This book had me hooked with the cover. Made to look like a journal, it features a cartoon drawing of a bespeckled middle-aged daughter on one end of a fading sofa, facing her parents, who are seated with their arms crossed. In a bubble above his head, the father asks, “Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?” That question is the title of Roz Chast’s memoir of her parents’ final years, and her role as their only child.
Chast, whose signature cartoons have appeared in The New Yorker since 1978, has written a graphic memoir, mixing full-color cartoons, photographs and text to create a narrative that is heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny. (It is published by Bloomsbury Press.) Readers who have been in this situation or are in the midst of it — or see it coming — will find themselves repeatedly quoting Chast.
In conversation, she laughs a lot, describing her parents and the imagery she used to capture them. The book is much more personal than anything else she was written and drawn. “It feels pretty bizarre,” she says in a telephone interview from her Connecticut home. “A friend said I must feel I’m walking around with my pants down 24/7. But I don’t think I would have bothered to write it if it weren’t personal.”
Chast’s father George died in 2007 at age 97, her mother Elizabeth in 2009 at 95. For years before that, when she tried to raise the subject with them of their final days, they didn’t want to talk about it. “Between their one-bad-thing-after-another lives and the Depression and World War II, and the Holocaust, in which they’d both lost family — it was amazing that they weren’t crazier than they were. Who could blame them for not wanting to talk about death?”
Her parents described themselves as soul mates. “The rocks in his head match the holes in mine,” her mother would say. They grew up in the same neighborhood in East Harlem and were in the same fifth grade class. “Aside from WWII, work, illness and going to the bathroom, they did everything together,” she writes. In one panel set in the recent past, Elizabeth says she’s going to Waldbaum’s, and George runs after her, “Hold it! I’m coming too.”
Of course they fought too, but mostly each held the other tightly, hoping that nothing would ever change. But Roz understood that they were all on “the moving sidewalk of life,” as she depicts in another panel.
George had worked as a high school teacher and Elizabeth as an assistant principal in an elementary school. Her mother was strong-willed, her father quieter and full of anxiety — she says that her father chain-worried the way others chain-smoked. Her mother saved everything, from tattered bathrobes to old textbooks to a kitchen mitt that was patched with a skirt Roz made in Home Ec class 40 years earlier — drawn here.
Her parents subscribed to The New Yorker and were definitely proud of her, as she tells The Jewish Week. “I don’t think we shared the exact sense of humor,” she says, recalling that her father carried around a cartoon of a guy on his psychiatrist’s couch, telling the doctor, “I feel inadequate because I don’t understand cartoons in The New Yorker.”
They continued living in the same apartment in the Kensington area of Brooklyn where Roz spent her unhappy childhood — she often felt outside of their duo. She didn’t dislike Brooklyn; she loathed it. From 1990 to 2001, when her two children were young, she didn’t visit once, until September of 2001, just before 9/11. Then, she found the same plastic flowers in the lobby, the same weird smells in the hallways, and an extraordinary amount of grime in her parents’ apartment. Her mother had been an inveterate cleaner, but clearly she had stopped being concerned about that. As Roz visited more often, she noticed the grime spreading and her parents growing increasingly frail.
In pages that are tender and powerful, Chast documents their decline and her need to take on the role as their caregiver, at first from a distance, and then more close up than she could have imagined. She includes a poem her mother wrote, “Too Soon We Grow Old: Too Late We Get Smart,” and she also includes photographs of things she found when she finally had to empty the four rooms they lived in for more than 50 years, when she moves them to an assisted living facility otherwise known as the Place.
There, the story turns to health aids, falls, bedsores and palliative care, and she captures the distinctive rhythms of life at the Place. She faces death with directness. Near the book’s end, she includes realistic black-and-white studies of her mother’s last days, in a style that is not cartoon.
Chast says that she still thinks about them and dreams about them. She remembers her father with much affection, and says that she’s still trying to work things out with her mother.
How would they feel about this book? “Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think my father would have gotten a kick out if it and would find aspects funny. I’m not so sure about my mother.”
About being Jewish, Chast says she feels very mixed. “I know on some deep level, I very much identity as Jewish, like when I’m in a place where there are no Jews. It feels strange and I feel like an outsider. But on the other hand, I’m not observant. My mother belonged to Hadassah and B’nai B’rith and I don’t belong. We had a mezuzah on our door. My husband is Presbyterian.”
At book signings and event, Chast is surprised when people ask for her advice. “I don’t give advice. Did you read my book? I clearly don’t know what to do.”
“It’s hard,” she concluded. “That’s what it is when you’re suddenly taking care of really old lives.”