NATICK — Rhoda is a dreamer. She fantasizes about soaring like a bird. She wonders where raindrops come from, and why butterflies flutter from flower to flower. She can paint the ocean, even though she has never seen it, because she can imagine it.
She is also the heart and soul of an artist's labor of love, which might have been lost forever if not for a lucky series of events that started with a chance discovery in a pile of laundry.
Rhoda is a rabbit, the imaginary heroine of a children's book, written and illustrated by a Natick painter decades ago, that had slipped through the cracks of time. And the publication of "Rhoda's Ocean" this year was the moving epilogue to a romance between two artists that lasted more than 60 years.
In March, Arnold Sheinis, 84, a retired psychiatrist who has dedicated the last 25 years to painting, asked the owners of Gallery 55 in Natick to come to his house to see his work. They found a modest split-level Cape where watercolors, drawings, photographs, and sketches covered walls, hallways, desks, and tables from the basement to the bedrooms on the second floor. It was in one of those rooms that Anet James and John Mottern, co-owners of the gallery, found a colorful drawing of anthropomorphized woodland creatures, evocative of "Frog and Toad" or pre-Disney Winnie-the-Pooh.
"Under a pile of laundry that was on a bed there was a beautiful illustration of the cover of a children's book that was just kind of peeking back at us," Mottern recalled recently. "We moved the laundry, and we looked at it, and we asked Arnold, and he said 'Oh, that's Betty's book.'"
Sheinis introduced the gallery owners to his wife, Betty Abbott Sheinis, a painter, an illustrator, and a dreamer, who had started working on the book decades ago. But she was suffering from dementia and did not recognize her own work. Nor could she say where she kept it.
"We had this beautiful cover but the rest of the book, no one knew where it was," Mottern recalled. "We knew we had stumbled onto something very special, a treasure, and that we really needed to make every effort to find the missing 40-plus pages."
Wilma Woodchuck and Rhoda Rabbit have always been best friends. Wilma is very neat and Rhoda is not.... "Neatness," Wilma would remind Rhoda as they walked through the meadow, "is very important."
Ask Arnold Sheinis to tell the story of Betty's book, and he tells you the story of Arnold and Betty. He loves to recount their first date, a cup of coffee when they were both art students in New York City in the late 1940s.
"That was a very strong cup of coffee because we stayed together for 60 years," Arnold said with a little laugh and a big smile. He propped himself up in an armchair, and looked intently into space through large plastic-framed eyeglasses. "And she's still with me, in a way."
They married in 1952, before Arnold joined the military for two years. He went to medical school in Washington, D.C., and she worked as an illustrator at the Washington Post, where she won several merit awards for her layouts and editorial drawings. They moved to Massachusetts in the 1960s, when he was running a mental health clinic in Worcester, and they moved into the house in Natick in 1970. The raised three sons and have seven grandchildren.
"We'd go out together to scenic places and we'd be painting," Arnold recalled. He knew she was working on two children's books, and he recalled once or twice, 20 or 30 years ago, seeing the one the gallery owners found under the pile of clothes. Betty would always jot down notes on the back of her work — where she was, who was with her — and never threw anything away.
She could be sitting in a car on the side of the road in San Francisco's Chinatown and start painting. She could be making stew as she painted.
"It did not take special conditions to do her artwork," Arnold said.
Her work is imaginative, spontaneous, in keeping with the spirit of the young woman who had left for New York from her home in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to pursue her dream of being an artist. In 1958, one of her watercolors was accepted for display at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1979, while working for the Middlesex News in Framingham, she won a National Newspaper Association award for her full-page artwork.
Betty started suffering symptoms of dementia about 10 years ago. A couple of years ago, she stopped painting.
"Watching her slip away, it was incredibly difficult," Arnold said quietly.
On April 19, at the age of 84 and a few weeks after the gallery owners visited the house, Betty died.
"Toward the end she told me I gave her life," Arnold said in a near whisper. "And I told her that's what she did for me."
But Wilma was a good friend. When Rhoda was sick, she would always come with carrot soup and tell jokes to brighten the day. They would share stories and remember their past adventures. And Rhoda loved to tell Wilma what she had imagined that day.
Arnold figured he would never find the book to match the cover. Then, two weeks after Betty died, he woke up in the middle of the night. He remembered a hiding place where she used to put her favorite work, under the wooden bed her grandfather had built, in a room they used as a studio and storage space.
The next morning he looked under the bed and there it was: A black portfolio containing the originals of the missing artwork, covered in vellum and in perfect shape.
"We laid it all out on the table and we decided that the book had to be published," Mottern said. Betty had called her manuscript "Rhoda Rabbit's Important Day," but they agreed on a new name: "Rhoda's Ocean."
Rhoda tries to persuade Wilma and her other skeptical woodland friends that there can be such a thing as an ocean, even though none of them have ever seen it.
"It's a story about how dreaming and creativity can be a great thing," Arnold said. "These books she wrote are really her story. It's what she was trying to do. She was trying to show daydreams and thoughts she had and to bring them into a concrete visualization and have people recognize them, and that's what Rhoda was doing."
"I was more Wilma," Arnold chuckled. "I liked keeping things a little neater than she did."
The book was published in October.
"My only regret is that Betty didn't get to see it," Arnold said. "She would have been thrilled."
Rhoda often painted the things she imagined. So, on a very large canvas, she went to work painting her ocean. It took all afternoon, and when she was done, she was very pleased. In fact, she was so pleased that she decided to have an art show and invite all her friends and neighbors to come and see her ocean.
On a bright December day, Arnold led his guests up the stairs through a narrow hall lined with three generations of smiling photographs. He showed the bed, covered with a quilt and various odds and ends. Half-used pallets of watercolors piled up on a desk where Betty once worked. There were frames and paintings, a map she had drawn of her homeland in the Great Smoky Mountains, and a poster of wildflowers from Scotland.
Just above the poster was a piece of lined paper stuck to the wall with masking tape. On it, in thick black marker, was written a date — "4/23/2009" — and a note. It was Betty's handwriting.
No one had noticed until now.
"The illustrations for 'The House at the End of the Bumpy Road' and 'Rhoda Rabbit's Important Day' are in the black portfolio under the old fashioned bed," read the note.
In a lighter pen, she had added this: "There are color illustrations and a bunch of black & white line drawings."
Arnold stared at the note. There was only one explanation: Betty must have been aware that she was starting to forget everything and had written it as a reminder to herself. Or to Arnold.
"If I had read that, it would have saved a lot of searching," Arnold said. "Makes me feel like a fool that I didn't read it. It's been up there for years."
Arnold's chagrin soon turned to good humor. As his guests left, he said to them: "You brought me life."
As they said goodbye, they all thanked Rhoda for making it such an important day.
Everyone left except Wilma. She looked at the ocean painting for a very long time.