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.