Julian and Elizabeth Black at their wedding in Paris in 1944.John Black
Before the war, Elizabeth Black was a rising artist in her native Pittsburgh, painting portraits for prominent families like the Mellons and studying at the prestigious Art Students League in New York. In 1940 she was commissioned to paint 25 life-size oil portraits of literary greats such as Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, standing on a ladder to paint them into niches near the ceiling of a great room in the Carnegie Library in the city's North Side neighborhood.
The paintings disappeared during a 1960s renovation.
In 1944, while in Cherbourg, France, Elizabeth Black met Julian Black, a naval commander from Tennessee. They joked about their shared last name, and he wrote a popular song lyric in her notebook, "I'll be seeing you."
They married during the Christmas holidays that year, at the American Chapel in Paris. Family legend has it that they were the first American couple to do so there since D-Day. After the war ended, they sailed back to the United States and settled in Waynesboro, Va., where there wasn't much call for a portrait artist.
Elizabeth Black had two sons and helped her husband with his soft-drink business. After he died in 1956, she stayed in Virginia until their sons were old enough to take care of themselves. In 1963 she moved first to Berkeley, Calif., and then to Portland, Ore., where she resided until her death.
In that later portion of her life, John Black said, his mother began painting again, but it was never for the public.
He has the regrets of any grown son or daughter with a parent long gone — the regrets of anyone, really, who has lost someone and only afterward realizes the conversations that should have taken place but didn't.
He would like to open the footlocker with her.
"I wish she was all of a sudden sitting there as we opened it and I could question her and talk to her about it," he said. "And I could have done that prior to 1983."
His first reaction when he opened the footlocker, he said, was amazement at how well everything was preserved, nearly 70 years later. Because of that, he can share his mother's life and work.
"My goal all along was to tell people a really good story," he said. "And at the same time honor my mother for what she did."