Oh, so you went to the movies? You attended a play? You had front row seats at a panel discussion featuring Meryl Streep, Warren Buffet and the Dalai Lama?
That's nice, but first tell me: How was the parking?
That's how it was in my family, where the subject of parking was, well, a subject.
To locate and inhabit an excellent parking spot was a great achievement; to attain true adulthood, one needed to know how to tame the acres of asphalt of a suburban shopping mall as well as how to conquer an exposed sliver of curb on a chaotic city street.
Understand, finding a parking spot was not the goal; the goal was to find a great parking spot. My brother and I became sensitized to the subtleties of parking at a young age, thanks to the caring guidance of our parents.
From the back seat of the family car, my brother and I would watch manicured, hilly green expanses fly by as our parents discussed whether golf courses should be converted to parking lots.
On summer vacation, we would gaze in awe at the Grand Canyon as our parents calculated how many parked cars it might accommodate.
When my parents entertained, my brother and I would eavesdrop from the kitchen while eating our bedtime snack, and learn that adult conversation included parking reports: "Did you enjoy the art fair?" "The parking was terrible but we picked up a nice watercolor"; or "How was the sample sale?" "I had to fight like crazy in the parking lot but the prices were worth it."
Of course, most of our education took place during actual parking experiences. First course of study: local parking at shopping malls, because if you could handle a shopping mall, you could certainly handle parking lots outside restaurants and movie theaters. City parking was graduate level.
The larger the shopping mall, the larger the parking lot, of course, and the more determined my parents were to avoid its distant reaches, where the alphabet signs started all over again with double letters. With my father at the wheel, my mother was in charge of strategy. The conversation would go something like this:
Mother: Turn here. Here. HERE!!
Father: Do you want me to drop you off while I look for a spot?
Mother: Don't be silly, I'll help you find a spot.
If it was raining hard, my mother changed her strategy: "Drop us off at that entrance; you go look for a parking spot."
But mostly they parked as a team.
"Ooh! There's a spot," my mother would point. My father would begin to turn – and they'd see the motorcycle already tucked into "their" spot. "Dammit," they'd agree. Parking lots are where I learned how to curse, in English and Yiddish.
We were not a family that backed into parking spots. I was taught that people who backed into parking spots were in a hurry to leave and therefore quite possibly members of the Mafia. Besides, one big problem with backing in was that you had to pass the spot first, permitting some farshtinkener driver to swing in behind you while you were lining up your approach.
"That bastard! He knew we were going for that spot!"
This might be said by my mother or father; it was then the other person's job to say: "Forget it, we'll keep looking." This division of responsibility, one in charge of the anger, the other in charge of the calming, seemed a most natural manifestation of their strong partnership, in so many things besides parking; and I believed it kept us safe from physical confrontations with many a farkakta driver.
City parking required discussions in advance: Street parking or a commercial lot? Which to choose depended on so many things: not just where we were going but how long we'd be there, the weather, and especially on those mysterious (to me) street signs that appeared to be written in a secret code using numbers, abbreviations and punctuation.
My parents would start out defiant: "We're not going to pay to park." Paying to park was to admit defeat – unless that was the only option, which I understood to mean it was part of some grand criminal scheme. "You gotta pay for parking here, what a racket." If we chose to park in a lot, however, it was because it was convenient, and a good, smart decision, even though the cost might be exorbitant –because the place was run by crooks, of course; very possibly by those very same Mafia types who parked by backing in.
When we'd find a spot on the street, there'd be another discussion, this time fast: Could we fit? Is it a real spot? Would we get hit if we parked there? Would we get a ticket? If we managed to get in, would we be able to get out?
Parallel parking was certainly a team effort, with my father receiving impassioned advice. "Turn! Straighten! Stop! A little more! You're going to hit him!" "Just a tap," he'd reassure her. My father never hit parked cars; he only tapped them, and only when necessary. And sometimes, "give a tap" would actually be part of my mother's instructions.
A perfectly executed parallel park was a thing of beauty and my father carried out many of them. Others would have remained perfect and beautiful had my mother never opened her door to get out. "We're three feet from the curb!" Then followed another round of discussion on whether they should "adjust."
In time, the definition of a perfect parking spot changed.
My brother's career eventually took him to Phoenix. Upon their retirement, my parents moved out there. Eventually I wound up there, too.
Even though Phoenix is technically a city, it does not feel like one if you arrive here from what is known as Back East. Here in Phoenix, public parking is usually plentiful and free, just like the sunshine. Fully covered parking spots are the best. Spots shaded by trees will do, but so too will the birds (do, that is, on your car). Nearly any spot that offers even a smidgen of shade is better than one completely exposed to the sun, unless it's important that your leftover coffee still be hot when you return to your car.
As a family and on our own, we all enjoyed many years of trouble-free parking in Phoenix and environs.
Time passed, though, and my mother started getting tired. Shade lost its value. She would dismiss a spot the rest of us considered close enough and tell us to keep looking, drive around again. "Don't you want to keep being able to walk?" we begged her. "You have to walk to stay active!"
When my mother was informed that she needed a hip replacement we realized she hadn't been just tired. My parents applied for and received a handicap sticker (really a placard that hung off the rear-view mirror), and handicap parking spots that had been off limits and met with groans during my childhood were now greeted with cheers. With her new hip and their new sticker, my parents were back in action.
More time passed, though, and my father started getting tired. His persistent cough seemed to take a lot out of him. When he was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, we realized he hadn't been just tired.
Soon even the walk from a handicap parking spot to an entrance left my father out of breath. My mother started driving him to the job he had taken upon retirement, demonstrator at Costco; this way she could let him off right at the door. And she'd return at the end of the day to pick him up. This is how they did it, almost daily, then a few times a week, until he retired again, this time for good.
One day my brother and I were instructed to go out and find one more parking spot.
There was plenty of room at this cemetery, located in an undeveloped area of north Phoenix. Instead of parking levels, the cemetery was divided into neighborhoods, with paved walkways defining rows of monuments and headstones. Like every other commercial parking lot, getting a spot here wasn't cheap.
We picked the section named Ruth. In the Bible, Ruth is the Moabite woman who marries an Israelite. When her husband dies, Ruth remains with her mother-in-law, Naomi, telling her (among other things),
Wherever you go, I will go.
Wherever you lodge, I will lodge....
Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.
But Ruth was known first, to my brother and me, as the name of the street on which we lived as children. Ruth Road was where our family drives began, where our summer vacations launched, and where our parents entertained.
When my father died in July 2011, my mother, brother and I huddled together to work on the wording for his grave monument. "I know what I want on my side," my mother told us. " 'My soul will find yours.' " "Is that a promise or a threat?" we asked. Both, she said, sad but still jaunty, still appreciative of my father's humor, which had long ago taken root in both my brother and me.
Indeed, like Ruth, my mother followed, just two years later. My brother and I had found a good spot – just off the cemetery's main road but not too far; in a friendly neighborhood, with our dear family friend Earl just across the way – but now that my mother had joined my father, it had become a great spot. I won't call it a perfect spot, though.
I am sure that my mother's soul sought my father's with the same determination and success with which she sought the best parking spots when they traveled together on more earthly paths; so I am sure that they have reconnected.
And whenever anyone decides to drive to the cemetery in north Phoenix to visit Plot 507, Section Ruth, they will discover that the parking situation is excellent.