boulevard

Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.

—Søren Kierkegaard

In The Godfather there is a scene in which Michael and Kay are Christmas shopping. We see them, early in the film, before Michael has set himself on the path of his criminal destiny, laden with parcels, on the pavement in front of Best & Co, an upper-middling emporium at Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Best & Co had already closed its doors when the film was shot, but the scene perfectly captures the atmosphere of a certain kind of Manhattan expedition of those days, from the Cathedral to Central Park, past St. Thomas Episcopal, the tree and the ice skaters at Rockefeller Plaza, Tiffany’s, The Sherry-Netherland, and beyond, to the zoo, to the museums.

My cousin Ruth worked at Best & Co, which is how I first heard of it. I don’t know what she did there, probably something in a stockroom, or at least behind the scenes, as she was, unlike her numerous sisters, exceedingly plain and physically awkward and her English would not have been up to sales or office work. Ruth lived with us for the time she was in America, sleeping on the put-you-up in our sitting room. Ruth had been a missionary in Africa, teaching black children in Tanzania for the Free Friends from Norway. She would amuse us sometimes making the clicking sounds of the native language she had thus acquired. She had a friend, perhaps from work, a small, quiet woman who came to visit now and then. There was no man. Ruth never married. In exchange for lodging Ruth minded my brother and me when our parents went out. I was unaccountably mean to her, as though her very plainness and awkwardness and goodness and vulnerability invited torment. I once tricked her into drinking some dry-cleaning fluid. On another occasion I leaped out at her from my bunk, knocking her to the floor, when she thought we were asleep. The only picture I have of us together is taken outside on a bitter cold day in Brooklyn. I am in knickerbockers and a mackinaw and ugly Norwegian hand-knitted mittens, scowling in misery at the cold and the day, and tall, hapless Ruth looks at me in helpless puzzlement.

I saw Ruth many years later, in Norway. She was in comfortable retirement. The only sign of the coming dementia was to repeat stories she had just told. Some of these were about our grandparents, whom I had never met. Grandmother Siri wore to the very end the long dresses of her country childhood and Ruth said the grandchildren liked to creep under the table and peek under her skirts at her old-fashioned bloomers. She also said that she had from her mother that when Grandfather Johannes came home having had rather too many beers the children would jeer at him and run up into the loft where they slept, pulling the ladder up after them, and laugh at him fuming below. Precious memorats to set beside the only other ones I have, from another cousin, that Siri could often be seen rocking back and forth and crying O my Johann, O my Johann, for her firstborn, lost in the influenza epidemic in 1917, and that Grandfather retained two Swedish words from his youth: gumma, or old woman, for his wife, and mössa for his hat.

Which reminds me that I did buy something once in Best & Co. In the late 50s it must have been. A hat for my kid sister. A kind of boat-shaped Glengarry, as I recall, with a feather.

A correspondence with a friend brought to mind a curious but long-forgotten interest in Hosea, one of the so-called Minor Prophets in the Old Testament,“The Twelve” in the Jewish Tanakh.

The premise of Hosea is laid out with brutal simplicity. “And the LORD said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the LORD.” The rest of the book, fourteen chapters in all, is a litany of God’s grievances as a disappointed and betrayed lover of his people, of which the circumstance of the prophet’s marriage is presumed to be caution, lesson, allegory, illustration.

I cannot say entirely why this odd book would have spoken to a younger me, but I do remember the moment. Between school and the Army, well along a path out of strict religious upbringing, faced with a clear and compelling moral choice that would have life-altering consequences for me and for others. Perhaps it was the proto-existentialism of Hosea, that in choice itself is the hero constituted, whatever the choice and whatever the consequences. Or the related thought that love is not optional, not a random disposition, but something dangerous and unsettling. A commandment. The first commandment, in which all others are subsumed. This much I had got from Nicholas Tavani, a difficult and paradoxical man who was my most demanding teacher.

Reading Hosea now, a whole lifetime since, I still see some of that and rather admire the young man I was for feeling—however dimly—that there was a space for moral action that was neither purely self-interested nor merely doing one’s duty.

But now I am struck as well by something else.

Hosea’s wife has a name. She is called Gomer. The daughter of Diblaim. And she and Hosea have children. The first one, a son, is called Jezreel. Then Gomer “conceived again, and bare a daughter,” called Lo-ruhamah. When Lo-ruhamah was weaned, the book says, Gomer conceived once more and gave birth to a son, called Lo-ammi. These names are not nice and their meanings in Hebrew are explained as emblems of God’s feelings of anger and vengeance towards Israel. Yet still, the impulse to narrative is palpable, even to a certain kind of novelistic possibility, although the text is mute on everything we would like to know.

We are not told that Hosea and Gomer have a happy marriage, but neither are we told that they have an unhappy marriage. We do not know what Gomer thought about it. Or Hosea either, really. Were these awful children’s names the ones they used at home? A marriage with two sons and a daughter is surely a lot of life lived for the sake of a metaphor. That space between the general and the particular—between the high appalling thing Hosea is called to say and this tangibly real household—everything in that space we are free to imagine.