Letters hidden in the foundations of a Red Deer house for 70 years were uncovered during a home renovation in 2012.
Their secret contents ignited the curiosity of Red Deer-raised filmmaker Colin Scheyen.
His feature-length documentary Love, Oran, now showing at the NorthwestFest documentary film festival in Edmonton, tells a heartrending family story, while also adding a fascinating new chapter to the personal annals of Red Deer.
The historic letters came to light after the Waskasoo home that Scheyen’s parents owned, and he grew up in, was purchased by his brother and his wife. The couple began an upgrade and discovered, under the basement drywall, four letters from 1949 wedged in a crack in the foundation stones.
It turned out these letters, signed “Love, Oran,” were written by a young woman who had moved from Red Deer to Ontario. They were addressed to her father back home.
Scheyen discovered that Oran’s dad was Ralph Whitney, the first principal of Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School, the home’s occupant during the 1940s.
Oran revealed to her father her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and her decision — based on Whitney’s advice — to put the child up for adoption.
Scheyen, who’s been living in Toronto since 2005, after attending Red Deer College and the University of Alberta, didn’t find out about these letters until about 2015. But he was immediately intrigued.
Pregnancy in single mothers in the 1940s was considered shameful. But Oran’s responses to her father indicate he hadn’t judged her too harshly, said Scheyen, while “other parents might have disowned her…”
That Whitney opted to hide his daughter’s letters to avoid stigma suggests he could not bear to destroy them. Scheyen believes this underlines the loving nature of their father-daughter bond (Oran’s mother had previously died).
“If the letters had been destroyed, then none of this would have happened,” said Scheyen, referring to “heartfelt” family connections that sprang from his cross-country search for Oran and the child she gave up.
The film recounts some dead-ends and sealed adoption files, and ultimately, a joyful reunion that happened in 2019 at Edmonton airport.
Red Deerians are encouraged to watch Love, Oran, either through the NorthwestFest or when the documentary airs on Super Channel in June, to find out more about how this story unfolds.
Scheyen, a filmmaker and educator for over a decade, discovered through interviews with Oran’s other four children that she was a loving parent — and could keep a secret as well as her father.
Oran’s other kids were never told about their older sibling who had been adopted. “But her daughters remembered there was always one day in June when their mother would cry in her room. They didn’t know what brought on this sadness,” but now realize it was her firstborn’s birthday, when the child was surrendered.
Scheyen has always been interested in crafting stories for film, and feels particularly “passionate” about this project. “I just think it says a lot about unconditional love” — a father for his daughter, a mother for her child.
He’s thrilled that Love, Oran is showing at the NorthwestFest, Canada’s oldest documentary festival. He later hopes to sell it to American broadcasters.
Visit northwestfest.ca/films-2021-online-backend/love-oran for more information.