The Many Mysteries of Love

by

05/01/2022

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

Kate and Harold Shapinsky

A little boy sits on the wood floor. In a small room with a rocking horse in the corner. A stuffed teddy bear is on his pillow. There is a small soft blanket, the one he holds at night, in a chair. The smell of the room is comforting. 

Twenty years later, standing in the middle of an art gallery in London surrounded by people, drinking and talking, I am torn. Feeling alone. Afraid. Happy. Hopeful. Mostly confused. I berate myself for not being more grateful. After all, this night is good news, the best news, something my family – my father, especially — needs. Yet, I cannot stop myself. I am off-balance, worrying about money, contracts, figuring out how to organize thousands of pieces of art, what the gallery wants, what my father wants. And worrying most of all if madness will descend on him, or me, and on our family, again. All I want is to have my own life as a graduate student and, hopefully one day, an historian. In the midst of this beautiful fairy-tale story, the undertow catches me. 

But I hold my tongue. My father, Harold or Hesh, is living out a dream. After decades of poverty and painting in obscurity, three extraordinary South Asian men – Akumal Ramachander, an eccentric Indian English teacher who has championed my father’s work; Tariq Ali, a British intellectual and filmmaker; and the author Salman Rushdie – have presented Harold with a great gift. In a matter of months, through their efforts, my father has become an art world celebrity. Now, as we ready for the main event, he is finally wearing the tweed suit that he resisted buying. It is 1985 and his 60th birthday, the day of his first one-man show, and he looks better than he has for years. He hums and whistles in the back of a big black London cab as we wind our way to the gallery opening. I have never heard him whistle or seen him so happy before. Maybe he understands that he has escaped tragedy and danced into recognition. That he is living a real-life fairy-tale. He is certainly enjoying the attention. Interviews. Photo shoots. Question after question about a life of poverty, and then, late in life, suddenly being discovered. They ask about his days as a young painter and being part of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism along with Motherwell, de Kooning, Baziotes, Pollack, and others. And how, while they were discovered, he missed the boat.

Harold Shapinsky and Salman Rushdie on Opening Night at the Mayor Gallery

But no one sees what I see – and I am not sure that is a bad thing. His wife Kate, my steadfast mom, basks in his glow. She never doubted him and has always hidden the trials from view. We don’t talk about the past or the darkness we have, at least for now, escaped. I doubt my father even remembers. Does he know how many times my mother saved him? It is for her sake that I say nothing. Not then. Not later. I let small pieces of the story out from time to time, but never the essence. Which I can only understand by remembering when I was a little boy.

A tenement on the Lower East Side. It is the 1960s. A block away from the Filmore East. Two blocks from the Electric Circus and the Negro Ensemble theater company. A bohemian crossroads where literature, music, and art are everywhere. This stretch of Second Avenue was once known as the Jewish Rialto. Ukrainians and bohemians of all types, young and old, fill the streets. Just to the east there is a Puerto Rican enclave called Loisaida. Everywhere you look, there is a vibrant world of   experimentation shaking concrete and brick foundations. All these generations and people do not always get along, but they live side by side. There are also gangs, drug addiction, and poverty. There is danger. But there is also creativity and love.

I am the little boy. My dreamscape is wide, expansive, extending beyond the four walls and large window that form my tiny room. Beyond the shadows and light of the street. Beyond the places drawn by my mother, as she reads a bedtime story. Beyond my father’s bedtime song. The boy lives in an imaginary land. Inside a tiny room in a small apartment tenement at 305 East 6th Street. 

The boy loves walking around the neighborhood with his parents. They sing: “David and Mommy and Daddy, we make a family.” There is no embarrassment. It is an anthem, a reminder of love. More than that, it is a declaration that we are a family. This is made all the more emphatic when the father lifts the boy to his shoulders and his mother smiles into his eyes. There is no doubt. No fear. The boy expects to be whatever he wants to be – and live happily ever after. That is his dreamscape. His parents gave him that.

But, now, I am hopping around in time. The gallery. The little boy. And a college student five years before my father’s discovery. The world turns upside down. I am at a phone booth in Rome, one of the old exchanges where people line up for paid time on the phone. My father is sick –they think it is multiple sclerosis, but later I discover it is not. My mother says they are leaving New York City, hoping for a better place to live. They give up their rent-controlled apartment, and sell, store, or throw away possessions, including all my childhood toys. 

After a period of wandering, they return to the city, having failed to find any place that suited them. When I find them, they are living hand-to-mouth in an expensive Upper East Side sublet that they cannot afford. In less than a year, I commit my father to mental hospitals twice. I realize that I had ignored the problem for years. Before going to Rome, I had fallen in love and wanted nothing to do with sadness or madness, so I did nothing about my father’s behavior – that he was hearing voices and claimed to have attacked someone in self-defense. The pattern repeats. Hostile voices force him to keep the drapes closed. Prevent him from going outside for months. And I have to make a choice: do I continue to ignore the problem or try to get him help? Ultimately, he ends up in two hospitals and receives shock therapy.

But this is still only the surface debris. I realize that my parents are not who I thought they were – not who the little boy thought they were. What parents are? My mother eventually tells me that while I was in Rome, my father had tried to kill himself several times. And it is only then that I realize how much of my life and my mother’s life had been colored by my father’s mental illness – for surely that is what it was. For years and years, as I was growing up, my father went to doctor after doctor. Something was always wrong. Then he ended up in bed – on a pullout couch in the middle of our small living room—never getting up or leaving the apartment. Was it weeks, months, or years? I don’t know. But I became sick too, missing weeks of school.

I am getting closer to the truth. When my parents met, they were starving artists. My mother went on dates to get a square meal. My father was terribly thin, and had at least one breakdown as a result of his hunger and poverty. On the surface, they were very different. She came from Anglo stock with roots going back to England, Yale, and the Episcopal Church. My father’s family was from Russia – Jews who fled pogroms. But they grew up on the margins and shared the loneliness of difference. Harold was one of four boys — his mother told him that she tried to abort him with a hanger. After his parents divorced, his stepfather disparaged his artistic ambitions and painted over his paintings. Almost no one in his family provided him any help. He was alone. His mother had her children in her teens and early twenties. She was talented, a self-taught pianist and a poet, but while she was still married, she fled her Brooklyn apartment with her children on multiple occasions. How unhappy was that home? All I know is what an Uncle told me much later, that all the brothers suffered.

When Kate found Harold, she had already escaped her own world of misery. Her mother, a college educated woman with whom she had a strong and close relationship, had an affair, divorced her husband, and then died in a matter of years. Her father remarried and she went from being the middle child of three to one of six and ultimately seven. In the Depression, when her father struggled to maintain his business, Kate faced her own struggles. Having only one dress to wear and being called “stinky,” even though she washed it every day. She also fell asleep habitually– something she continued to do when I was a child. Her parents sent her to a special school where problem teens were meant to get help. But she was determined to be something more than what others saw. 

In New York City, these two souls met – and did what young people do when they fall in love. Except now in this London gallery, when I am twenty-five, I see that they were more than romantic figures. Somehow, meeting each other probably saved them. There are several photos of them together before I was born. There is no doubt they had chemistry. They knew it wouldn’t be easy. In the 1950s, my father was in the army, ultimately receiving a Section 8 discharge given to those considered mentally unfit for service. My mother visited him at the army hospital and the two of them made love in the bushes. And in the dark days, before the critics belated discovery of my father, my mother managed to make enough money to keep them going. A barely functional Harold would walk Kate to her jobs as a caretaker for children and then spend all day in a fast food restaurant, waiting for her, struggling against his own fears. I never heard her complain or question her situation. And she always did everything, both for me and for my father, that needed to be done. 

When my mother said goodbye to my father for the last time, when he could not make sense of the world any longer and dementia had completely captured him, I had to look away at the intimate scene and the sorrow on her face. On the final night of her life, friends remembered that she had danced the night away, happier than anyone had seen her in a long time.  When she died, I cried knowing that the greatest, craziest, and most determined force for love and optimism in my life was gone. I still think of her every day, and the love she gave me continues on in the life I share with my sons and those around me. I’ve discovered that I love more than I thought possible and that darkness does not inevitably win. Thank you mom. And you too, Dad.

***

D.F. Shapinsky’s career has taken him from history and teaching to investigative journalism, news and documentary production, communications, and public health. He is currently working on multiple writing projects.

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§ 6 Responses to “The Many Mysteries of Love”

  • Kathleen Seymour Moore says:

    David I had no idea obviously. This is so beautifully written -so bold, so real. so gripping. I’m stunned but also liberated by it. Thank you for giving mental illness it’s place next to diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure. It doesn’t prevent us from loving. Or dreaming. Nor does it rob its victims of those same. I’m inspired by all you’ve done in spite of/because of the childhood you lived.

  • Roberta Edelman says:

    A beautiful tribute to both your parents, beautifully written. We were friends during the lower east side days. I too was a struggling artist living on second ave. and 12th st. Your mom hid Hesh’s illness well as I never knew. I wish I had as that would have been one more bond as my own mother was manic depressive and I lived through years of her mental illness. I remember you as a darling, mischievous little boy and for sure you’ve grown to be a wonderful man they would be so proud of.

  • david,
    i read this a few days ago and have been thinking about you and your parents ever since. coincidentally, i had recently been working in fits and starts on a piece about all of us who lived at 305 east 6th street.

    i loved both kate and hesh. i was closer to your mother of course because she enveloped those she cared about with the widest of open arms. but hesh had his own charm and on his good days, a sly sense of humor.

    but: what i want to say to you is how strong and real and beautiful your writing is and how happy i am for you that you have written and shared this very personal and yet profoundly empathetic account of your family. thank you; i send you my very best wishes. please keep on writing.

  • David says:

    Thanks Susan. That means a lot. In some ways you knew them better than me. Feel free to reach out if you want.

  • Kathleen Mullaney says:

    A worthy tribute to the love that made you strong.
    Miss you old friend. KM

  • Mike Feder says:

    Dear Mr. Shapinsky,

    Thanks for the tragic beautiful story/memoir… The writing is exquisite and heartfelt. A wonderful piece in every way…

    Mike Feder

§ Leave a Reply

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