Roz Chast sheepishly approaches the front desk of the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco to reveal that she has [wince] locked her card key in the room. I have not met her yet—I am waiting near the desk to catch a glimpse of the New Yorker cartoonist as she emerges from the elevator—but overhearing this makes me smile. It’s classic Chast. If she were to draw the scene, her hair would be frazzled, her eyes crossed, exclamation points and swirls would encircle her head to emphasize her self-deprecation. The real-life Roz really is the sincere, baffled observer she depicts in her cartoons.
After talking with her in a quiet corner of the hotel lobby for almost two hours, even more appealing aspects of her personality were revealed. For one: she changes voices. Many of her impressions sound like enthusiastic salesmen of the 1950s and poke fun at her very challenging upbringing by two older and incredibly quirky parents—the voices are a coping mechanism for Chast, who was an only child. And, unlike some interviewees, who want to portray themselves in their most flattering light, she cusses unapologetically. Not what you’d expect from a contributor to a highbrow literary mag and resident of a staid Connecticut suburb.
All of these traits flow through Chast’s clever hand, resulting in some fourteen books, ranging from compilations of her New Yorker cartoons to several children’s books, one of which is a hilarious romp through the alphabet with Steve Martin. Her latest book, a memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, was a finalist for a National Book Award. In it, Chast focuses solely on her parents, a couple who “aside from WWII, work, illness and going to the bathroom did everything together.” Only here her parents—longtime favorite subjects, who have appeared in countless depictions since she published her first cartoon in the New Yorker, in 1978—have the spotlight all to themselves. Chast chronicles their not-too-pleasant journey from the mere inconveniences of old age to their messy and prolonged deaths. Granted, this is an unlikely subject for what are, in essence, cartoons. But it’s exactly that treatment that makes Chast’s graphic chronicle palatable. Death is no laughing matter, yet somehow her illustrations and honest, compassionate, and funny narrative see the reader through.
Chast’s book tours for the memoir have attracted legions of fellow baby boomers who show up ready to unload their own experiences in elder care. The book is practically a cautionary tale for a generation, yet of course applicable to everyone whose parents will eventually die, as parents eventually tend to do. She offers little advice except to face up to what’s coming down the pike, a sentiment summed up in the ironic inscription she penned in my review copy: “This will never happen to us.”
I. WHY THEY TURNED OUT THAT WAY
BLVR: What wasn’t in the book is that your parents had lost a child before you were born. That explains a lot—like why they were such helicopter parents and germaphobes.
RC: It was everything, and then on top of everything else losing a child is so devastating. She was born at seven-and-a-half months. She lived for a day and died, and my mother almost died in the process. I think that was devastating. So it was hard for them, and I’m sure it affected them, more than I am probably aware, and how I was brought up and their relationship with me.
BLVR: When did you start including your parents in your cartoons?
RC: Probably pretty early on. Even before doing cartoons professionally.
BLVR: What was so appealing about your parents as subjects?
RC: Sometimes they were funny. I think I knew them very well. And I liked drawing them. But when I drew those people that a lot of people think of as my parents I think they’re also not just my specific parents, but a certain kind of parent figure, you know? When I was younger I was very self-conscious of them because they were so different for so many different reasons from my friends’ parents. They dressed differently. They wore these strange really old-fashioned sorts of clothes. I don’t even know where my mother found these blouses. They would button up the back. She had this hairstyle that I think she had gotten in the ’30s, with a kind of curl on the forehead. My father always wore—I think of them as “man pants.” I don’t even know what they were made of. Maybe they were a wool blend. They had this crease down the front and it would have a cuff and he would wear them with “man shoes.” I never saw him until almost the end of his life wear sneakers. At the end of his life he sort of discovered the joy of Velcro sneakers because I think they were easy on, easy off, and they gave him some cushioning on his feet and they were comfortable. They were just very traditional and did not look at fashion. They did not seem to be aware of what other people wore or that it was not 1948 anymore. Which is why it always made it fun for me to draw them.It was the same thing with their apartment. I remember in college going to visit this girl who lived on Long Island. I felt like I was at the world’s fair, like [1950s broadcaster voice] “Future Pavilion!” The idea of keeping appliances out on the counter because they had a big kitchen—they had like a blender that was always out—was like a miracle. They had a microwave oven! Oh my god! My parents never had a microwave oven. There were aspects of their anti-inquisitiveness that were admirable. Now I feel like there’s so much encouragement, I mean you get these catalogs that say [smoky sales voice]: “Isn’t it time to change your table linens? Get new table linens for every season! Redecorate your house for fall!” Are you fucking nuts? Who does that?
BLVR: Your father carried around a cartoon about not understanding the cartoons in The New Yorker. They didn’t see their behavior as being funny. How do you think they would have responded to a book documenting their final years?
RC: I don’t think my mother would have liked it. And I don’t know how my father would feel. It might have not been something that they would find funny. And it wasn’t all funny, you know.
BLVR: And they didn’t get some cartoons about themselves anyway.
RC: That’s true. David Remnick said that he had read somewhere that the worst thing for a parent is to have a child that’s a writer. I guess when you write or draw it’s gonna always be a Hallmark card version of things. You have to write about what’s interesting to you and what you want to write about. I think most people understand that this book is not one thing or another. My relationship with my parents was complicated for a lot of reasons. I am grateful to them and I love them and they also drove me bananas. This was a particularly hard time of life for everybody. It brings up everything.
BLVR: Joan Didion also said something about writers being willing to sell somebody out.
RC: We will betray you. You can’t pass it through all of these filters—once you go down that rabbit hole, like, “I can’t write about this because of this.” I mean I don’t go out of my way to write anything that is hurtful. I didn’t write this book to settle a score, but I also wanted to be truthful. So I don’t think it would have made sense if I hadn’t been. It would have been fiction, like a really bad TV movie of the week. [TV announcer voice] “Oh there’s lots of troubles, but at the end I came to my mother’s bedside and we embraced!” You know, it didn’t happen like that. There was a certain tide of feelings that emerged.
BLVR: You illustrate your wonderful relationship with your father, who took you out for a malted and simply understood and respected you as a person.
RC: We had many malteds together. We would go to Morty & Eddie’s and get a malted or a malted and a grilled cheese and we’d share. [Sighs] Yeah…
BLVR: Your mother, though, was “fierce,” and dominated you and your father, who have similar, meeker personalities. Clearly he was your favorite.
RC: He was. He was a very sweet and generally mild person who adored my mother and relied on her and she loved the fact that he admired her and adored her. They were really very united in this thing.
BLVR: How did being an only child affect your observations of your parents?
RC: When you’re an only child you have no one to bounce your impressions off of. You don’t even know that that’s what people do, that that’s what siblings do. They talk about their parents and make fun of them. I think that’s partly why I was not such a happy camper growing up. It was like I’m living with these people and didn’t talk to them about other people that much. Especially if you’re an only child you don’t know what people talk about. I certainly didn’t. It was always very stressful to talk to other people.
BLVR: It’s surprising that your parents, who were educated, were naive when it came to discussing finances and death. They never asked about the cost of the assisting living and you never told them. Can you explain that?
RC: Yeah, they were very, very naive. They didn’t want to know and it was a very unpleasant topic. When they went into assisted living I sort of took it all over. I bought them furniture. I don’t even know if they knew that their room didn’t come with furniture. When they first when in, my father asked me if they would still have to pay taxes. I took over handling the pensions, handling the banking, handling the taxes.Some of it was maybe generational, this uncomfortableness with money. I mean they didn’t own their apartment after the building went coop. It was just too scary to own anything. When we bought our house my mother said to me, “One thing: Never borrow money from a bank. Daddy and I can loan you twenty or thirty thousand dollars.” They had no idea how much houses cost or mortgages worked or the fact that borrowing money could be good, because then you could take the interest you’re paying on your loan off your taxes, that there are ways in this country that owning a house is very great. It was too complicated, too frightening to them.
II. SAVING FOR DEATH
BLVR: The title of the book is about not talking about something unpleasant. Why did you want to talk about it?
RC: I sort of don’t want to talk about it, but I also know that unless something happens, this is the direction that I’m going in, that we’re all going in, unless there’s a sudden illness or an air conditioner falls or whatever. And I feel that—and maybe this is a very Baby Boomerish kind of thing—that we have done things differently, you know? I didn’t just follow the child rearing practices of my parents. When people would say [in southern accent], “Well my Daddy beat me and I’m beating my children!” I’d said no, actually, I want to think, is there a better way to do this? Is there a better way to teach my kids right from wrong? To be a parent where it’s not yelling or screaming? You learn things and you talk about it. You read books about it and you talk to your friends about it. What has your experience been with this? To bring it more out in the open, to not just follow blindly in this way. And because I know I’m going in this direction, I’m hoping that somebody figures out some way that it will be better. I hate this because I’m not a soap box person. I mean, I don’t know shit about this subject. But we don’t do very well in this society with people who are old. If you are not young and strong and productive and mentally with it, the more people don’t want to look at you. If you have disabilities, if you are infirm in some way or sick, you’re on your own. If you’re in the workplace and you have an older parent and you want to take some time off to care for them, you’re not cut a lot of slack. And as far as the money thing goes, talk about black comedy! It’s like the blackest comedy of all. And I’ve heard things. My parents did were lucky. I mean, they saved for it and pretty much broke even.
BLVR: What kinds of things did you hear?
RC: I was talking to somebody a few days ago who told me that her parents are in their 80s—and I had this confirmed—and they went to a place voluntarily. To get into this place cost $450,000. It cost $450,000 and they still had to pay $5,000 a month for the rest of their lives. They had the money, they had to sell their house, they had to totally liquidate everything. It’s kind of like long-term health insurance. They want all your assets. They want everything, everything, everything.
BLVR: Those numbers are mind-boggling.
RC: It’s highway robbery. That’s cliché, I know, but it’s taking advantage of people. You just get so completely screwed. So I do want to bring the money aspect out into the open. If you think it really matters that you’re saving for your old age or your children or anything like that, that’s a laugh. You might as well just, like, buy a drawerful of cashmere sweaters because it doesn’t matter all. It doesn’t matter at all.
BLVR: The cashmere sweaters—that was a cautionary tale your mother told.
RC: It was about somebody she knew who, when they signed their money over to their daughter, she went out and bought a drawerful of cashmere sweaters.
BLVR: Even your parents, who had pensions and scrimped their entire lives, were running out of money. It cost $14,000 a month to care for your mother alone at the end. How has that affected your post-retirement plans?
RC: I’m never going to retire. I don’t know. It’s really scary.
BLVR: A checker at Costco?
RC: Yeah, I think so. CVS, probably. It’s closer to my house. I’ll be a greeter at CVS for tips.
BLVR: Your mother’s hospitalization reveals the extent of your father’s dementia, which had been hidden by their close relationship. I found their codependency endearing—did you?
RC: It was a mix. I mean it was endearing. They were okay with being codependent. That was natural to them. They were from another generation where you wanted that. The idea of [sing-song voice]: “I am my own person!” I mean, my husband and I travel separately sometimes. That was totally unfamiliar to them. They did depend utterly on this other person, and in some ways, I find it sort of fantastic, the kind of relationship that I’ll never have and maybe there are aspects of it that are terrible because they were so much more merged than most people I know.
III. THE STUFF
BLVR: Before you closed up their apartment, you start going through your parents’ belongings, quickly become overwhelmed and end up getting the super to clear most of it out. What did you end up salvaging?
RC: I did get a few things—this box of letters they had written to each other in World War II. That was incredible. My father wrote my mother sometimes two or three times a day. Almost every single day there was a letter. I found all the clothes I had been sending from Land’s End or L.L. Bean like “the good daughter.” I would think about my father and those cold man pants, find out his size from my mother and get him some corduroy pants that were warmer. And I found them all in plastic bags, totally unworn. So I didn’t take any of that. I just thought, oh, just give it to the super, whatever. There was very little that I wanted, because it’s just stuff, stuff, stuff.
BLVR: How do you approach acquiring things now?
RC: I haven’t turned into a total ascetic, by any means, but I have enough knickknacks to last a lifetime. Going to a second-hand shop no longer holds the same charm that it once did for me. I look at old lamps and placemats from the ’50s or ’60s and think: ahhh, this is somebody’s dead parents’ stuff. Once you go through your parents’ deaths, it changes the way you look at stuff.
BLVR: Your book almost served as a “What to Expect” for the children of elderly parents. Did you ever imagine it would be perceived that way?
RC: No. In fact I feel like there’s two actual pieces of advice that I have and that’s it. One is that an elder lawyer was very helpful—I didn’t know there was such a thing as an elder lawyer—and the other is about keeping a notebook. I’m such a disorganized person, the notebook was the best thing. If you’re the caretaker, you’re going to need access more often than you think to information like your parents social security numbers, the person you talked to and what you talked about, if there’s an issue that needs to be untangled, what stage of the untangling you’re at, their phone number. All this stuff that you have to keep on top of and that helped me feel a little less sixes and sevens about everything. Other than that, everybody’s situation is so different and their relationship with their parents so different that’s really the only concrete advice that I feel comfortable giving.
IV. THE MEDIUM AS MESSAGE
BLVR: Your father’s tear-filled face yelling ‘Elizabeth!’ upon seeing her return from the hospital is the only time you devote a single page to an event. Why?
RC: He was so happy to see her. It was like an explosion of happiness and relief and joy and tears and just seeing his beloved Elizabeth again. It was heartbreaking.
BLVR: Three types of artwork appear in the book: cartoons, sketches and photos. Did you decide to photograph the hoarding at your parents’ apartment because it was the most journalistic? Readers might think you were exaggerating if you drew pocketbooks taking up an entire double bed, the Crazy Closet and stacks of empty egg crates in the fridge.
RC: I think there was a kind of childish part of me that was like, “Look I’m not making up the cheese-tainer. Yes! It was really patched with masking tape. Yes! There were really empty stacks of egg crates in the refrigerator.” But at the time I was doing it, I wasn’t thinking of putting them in a book. I was doing it for myself, because it was a way for me to remember it. I didn’t want to save the objects, but the photos were a way to remember them.
BLVR: At one point you uncharacteristically explode on your father, use the F word and immediately feel guilty. How did you envision yourself as a caregiver and how was the reality different?
RC: I was hoping that I would be much better at it than I was. I was hoping for all of those things that you imagine, where you are going to be this incredibly kind and patient person who will minister to these people who took care of you when you were a baby, who would be so sympathetic to how much pain they were often probably in and how much suffering they were going through, and with my father’s dementia, that I would have nothing but patience, and that possibly I would even take them into our house or even build an addition onto our house. I didn’t do that.
BLVR: You admit that you resented taking care of your mother, but also feeling guilty and jealous of her friendship with “a complete stranger,” Goodie, her West Indian caregiver.
RC: From what I have heard this often happens. The person bonds with their caretaker in a way that they talk to them more than they talk to you. I think maybe she was trying to protect me. I felt very guilty for so many reasons. Yet, once again, the job of wiping somebody’s bottom is left up to women and women of color. Why isn’t some 40-year-old white man doing it? Why aren’t they doing these jobs generally? No. They’re at Google or doing finance.
BLVR: When your mother was in her final stages, you told her that “It’s okay to let go.”
RC: The hospice people told me to.
BLVR: Were you worried that it might hasten her death?
RC: Maybe. I just didn’t understand what was going on or what was going to happen and it scared the bejesus out of me. I didn’t know if I was going to have to move her to a different place and if that move would kill her or if I was going to have to go into our savings. At this point she was just lying in bed. It was so awful. She had diverticulitis. She wasn’t continent. She wasn’t talking very much. She was 97. She wasn’t eating, she was drinking Ensure. It was scary. What is the logic of telling people “it’s o.k. to let go”? That is a very common phrase in hospitals. Isn’t it like saying “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry”? I wish there was no reason to say “it’s o.k. to let go.” It would be, “Please don’t let go, please stay, don’t die, never die. If you could just will yourself to stay alive. I love you so much, you must stay with me forever and ever.” But what’s the logic of that? Then you have people alive for what? A hundred years in a kind of suspended animation?
BLVR: You try to reconcile your feelings toward your mother, saying “I wished we could have been better friends.” But she, in essence, blows you off. Do you think there’s this cultural tendency to push for closure, but even at the end we’re the same people—imperfect, albeit with the best of intentions?
RC: I don’t think she meant to be mean. She was who she was. I probably should have had that conversation with her way earlier.