One Photo, One Painting, Multiple Coincidences

For many years I had a photo of a pretty blonde young woman in an ornate frame in my attic: my paternal aunt. I also had an oil painting that had hung in my aunt’s home; my father and I retrieved it when he was executor of her estate. I moved the painting to various places around my house, but only recently did the photo and the painting become the center of a remarkable set of events that started when I was a child and have just recently surfaced through coincidences that amaze me unlike anything I’ve ever before encountered. I want to share them with you if you are interested in a convoluted story that may seem to be going nowhere, but it will if you follow me to the end.

Aunt Elsie’s portrait, today hanging in the Steele Mansion, Painesville, Ohio.

The photo of Aunt Elsie, artificially colored because color photography hadn’t come about yet, was my father’s older and only sister, and I’m guessing it was taken when she was 19 or 20. Aunt Elsie was probably born about 1902 or ’03, and even though she lived in East Cleveland and later in Euclid, she wasn’t a major part of my life until my late childhood because my father disliked the man she married. Pete Carrick was an Englishman and rather a lazy boor, very willing to let his wife support him. His main conversation was about how great England was compared to America.  My dad’s response to our visits when we left their home was always, “If it was so great in the Old Country, he damn well should go back.” When Pete died, my mother, who was a kind, gentle soul, insisted that Elsie be accepted as a loving sister.

This change in family dynamics opened up my aunt’s house to new explorations for this nosey niece, and Aunt Elsie was patient and loving in the way she explained everything in it, which included many items from England.  She was also a novelty to me since she had been an employed woman, having retired from the Cleveland branch of the Ohio Bureau of Unemployment.

One of the things in her home was the oil painting, which was signed by the artist, Romeo, at the bottom right. I found the name hugely romantic, but Aunt Elsie said simply that he was a young man who came to the bureau seeking a job. She found a suitable one for him, and to express his gratitude, he had painted the picture for her.

Phil Romeo’s painting, today hanging in the Steele Mansion in Painesville, Ohio.

Elsie died in 1966; she and Pete had not had children, so Dad and I cleaned out her house.  Since I was her only niece other than one in Maine, I took the photo of her and packed it away and hung the painting in Chuck’s and my first house and then in our house on Trask Road. Almost every time I passed the painting, I wondered about the mysterious Romeo. One day in 2014 I was doing a rampage-style cleanout of my attic and came across Elsie’s picture, which I’d long since forgotten was there.

Fast forward to 2015 when I was touring the Steele Mansion in Painesville, an opulently renovated bed and breakfast/gathering center, which had been miraculously saved from the wrecking ball by Art and Carol Shamakian. Steele has two second and third story long corridors, which Carol has turned into a  gallery of old framed photos, mostly of people whose identities are a mystery.

Like most photos of the early 1900s, they are almost all stern (i.e. crabby) looking folks. As I walked those corridors about a year ago, I thought, “Aunt Elsie’s picture belongs here; she would be the only pretty face in the crowd.” I took it to Carol and told her about the photo, and she hung it with the others. About six months later, it occurred to me that I should take the Romeo painting to Steele too because it was part of my aunt’s story. Carol hung the painting in the mansion’s basement near the kitchen, not a prominent touring spot.

Then, on Oct. 8, 2016, I was at a pre-wedding party at Steele for Ted Dalheim, Jr., and Laura Dobson, whose marriage would take place the next day. Many of the attendees had not been to Steele before, and I took two of them on a tour of all three floors and pointed out my aunt’s picture. When we got back downstairs, I said to Carol, “I see you have my aunt’s picture up there.” Carol asked me to come into her office as she had something to show me. She pulled out a printed note that said, “Dorothy Romeo, (phone number), My husband was the gentleman who painted the picture in the hallway near the kitchen. I’m glad you have it.”

The following Monday I could hardly wait to call Dorothy. She answered right away in a very firm voice, and I told her my saga. She said she is 85 and that her son was touring Steele and recognized the painting right away as his father’s. She said her husband’s name was Phil and that he was an artist most of his life (after early on taking two weeks of art lessons and deciding he already knew what was being taught). Her son took a picture of the painting at Steele and sent it to her, and she recently went to the mansion to look at it herself. Dorothy got very choked up when I ended by telling her I’d been the caretaker of the painting for 50 years.

I thought that was the end of the story but was amazed to learn of one more coincidence.  I met my friend Ruta Greiner the next day, Oct. 11, for lunch and began to tell her the story. Her eyes got wider when I used the name Romeo, and she asked if I knew the artist’s first name. When I told her it was Phil, she said, “Dorothy and Phil – I’m quite sure they were my parents’ best friends, and I just saw Dorothy last week at a funeral.” Ruta checked with her mother, who confirmed the connection. Ruta then went to Steele and photographed both Elsie’s picture and the painting.

Art seems to fulfill many people’s desire to leave something behind, to achieve a kind of immortality. Phil Romeo’s painting traveled about 60 miles in its journey through the Cleveland and Lake County areas, and thanks to where it is, longevity should be assured. All the people involved with the painting resided within about 50 miles of each other, so maybe its history isn’t totally strange. On the other hand, there are over 500,000 people who now live within those areas. Is it not amazing that the three or four people directly involved with Phil Romeo’s painting learned of the connection 65 years after he took his paintbrush to canvas?


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