Roz Chast’s memoir: wrestling with mom, dad and mortality
New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s work is loved for its mix of humor, anxiety and neurosis. In her book “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” she uses her gifts to tell her story of caring for aging parents. Chast appears Tuesday, June 3, at Seattle’s Elliott B
Seattle Times book editor
The author of “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” will appear at 7 p.m. June 3 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle. Co-sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association of Western Washington; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com ).
Cartoonist Roz Chast is one of the funniest people on the planet (no arguments, please). Since her cartoons first began appearing in the New Yorker in 1978, their giddy mix of humor and anxiety, neurosis and warmth, have charmed millions.
Now she’s published a book about a serious topic — the decline and death of her aging parents, and how she cared for them as they protested, prevaricated and denied their mortality every step of the way. Called “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir,” (Bloomsbury, $28) Chast tells her story in cartoons, text and images of keepsakes from her parents lives’, from her mother Elizabeth’s poems to her father George’s collection of old Schick shavers. It is painful, it is funny, it is blunt, and it is therapy for anyone who has been through the same experience.
Chast appears at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 3, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. I asked her how she put together a book about a very personal subject.
Q: Tell me how the book came together. How did you record the story that wound up in the book?
A: Some of the drawings I had done along the way. I submit weekly cartoons to the New Yorker ... Every week we turn in a group of sketches or ideas. Some of the drawings in the book ... were just part of my weekly submission.
When my parents started to go into decline, I wrote letters (and emails) to friends in some detail about what I was going through. Thank god for Gmail search.
Q: Did you have to let things settle a bit before you could put the story together?
A: My father died in 2007 and my mother died in 2009. It’s almost 5 years later. I started thinking about it five years ago, but it took a lot of time to settle and figure out how I wanted to do it.
Q: I noticed a paradox about your parents that I saw with my own (Chast’s father was 95, her mother was 97 when they died). In some ways, they were so tough. In other ways they were so unwilling to acknowledge the inevitable.
A: They were tough. You had to understand that their lives were much more difficult than mine.
Sometimes I thought it was my mother’s way of being tough — saying, ‘I won’t even acknowledge you.’ When my father was passing ... my mother was saying, ‘we should call down and get some chicken soup for Daddy.’ Maybe it’s a lack of toughness, maybe it’s another kind of toughness.
Q: You had a difficult relationship with your mother — she had a terrible temper. Where did your mother’s temper come from?
A: I think it might have come from her father. She said he had a temper — she called him the crazy Russian. It came more from him than from her mother. I didn’t know him; they were gone by the time I was three or four.
Q: At the same time, she was a very accomplished woman. She was an assistant principal in a school. She played the piano. She wrote poetry.
A: I have a folder with maybe 60 poems she sent me over the years. Mainly I remember her playing the piano. She was really, really good. She did it for her own pleasure, and also belonged to a group in Brooklyn, Classical Pianists in Retirement. CPR. (laughs). She was accomplished, very smart and very strong.
Q: What do people share with you after they’ve read the book?
A: It’s amazing to me, how many people have been through or are going through similar things. There’s not a whole lot of conversation about it, at least in the media. It’s hard, you want to do your best, but it’s not an easy thing.
Q : You eloquently illustrate the financial burden, how much caring for the aging costs and how quickly you can run through a lifetime of savings.
A: It did sap my parents. My worry was, what happens if they run out of money? No one would tell me anything.
I was surprised at how completely the financial burden fell on them. They had scrimped and saved their whole lives. They didn’t own any property. They weren’t rich people, they were civil servants. But that’s how it works here in this country. I don’t know what the alternative is.
Finding the elder lawyer (a lawyer who helps the elderly and their caregivers sort through legal and financial issues) was a lifesaver. It was really a good thing that I did that when I did it. In the nick of time; my mother fell off the ladder just a few months later.
Q: I was left feeling that despite your troubles with your parents, you feel close to them in some essential way — literally, since their ashes are in your closet. How has the passage of time affected your perspective on them?
A: It’s really complicated. I still sometimes see them in dreams. I think as I get older, there are things I will understand as I get closer to the end myself. With my father there was more of a feeling of things being OK, less so with my mother. That’s still complicated.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.