The Wells family lived in a small town in Oklahoma. My Grandmother, Lillie Wells, was the oldest of 11 children. They lived in a sod house in Oklahoma. All of Oklahoma was rural then. They lived off the land, and everyone worked hard. Lillie cared for the younger children and animals, cooked, and helped around the farm. There wasn’t electricity or indoor plumbing. Education wasn’t very important. Lillie made it to the 6th grade. There were more important things to do, like feeding 13 hungry people. My dad told me that the family scoffed at the educated. It was a waste of precious time to study. My dad longed to go to college, and managed to finish a year before dropping out to work harder and raise a family.
The Wells were a religious family, but there were not many people around to support a church. There was an itinerate minister named Mr. Holly who travelled the countryside and drummed up small congregations to preach to. I don’t think I ever knew his first name. The small gathering would put together a collection, and he would ride away to preach in some other small town, then return a few weeks or months later.
When Lillie was a teenager, probably about 16 years old, Mr. Holly came to town. My grandma told me that when visitors came to the house the kids were all scared. They weren’t used to seeing people out on their farm, so they would hide while their parents dealt with them. Mr. Holly, being the preacher, was invited in, and the family fed him. I can’t imagine that they let him stay the night, since there were already 13 people in their little shelter, but it’s quite possible they did.
During one of these visits, the minister asked to take Lillie with him to his home in Vermont to work as a housekeeper for his ailing wife. This was pretty common, from I understand. My aunt on my mom’s side did the same thing with another family when she was only 13, probably a dozen years later.
Little, innocent teenaged Lillie travelled by wagon to Vermont with this man. There were no highways. It was rough travel. Mrs. Holly was reportedly a sickly woman who spent a lot of time in bed, so I don’t know if she was with Mr. Holly on this journey to select her housekeeper, or if she was waiting at home in Vermont. I don’t know the nature of the illness, but it seemed to be associated in some way with not having her own children. But children were not out of the picture for the Holly family. They had a plan.
Mrs. Holly began to stuff her clothing with newspapers and pillows to make herself look pregnant. Meanwhile Lillie’s clothing grew tighter, and eventually she wasn’t allowed to leave the house. The Holly’s created this ruse to make it look like they were having a baby. In fact, they were. But biologically, it was Lillie’s baby with Mr. Holly.
Lillie stayed there for about three years, raising her own baby as the Holly’s child. I can’t imagine what that was like for her. I know for certain she loved the baby. She called her Lola Bell. At least that was the name I knew her by. Much later I learned her name was Charlene. My guess, with no evidence to prove it, is that Lillie named her Lola Bell, and the Holly family named her Charlene.
In about 1920 when Lola was a toddler and Lillie was 20, my Grandfather, John, and Lillie’s brother, John, travelled by covered wagon up to Vermont to fetch Lillie back. Grandpa John was just a neighbor at that stage. I don’t know what their relationship was like up until the time she left. Lillie left without Lola, because as far as everyone else knew, the child belonged to the Holly family. Lillie had to leave her daughter behind.
When they were 26, Lillie married her neighbor, John (Born Marion Albert, but always called John). My paternal grandparents were born 10 days apart in the fall of 1899, and knew each other all their long lives. They raised 3 children together, Norma, Ralph (my father), and Flora Bell. Grandma was determined to get the name Bell in there.
When Mr. Holly was dying he came clean and told Lola that the woman she always thought was her mother was not her birth mother at all. “Who was?” “Look for a girl named Lillie Wells in Oklahoma.
Lola was already married by then. Of course this was many years before the Internet, so sleuthing was a lot more difficult. Lola’s husband, Charles Couchot, began calling City Halls across Oklahoma, and ordering phone directories. He would go through the phone books and call everyone named Wells. He managed to find someone, possibly in Enid, who knew Lillie, and directed him to Ponca City. They connected with my grandparents and eventually Lola and Charles travelled east from their home in California to visit them in Oklahoma. My father, Ralph, was 19 or 20, my aunt Flora was about 9 or 10 years younger, and my Aunt Norma was a year older than my father and married.
My father described the time that Lola entered their lives as a very happy time. Family was very important to him, and having more of it was a fine thing in his mind. Lola was a friendly, loving woman. Both of my grandparents welcomed her into the family. There was some embarrassment about having an “illegitimate child” in the family by certain family members, but I didn’t understand much about that until my Grandmother died in 1994 and Lola wasn’t invited to the funeral. That hurt my heart. It wasn’t Grandma’s fault or Lola’s fault that they became a family the way they did.
What I remember about Lola was that she was easy-going, had patience for me as a squirrely kid, was really good at crafts and making things, and would sit down with me and show me how to make things with her. I specifically remember her little wire people, and crepe paper flowers. She went on to have a long life and a fine family in California.