Seventy Year Old Painting By My Mother Is Returned To My Family: A Stranger’s Gift Of Kindness


where has this painting been for 60 years?

Where has this painting been for 70  years?

Mr. Earley. I am writing with an inquiry regarding Jean Earley, the artist…

The email inquiry came four days after I’d buried my father. It was from a stranger — a woman named Mary Beth Bower.

I recently purchased a painting by Jean Earley and was researching her on the Internet. What I was able to find out was limited to her obituary from 2013 that you wrote. The oil painting is from 1945 and based on what I read, I believe she is the artist. It’s a beautiful painting of cactus in the desert with mountains in the background. Oil on canvas. Do you know if she would be the artist? Is there anything you can tell me about her?

In my reply, I explained that Jean Earley was my mother and, she was, indeed a prolific artist. She had died on December 19, 2013.  My parents had been married 70 years and after cancer claimed her at age 94, my father’s dementia took control of his mind. I believe her passing was simply too much for him to bear. His mind locked his past behind a door and he began living entirely in the moment. Sometimes, however, memories would slip out and he would ask about her. I hung a portrait over his bed that she had done of him when they were first married. He loved her art. But the memories never lasted.

I explained that my mother had taken photographs of her paintings, especially the ones that she had sold or had given away to friends, but I couldn’t find any record in her albums of the painting that Mary Beth was describing.

 I asked Mary Beth to send me a jpeg of the artwork. I knew from her email that she lived in Pennsylvania. My mother had been born in Pennsylvania and had graduated from the Philadelphia College of  Art. Had Mary Beth come across it in my mother’s home state? My parents also lived in Colorado, California, Oklahoma, Arizona, Florida and South Dakota. Had she found it in one of those states? My mother always participated in local art shows.

In her email reply, Mary Beth explained that she and her husband, Bob, had a vacation home in Ft. Myers, Florida, on the outskirts of Sanibel Island. She had spotted the painting in a Community Thrift Store operated by the Shell Point Retirement Community, where it was leaning against items on the floor in the back of the crowded shop.

She’d noticed the painting because of the mountains and blue sky, but had walked by it. A few minutes later, she had returned for a second look. Her daughter, Jacqueline, had recently moved to Colorado and Mary Beth felt it might be a painting that Jacqueline would enjoy because it was of mountains.

Mr. Earley, I feel the painting found me more than I found it. I believe things happen for a reason and not just coincidence.

When Mary Beth told me the date of when she had bought the painting, I was surprised. My wife, Patti, and I had been in Ft. Myers that very same day and, in fact, had driven by that thrift shop. We had gone to Ft. Myers before my fathers funeral for a short respite. Patti and I had taken care of my father and his death has been especially difficult for me.

I’d never been to Sanibel Island or on that street in Ft. Myers prior to our trip.

As soon as I received a jpeg of the artwork from Mary Beth, I knew that my mother had painted the picture. In my return email to Mary Beth, I wrote: “I know exactly where she painted the mystery picture.” My parents had left Pennsylvania on their wedding night for Colorado because my father suffered from asthma and had felt better in the high altitude when he’d visited there a few years earlier. They had lived in Denver in 1945 when she had painted the mountain scene.

How ironic, I thought, that Mary Beth had bought a painting that my mother had done as a young woman living in Colorado for Jacqueline, a young woman now living in Colorado. Patti had a different thought.

“Wouldn’t it have been incredible if we had gone into that store and seen that painting?” she asked me.

“It would have blown my mind,” I replied.

“Maybe your mom is sending you a message. That everything is okay. That she and your dad are back together again, just like when they were first married and living in Colorado.”

My parents in Colorado 1945

My parents in Colorado 1945

Mr. Earley, I have given it much thought and decided that I would like for you to have the painting. As I stated before – the painting found me more than I found it. Could there be a good story behind the painting?  I wonder how it got to Ft. Myers and where has it been for 70 years?  I plan to return to Ft. Myers in May and will bring it back then.  When I have the painting, I can arrange to give it to you as a gift.

My daughter Jacqueline feels it’s the right thing to do.  She and I agree that you should have it. It belongs in your family especially because it is one of your mother’s earliest paintings.  You are not taking it away from me, I found it and I believe it belongs to your family. My husband and my mother agree too. I look forward to meeting you and returning the painting. 

Mary Beth presented the painting to me on June 19th, a Friday. She told me that it was an early Father’s Day present. This weekend was the first Father’s Day without my dad.

I have no idea how the painting got from Colorado to Florida. I have no idea if my mother sold it or gave it away. I have no idea who might have owned it during those decades. What I do know is that I am tremendously grateful to Mary Beth Bower and her family for contacting me and for their generosity in returning the painting. It was an amazing Father’s Day gift.

When I look at the painting, I think of my mother at age 26, at the start of her life with my father, painting the beautiful Rocky Mountains with no idea about where life would take her. And I also think about what Patti said and I want to believe that she is right — that my parents are together again.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.