Barbara Ledford Wright
It was a wonderful summer in 1976. I was a fifth grade teacher; Randy a professor at the University. We weren’t teaching summer school, so planned to stay at home and do home improvements. But our plans changed suddenly one evening when my husband received a phone call.
My in-laws, Harold and Gertrude, were in Varna, Illinois at the Wright’s estate. They wanted us to drive up as soon as possible. My husband’s grandparents had died, and the estate needed to be settled. They said that if we wanted anything from the house we should come and claim it before there was an auction.
We packed our bags that night so we could leave at sunrise. We drove until late in the day and spent the night at a motel outside of Louisville, Kentucky. It was a long drive from the foothills of North Carolina to Illinois.
The next day we reached the little village of Varna around lunchtime. Harold and Gertrude rushed from the house to welcome us. They told us a little about Grandpa Wright’s brick house. A. R. Wright had owned some large farms in Marshall and Putnam counties, and he also had been a banker at the Marshall County State Bank. He’d had the brick home built in 1915 on this lot in town, because it was closer in than the Wright Farms out in the country, and would be more convenient for his work in town.
My eyes were drawn to the beautiful landscaping. The sweeping lawn surrounded the house. The yard was edged with mixed borders of perennials, shrubs. Old garden roses and flowering vines spilled over walls and twined up trees. The flowers could be viewed from any window in the house. At random places, teak garden benches provided a place to sit and enjoy the rich pageant of flowers.
Gertrude didn’t let us look around the house very long before shooing us into the kitchen. “I’ve made sandwiches and have a fresh coconut cake. After you eat we’ll get started. I hope you kids got a good night’s rest because there’s going to be a lot of work here. The Wrights never threw anything away.”
After a delicious lunch, we were free to go exploring. I loved the beautiful oak hardwood floors and stairs. I raced up the steps hoping to find an attic full of treasures. The oak floors continued upstairs as well. As I meandered down the hall, I peered into the bedrooms with lovely old furniture, but I stopped at the door of an antique bathroom. A beautiful gold claw foot bath tub sat on the tiled floor. Shower systems hung overhead. I noticed the brass plumbing fixtures, and the console sink that stood on brass pipes. A high tank commode, with a chain for flushing, was situated to the left. I opened a large closet that was stowed with white terry cloth towels and wash cloths. I backed out of the room and stumbled over a little enameled tub that was used only for washing feet.
Easing down the hall, I spied a closed door and turned the knob. The door swung open, and my heart skipped a beat or two because I was up there all alone. The floor had been finished and the walls were painted white. I pulled the chain to the ceiling fan and some cooler air began circulating. I gazed at a roomful of well organized cedar chests, leather trunks and objects wrapped in quilts and blankets. Chills raced up my spine. I’d found Grandpa Wright’s attic!
Light entered the room through a small window and shone on one particular cedar chest. This would be the one I’d open first. On the chest top was engraved on a metal bar the initials: L. A. W. I said out loud, “Law me, what does that stand for?”
I sucked in my breath as I opened the lid and drew the tissue paper wrapping from three mint condition bisque German dolls. From their markings, I saw that one was a K-Star-R bent-limb baby doll. It had sleep eyes, inset teeth, and a spring tongue. The doll company had been founded by sculptor Ernst Kammer and salesman Franz Reinhardt around 1909.
The next doll I unwrapped was just as beautiful. It had a marked bisque shoulder head, jointed kid body and legs, bisque arms, sleep eyes, and an open mouth. It was a J. D. Kestner bisque girl doll. I’d read somewhere that Kestner was considered the King of German Doll Makers.
The third doll was a six inch standing bisque Kewpie with jointed arms. She was such a chubby little cherub with a sweet smile, blue wings and painted side glancing eyes. She was also made by J. D. Kestner.
I thought that these dolls must have belonged to a dead child because they were in such good condition. I fingered a picture of a young man, a woman, and two children. The lady’s dress reached to the ground. The boy stood beside the little girl; she was holding a doll carriage which held the very same dolls I’d discovered in the cedar chest. On the back I found written the names: A. R. Wright, Mabel Hannah Wright, Harold Alfred Wright, and Lois Alta Wright.
My father-in-law walked into the room. He said, “Here you are! We were wondering what had happened to you. What have you found that is so interesting?”
I asked him if he knew anything about the people in the picture. He told me that A. R. had been his father, Mabel was his mother, the boy was him, and Lois was his little sister. She had been born in 1906, and she lived only until she was twelve years old before succumbing to the flu and measles epidemic that ravaged Varna during the winter of 1918.
Harold told me, “Lois had all the childhood diseases: scarlet fever, whooping cough, and chicken pox. But this case of measles was too much for her. That March, she got a severe case of the measles. She remained sick through May, then after a lingering illness of many weeks, she died June 6 from complications that brought on Bright’s disease.”
He went on, relating that the entire town grieved Lois’s passing. She was such a beautiful girl with pretty black hair and dark, shining eyes. She took her good looks from their handsome father, A. R. Wright, but her grace, pretty smile and sweet ways she inherited from their mother Mabel.
Tears swam in my eyes. He went over and pulled a quilt from a portrait of Lois. She looked to be about one year old. Even then, her personality shone through her smile and brilliant eyes. She wore a smocked, lace-trimmed dress. In her dark hair was a huge bow. Her picture was oval shaped and was matted in a highly decorated gold frame.
To this day, little Lois Alta Wright has a special place in my heart. I like to think I freed her from the darkness, into the light. I took her dolls and her portrait home with me. The dolls have a special place in our home, and the portrait of Lois hangs in our gallery. It’s been thirty-three years since we spent that summer in Varna. That was the year I started doing the family tree, and I joined the Doll Study Club. Because of Lois, I started two new hobbies.