Every day millions of Americans aspire to do what they think is best for their aging parents. Members of the so-called Baby Boom generation are realizing that mothers and fathers who once took care of them are now needing care themselves as they grow older.
Roz Chast was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. She was an only child. After she grew up she moved to Connecticut to nurture her own family. Her parents Elizabeth and George remained in Brooklyn in the same apartment where they had resided for many years.
If you are a regular reader of the magazine The New Yorker, you have probably seen Chast’s work. She has been publishing humorous offbeat cartoons in the magazine for many years. On Sept. 9, 2001, Chast decided that it was finally time to visit her parents again in Brooklyn.
She recounts the story of that visit and what followed in her graphic memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Chast justifies her long absence: “from 1990 to 2001, I had not set foot in Brooklyn once. Denial, avoidance, selfishness, laziness, and the day-to-day busyness of my life (two little kids! cartoon deadlines! grocery shopping!) were all partly to blame. But really, I just didn’t want to.”
Chast depicts this story in her exquisite cartoon form. Her parents had always been inseparable: “my parents referred to each other as ‘soul mates.’ They were born ten days apart and they grew up blocks apart in East Harlem, New York City. They were in the same fifth-grade class.
“They never dated, much less anything else’d anyone besides each other.”
Their bond was complete: “aside from WWII, work, illness, and going to the bathroom, they did everything together. My mother even washed my father’s hair for him. It’s not as if they never fought, because they did.”
Chast recalls with great affection what her parents had been like and what they became as they aged. When her mother experienced a health crisis and had be hospitalized it unmoored her father. Her parents were now in their 90s. When her mom was in the hospital she noticed that her dad was displaying signs of dementia.
Her father could not remember from one moment to the next that his wife was in the hospital. He became obsessed with their “bank books.” He was constantly worrying about ancient bank deposits at banks that no longer even existed.
We observe as her parents slowly decline. Then her dad dies. She finds a care facility for her mom. It is quite expensive. Her parents had been so frugal. This situation becomes terribly ironic. After her mom dies Chast must deal with all the junk that remained behind in her parent’s apartment.
Her parents had been products of the Great Depression. They never threw anything away. In this bittersweet and poignant tribute to her parents we discover the humor and the tragedy in this generation that had never wasted a single thing, was fiercely loyal and, in some cases, vigorously absurd. This is a lovely book.
You can hear my interview with Roz Chast this Sunday morning at 11 on WYSO (91.3-FM).
This week’s book
“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir” by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury, 228 pages, $28)