gail.

The time in Susanville was short lived and the family moved back to Willows after a short stop in Williams. A 4 year old Gail was growing lonely and soon came Greg. Gail adored her baby brother and would mother him and any other neighborhood kids that happened to be around. There was an opening at the CHP in Willows and the family moved home.

About the same time that Wes joined the CHP he started experiencing tingling sensations around his waist and numbness in his left leg.

Over a few years Wes began to lose feeling in his left leg, and had a tingling sensation around his waist. No treatment helped ease his condition. One day Wes came home laughing because he left a stuffed sock in his boot all day and didn’t feel a thing.

As if overnight Wes’s condition shifted and he was completely paralyzed. Gwen’s mother would take care of the kids and Gwen would visit any chance she could get. The family struggled with his new development, with an overheating car on the long trips between Willows and Sacramento. Josephine saw this and bought Gwen a brand new '63 Chevy that would later be outfitted with handheld controls for Wes. The doctors sent him to Martinez Veteran's Hospital, they concluded that the paralysis was going to be long term. The tingling sensation turned into pain.

He tried everything. After an immense amount of tests the doctor at the Veteran’s Hospital concluded that the pain that Wes was feeling was “All in his mind.” He was loaded up with pain killers and underwent exploratory surgery and severing nerves where he was having pain. Surgery made things worse. He was moved home where he developed a bladder infection, kidney infection on top of a bedsore. He was in constant agony for 3 from his spine and Gwen struggled to give Wes happiness, to make him pain-free.

Wes commited suicide by an overdose of pain pills, hidden by Gwen. Newly widowed Gwen and her two children were sudenly left to provide for themselves.

Follow her lineage

It has taken years to collect, curate and record my family's history and I've barely scratched the surface. What you see in this document is an exploration of an atypical Californian family. A common theme throughout my lineage is strong women providing for themselves and their kin passed their due. It's clear to see the turning points in my Great Great Grandmother's life and how it has rippled down generations.

Each person portrayed here is done so with love and kindness, and I hope that I have done their character justice.

A Study Of Family

by Jonathan Haggard

All icons from The Noun Project.