The portrait of Portia Trulove Simms hangs in a small one-bedroom apartment on the grounds of the old Notre Dame Academy in north Omaha.
She is 29 in the painting, or close to it. She wears a yellow blouse and dark red lipstick. She sits at an angle, her left shoulder facing the viewer. Her expression is a Mona Lisa-like mystery. She posed three days for the painting, at the request of a once-famous artist. At the end, he handed the painting over.
“If you would have come to me, I would have charged you a lot of money,” she remembers him saying, “but I asked you, therefore I’m giving it to you.”
She is 90 now. It has given her happiness and a touch of heartache, this portrait. For many years, it hung in the home of her parents, whom she loved dearly.
Portia grew up near 29th and Lake Streets, not far from Howard Kennedy Elementary, where she went to school. Her father’s name was William Trulove, and he was a landscape gardener for some of the wealthiest families in town. Her mother’s name was Ruby, and she worked at the Cudahy Packing Plant. Portia had a little sister for three years, and then they both caught whooping cough, which became bronchial pneumonia, and only one of them survived.
She graduated from Central High School with intentions to be a teacher. She attended the University of Omaha for one semester, and then World War II came, and she worked in a box factory before settling into a career in retail.
Did she mention how much she loved her parents? She stayed with them as long as they lived. Even after she married, she and her husband kept an apartment in their home.
The apartment worked out when the marriage didn’t.
She had two children, a son and a daughter, but has just the daughter now, her only living relative besides a cousin in California.
One evening in the 1950s, a young man took her to the Joslyn Art Museum. Her friend pointed to a man across the room, an artist who said he wanted to introduce himself.
“That’s how I met Augustus Dunbier,” she says.
Nebraska’s most famous Impressionist painter asked Portia if she’d pose for a portrait. She agreed on one condition.
“I had heard that artists asked women to pose in the nude, so I told him, I would not consider posing in the nude,” she said. “He pointed his finger at me and said, ‘You will be as fully clothed as you are now.’”
So she went to his home in Benson and sat for three days. He asked her to return and model again, she says, “but I didn’t care to be that.”
Later, for a spell, she wanted to be an entertainer. She took lessons from a Hawaiian musician and thought about moving to New York, hoping to sing and dance for the great Alfred Apaka, “the Bing Crosby of the islands.”
But that, too, passed by.
“I said, no, better not do that,” she says. “So I just ended up being a cashier.”
She has few regrets. Maybe just one. The chocolate man who came to see about some pigeons.
Portia’s father kept prize-winning Carneaux, a hobby through which he struck up a long-distance friendship with a big-shot from Hershey’s.
Portia saw him from her window the day he came to visit.
“I could tell he was very, very wealthy, by the way he stood,” she says. “He was so self-confident, like he owned the world.”
The man admired her, too, in a way. He saw the Dunbier portrait on the dining room wall and asked if he could meet this young woman.
“My mother said he flipped,” Portia says. “I said, ‘Well did you tell him now that I was divorced and with two children?’ She said, ‘Yes, he didn’t seem to mind.’ ”
But she never met him.
“Oh, I regret now that I didn’t,” she says. “He was so handsome. He was a widower. I was shy.”
She never remarried. She worked for years at shops along 16th Street before landing at Kmart, a job she loved. So many people it brought through her line and into her life. A jazz musician proposed to her six times. One of the nicest people she ever knew, but he drank.
She retired in 1985, after 20 years, only because it had grown difficult commuting in winter.
“If someone would ask me, well, do you think you were a success in life, I’d say yes, because I was on a job that I enjoyed, and I did it well,” she says. “And my kids told me, my son in particular told me, ‘You’ve been a very good mother.’ So I said, well, I guess I’ve been a success.
“You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer to be a success. You can just be an ordinary person.”