As children, we fret over crafting a handmade Mother's Day card that will make our moms smile. As busy adults, we hope our phone call and gift of flowers (lavish to make up for being the last-minute solution) will do the same.
Those are the easy parts.
Cartoonist Roz Chast writes and draws the story of caring for her aging parents — and dealing with her fraught relationship with her iron-willed mother — in Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? This new graphic memoir brings humor, poignancy and, finally, a tough realism to an often grim situation.
Any reader of the New Yorker, where hundreds of her cartoons have appeared, will instantly recognize Chast's distinctive artistic style. Her tremulous lines, intricate backgrounds and slump-shouldered figures convey a wry domestic comedy fueled by insecurity and self-involvement, but she's always affectionate toward her subjects rather than mean.
That style is a perfect vehicle for the story she has to tell in this book. Chast was the only child of George Chast, a high school teacher, and his wife, Elizabeth, an assistant principal. Both children of Russian Jewish immigrants, born less than two weeks apart in the same neighborhood, they were childhood sweethearts who never spent any length of time apart except during his service in World War II.
George is funny and sweet-natured but deeply anxious about almost everything: "My father chain-worried the way others might chain-smoke. He never learned to drive, swim, ride a bicycle or change a lightbulb. He was not handy."
Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a confident force of nature, always ready to deliver what she likes to call "a blast from Chast," scoldings that leave her husband and daughter quaking. She is indisputably the boss of the family, and George has counseled Roz since childhood to listen to her — because it's an article of faith for him that she's always right. Elizabeth and George were always, Chast writes, a unit, and happy that way: "Of course we're co-dependent!"
They raised their daughter in a four-room apartment in Brooklyn, not the hipster Brooklyn of today but what Chast calls "DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have been left behind by everything and everyone."
As a young woman, she can't wait to get away. And for more than a decade, she writes, from 1990 to 2001, she never goes back to that apartment. Busy raising her own kids in Connecticut, she welcomes visits from her parents and stays in touch, but never sees them in their own habitat.
Then, just before 9/11, she's struck with an urge to return. By then, her parents are nearing 90. It's a painful revelation to see not only that the apartment is cluttered to the verge of hoarding but that everything's coated with grime. However, it's only after her mother takes a fall off a stepladder while looking for something in her "crazy closet," resulting in a 22-hour emergency room nightmare, that Chast realizes how frail they are becoming — and that her father's dementia is quite advanced, a state her mother had been covering.
For about a year after her mother's long hospital stay, they manage to stay in the apartment, but eventually Chast persuades them to move into what she calls "the Place" — an assisted living facility near her home with pleasant quarters and a staggering monthly fee.
That leaves Chast with a daunting task that will strike a chord with anyone who has had the same difficult experience. "I began the massive, deeply weird and heartbreaking job of going through my parents' possessions: almost fifty years' worth, crammed into four rooms." This section of the book is illustrated with photos she took at the time, and they are sobering.
She keeps a few mementos and two boxes crammed with hundreds of letters George and Elizabeth wrote while he was away at war — almost daily, sometimes twice a day. "I left everything else for the super to deal with. I didn't care whether he kept it, sold it, or threw it out the window. I was sick of the ransacking, the picking over and deciding, the dust and the not particularly interesting trips down memory lane."
Elizabeth outlives her husband, and as her health commences a roller-coaster ride so does her relationship with her daughter. As Chast writes, "When I was growing up, one of her favorite argument-enders was: 'I'm not your friend. I'm your mother.' If you hear that enough times, it becomes hard to switch gears just because some years have gone by."
Chast's account does not dodge the physical and mental indignities of old age her mother suffers, nor the frustration and shame she herself often feels (not to mention the financial realities she has to wrestle with).
But her humor, even at its most rueful, leavens the pain. Her mother enters hospice care, and Chast hires a full-time caretaker, a saintly woman named Goodie. For months, Elizabeth has spent most of her time in bed and consumed nothing but liquid nutrition, but Chast finds her sitting on the sofa with Goodie, having lunch. "Where, in the five stages of death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH? I had sort of adjusted to the idea that she was dying, and this was throwing me off."
Chast doesn't pull her punches, but neither does she hide her heart. At the end, the cartoons and words are set aside for a series of delicate, moving drawings Chast made just before and after her mother's death.
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is the farthest thing from a sentimental fable about families. Hilarious and wrenching, sometimes on the same page, it's the real thing, and heartfelt.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.