The Mystery Behind My Mother’s Painting Is Solved: Gift To Best Friend From Childhood



The mystery about my mother’s 70 year-old painting has been solved thanks to Mary Kay Grimaldi, an editor with Shell Point Life magazine in Fort Myers, Florida.

In June, I wrote about how I’d received an email from a stranger, Mary Beth Bower, who had come across an oil painting in a Florida thrift store that she thought might have been painted by my mother, Jean Earley. The canvas was dated 1945, and after seeing it, I was able to confirm that it was one of mother’s earliest paintings even though I’d never seen it before and didn’t know it existed. It was not listed in the portfolio of my mother’s work that she kept. She painted it two years after marrying my father when she was 26 years old.  As newly weds, my parents had moved to Colorado from the East Coast to begin their life together. The painting was a scene that my mother could see from their tiny apartment, I later learned. My mother died at age 94 in December 2013.  My father died fourteen months later, also at age 94. (Read blog about mystery painting.)

Mary Beth bought the painting on the same day that my wife, Patti and I, were in Ft. Myers. Incredibly, we had driven by that thrift store and Patti later remarked about how strange it would have been if we had gone inside and found it before Mary Beth. We had gone to Sanibel Island for a short respite a few days after my father died. Patti and I had taken care of him and his death had been especially difficult for me. His dementia had overtaken his life after my mom died. I believe it was fueled by the grief of him losing his partner of 70 years.

The blog about Mary Beth’s discovery and kindness in returning the painting to me attracted interest from Amy Bennett Williams, a columnist at the News Press newspaper in Ft Myer, who wrote about my parent’s love affair and asked readers if anyone knew how the 70 year-old painting had made its way from my mother’s easel in Colorado to a Florida thrift store.  Williams’ story caught the eye of Mary Kay Grimaldi who posted a picture of the painting in the Shell Point resort’s September magazine. Within hours, I received an email from Betsy and Larry Smith, two Shell Point residents.

Reading Shell Point Life today I was surprised to see the photo of the canvas I donated to the Shell Point Community Thrift Store. My husband, Larry, and I just moved to Shell Point in February of this year. In downsizing, I made the difficult decision to part with this painting. This was a gift from your mother to my husband’s mother, Virginia Sordon. They were childhood neighbors and great friends in Saucon Valley, Pennsylvania, near Bethlehem. We remember how often “Ginnie” spoke fondly of Jean. The painting was a gift to Ginnie from your mother. Larry’s mother gave the painting to us when we were living in Mariemont, Ohio, 1973-2004. It was framed and hung in our family room. It followed us to our new home, a condo in Fort Pierce, Florida until this past February when we moved into Shell Point. Alas, we had to part with the painting in this last move because of a lack of wall space. We understand it has been returned to you. We are so happy that it has come home full circle.

Virginia was my mother’s childhood friend. Ginnie lived across the road from my grandparent’s farm, and she and my mother became inseparable pals. Ginnie was my mother’s Maid of Honor at her wedding to my father and they stayed in touch their entire lives. Ginnie and her husband visited my parents in South Dakota when both couples were in their 80s and when my parents moved in with us in Virginia in 2009, I drove them to see Ginnie in Pennsylvania shortly before she died.

Virginia 'Ginnie' holding her dog TIppy and my Mother holding her cat Cinders as schoolgirls in 1937

Virginia ‘Ginnie’ holding her dog Tippy and my Mother holding her cat Cinders as schoolgirls in 1937

The email from Betsy and Larry Smith (Ginnie’s son) explained where the painting had been all those years before it was returned to me.

In her original note, Mary Beth Bower wrote:

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

My mother’s painting is now in our house and when I look at it, I not only think about my mother, newly married and starting her life with my father, but of the love that she had for Ginnie and the wonderful blessing that ‘best friends’ are in our lives. I am grateful that so many people played a role in the painting’s journey to me and for sharing its story with me.

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.