A Letter Waiting

a Olean genealogy story

Orilla Martha Wells Bergreen
1896-1982

Just 90 years ago today, my great-grandmother Orilla Wells had a letter waiting for her.

I know this because the Olean Evening Herald listed her name in the January 19, 1923 Advertised Letters column. Orilla loved keeping in touch and that letter could have been anything. However, I like to imagine it was her invitation to accompany Edward Laughlin to a card party and dance held in Bradford PA a week and a half later.

The Ladies’ Club in Bradford organized the affair, and both of the Laughlin girls, Mrs. Archie Yerdon and Miss Elizabeth Laughlin, were on the planning committee. Members of the Knights of Columbus were invited as the guests of the Ladies’ Club, so it’s reasonable to guess that Edward Laughlin would have been in attendance, and perhaps might have preferred a dance partner besides his own two sisters.

I have no doubt Orilla would have enjoyed it, too. In a letter written decades later, she mentions being glad she didn’t travel to Florida for the holidays – but follows it up with a caveat:

I wouldn’t mind being able to take in some of their card parties tho.

If she did attend the K of C card party and dance, it wouldn’t have been the first time she made a social appearance in Bradford.  In 1919 she attended a Halloween dance there, reporting her activities to the newspaper’s society column in much the same way we would Tweet about it now. Nor was that her last social call to Bradford, Pennsylvania. Eventually she would even get married there, though not to Edward Laughlin.

Edward Christopher Laughlin was born 1896, the same year as my great-grandmother. From what I’ve gathered, he lived his whole life in Bradford except for his time stationed in France in the Army during World War I, from July 31, 1918 to August 19, 1919. However, just as Orilla had a few mentions in Bradford, Edward turned up in Olean now and again. He made an appearance at a K of C Third degree in Olean in May 1923, and when K of C threw a trio of formal galas early in 1924, including one in Olean, the paper lists Edward Laughlin of Bradford among the attendees.

I’ve never found anything verifying that Orilla and Edward went anywhere together, but I know for certain that she knew him. Long after these events, she would hand an old-fashioned portrait in a brown cardboard sleeve to my grandmother, and ask her to write on the back, “E. C. Laughlin – drafted May 31, 1918.” I’ve seen the photo and the sleeve. It bears the small but elaborate photographer imprint, “Sherman & Healy, Bradford PA.” My grandmother says the young man in the photo looks to her just like my grandfather. I see my cousin in his sober, monochromatic face.

The Wells family moved frequently, and though the exact date they left Olean is unclear, by September 1919 they were living in Warren, Ohio, and by 1920, Cleveland. Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again was not published until 1940, so Orilla’s generation would have used some other quote to convey the same thought. Perhaps the philosopher Heraclitus’ saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice” would do. Nonetheless, Orilla and her mother returned to Olean to live in February 1922, and maybe it seemed, for a while, that she could go home again.

On March 24, 1924, the paper reported that Orilla spent the weekend in Bradford. On December 29, 1924, my grandfather was born in Highland Springs, Virginia. The dates work with slightly eerie exactitude. And on February 6, 1925, an item ran in the Olean news that gives a clue as to what kind of person my great-grandmother was:

“Miss Orilla Wells of North First Street has returned from a several weeks’ stay in Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C.”

She wanted someone to know that she was back.

It wasn’t to be. On February 11, 1926, she married Arthur Bergreen and moved west — to Seattle, Washington, to be precise. They lived out their lives there, enjoying travel and family over the course of their 40-year marriage. Another of Orilla’s letters, written as a 72 year old widow, gives this startling insight:

Most of the people I’d like to be close to are back East and that’s a long ways. But I know I couldn’t live in Olean. … And I certainly wouldn’t go to Bradford even tho nearly all the old friends I keep contact with live there and I’d love to be near them.

It’s not the fact that she wouldn’t think of moving at that point in her life that surprises me, nor all she leaves unsaid about her reasons. No, it’s the emphasis that strikes me. Certainly not Bradford.

Though I didn’t know her, my great-grandmother is high on my list of people to hug in Heaven someday. Until then, there’s so much I won’t know about Orilla and Edward. I’m left to speculate on how they met, when they fell in love, the nature of the circumstances that separated them, and whether he authored that letter waiting at the post office 90 years ago today.

12 thoughts on “A Letter Waiting

  1. Very nice story about your great-grandmother. My mother always refused to go back to her home town because she said she wanted to remember it like it was when she left it back in 1936. Thanks.

    1. It’s really true, isn’t it? I tried to see whether “you can never go home again” was already a saying when Wolfe’s book was written, but didn’t find an exact source. In my g-grandmother’s case, she did make visits back home — which probably just confirmed it for her. Either too much changes for the place to feel like home, or the person changes and the place stays too much the same.

  2. I love your story and imagine it to be fairly close to reality. I think she would be very proud to have you for her great granddaughter. The two of you have a lot of common interests: cooking, reading and writing. Also looking at your pictures in close proximity I see a definite resemblance.

  3. Awesome! The details you can find from so many years ago are unbelievable! I think we have a few pictures with her when she came to visit Gramma one time. She died the year Gina was born though, so we were little.

  4. Wonderful writting Brandy! You are an awesome young lady and I am so glad you have found out so much information on Orilla. I remember her as a very gentle and propper lady. I liked her very much even though we had very little contact.

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