Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Parallel Parking

I'm in the back seat of my daughter's Mazda and delighted she’s found a parking space on a narrow street in Harvard Square. I’m visiting Faith from Chicago and we're about to stroll one of my favorite Boston neighborhoods.

I sit silently as I watch Faith line up her car with one that is parked at the curb. Slowly, she backs up, then turns the steering wheel to the right as she slips the car into the empty space. Her eyes are fixed on the right headlight of the car parked behind. She aims for her target, then reverses the direction of the steering wheel. Finally, she tucks her car into the tight parking space.

"Perfect," my 44-year-old daughter says as she turns the key and shuts off the ignition.

"Who taught you how to parallel park?" I ask, preening because I already know the answer.

"You, mommy, you."

I didn't teach Faith, or her 43-year-old sister Jill, how to drive. But I was their passenger when they practiced on Chicago streets. I clutched door handles, stomped imaginary brakes, and shut my eyes to avoid collisions I thought inevitable.

Today, when I’m their passenger in Boston or Los Angeles, I relax and enjoy the scenery. If I'm lucky, they'll be required to parallel park, and I'll have another chance to gloat.

My father taught me how to do it in 1952 in his four-door Buick. I had already mastered how to operate the stick shift, play the clutch, and inch down the brake. I'd grasp the steering wheel in the ten and two positions, and when turning, execute the hand-over-hand ballet maneuver. I was cautious, kept eyes on the road, and obeyed the speed limit. But I'd long for the day when I could drive brazenly, with only one hand on the wheel, just like him.

I could see myself leaning my left arm out the driver's side window and watch it grow tan in the same odd way as Dad's arm, blooming brown from elbow to fingertip. From shoulder to elbow, though, the part of his arm that remained inside would stay a sickly white.

When he sped -- which he almost always did -- Mother would cry, "Irv, you're going too fast. You'll kill us all." In the back seat, I'd rise up to look over his shoulder and watch the speedometer climb past 50, but never say a word that might reveal distrust of his caretaking. "Relax, relax," Dad would say, then ease up on the gas pedal until both his wife and daughter would lean back in their seats.

Mother didn't know how to drive back then. She was one of those women who grew up not expecting to be a driver; instead depending upon a husband to take the wheel. When Dad died of a heart attack at the age of 48, Mom recruited her youngest brother, Hy, and his 1957 Chevy Impala for driving lessons.

"You can do it, Min," Uncle Hy would say on the Sundays of her lessons.

"I'm proud of you, Mom," I'd add. But I could see her hands tremble and notice her usually sparkling blue eyes grow dark.

On the third Sunday, I jumped up from the living room couch when I heard her key in the door. “Min, don’t give up yet!” I heard my uncle plead as he followed behind her. “No, no, I can’t do it,” she said. She went straight to the bedroom and slammed the door. Her brother shrugged his shoulders. “I tried,” he said.

I don’t remember following my mother to give her a pep talk that might’ve returned her to the driver’s seat. Perhaps I worried she was right; the skill was beyond her -- too old at 45. Maybe I couldn't tolerate the image of my mother defeated, a young widow dependent on others to drive her around. Perhaps, like her, I wished for some man to enter her life who would do the driving for her.

When she married Joe, 20 years her senior, she believed he was wealthy and would relieve her children of having to care for her in her old age. Joe did serve as her driver until his creeping Alzheimer’s scared her when he took the wheel. But Mom didn’t have to endure many months of his forgetfulness; she died at 67 -- years before him, and years before my brother or I had to worry about her becoming a burden.

In 1960 I married. My husband bought a beige Volkswagen Beetle that was perfect for someone my barely 5’ size. The only problem I encountered was when I was pregnant with Faith. My basketball belly forced me to push the drivers’ seat backward and then my feet could barely reach the pedals.

I’m sure it was those awkward trips that inspired my recurring dreams in which I’m driving huge cars, so big I can’t see above the steering wheel. My nightmare cars are double the length of ordinary ones. I know I’ll never be able to squeeze them into parking spaces, despite knowing Dad’s parallel parking trick.

Eventually, in real life, I had my own car – an orange VW that was a make-up present from my husband. We had had a particularly painful argument, whose content I can’t remember, which is odd because my husband and I rarely argued, preferring instead to bury our unhappiness under the hood.

By the time our marriage ended, I had moved on from the VW, to a Toyota, and then to a Honda. Eventually, I passed the Toyota on to Faith and the Honda to Jill. In 1990, I bought a silver-gray Honda Civic hatchback, which I still drive.

In 1998, I married a non-driver. Tommy learned how to drive as a teenager, but because he never had his own car, his driving ability atrophied. Soon though, I grew tired of chauffeuring and insisted he take driving lessons. When he passed his test, he bought a Honda Accord.

Although I was the one urging Tommy to become a driver, I’m a poor passenger in his car. I prefer my Civic where I can take the wheel. When he does drive, I close my eyes until we reach our destination. I open them when he’s about to park because I’m relaxed, now that he's concluded the treacherous part of the journey.

Once we’re safely tucked into the curb, I ask brightly, “Who taught you how to parallel park?”

“You, honey, you,” he says.