You are here

Share Share Share Share Share Share Share

The Cartoonist and the Nursing Home: Roz Chast Talks to JWA About Her New Graphic Memoir

Roz Chast is one of The New Yorker’s most enduringly popular cartoonists, beloved for her signature neurotic style and quick wit. In her first graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast dives into the always frustrating, often funny, sometimes surreal world of elder care. As an only child, Chast was wholly responsible for making sure her aging parents were safe and taken care of, despite their tendency to drive her completely nuts. We meet her mother Elizabeth, a domineering woman who always had the last word, and her father George, an anxious man who adored Elizabeth. Together, the three of them navigate the last years of her parents’ lives, the brutal realities of aging, and the bittersweet comedy of reaching the end of the road.  

Chast talked to JWA about the book, her parents, and her new aversion to second-hand shops.

Caring for aging parents in their final years is a fairly universal experience, but there are very few books on the subject. How did you decide to write Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It was a way of remembering the experience of caring for them, and also a way of remembering them.

As a reader, I got the impression that caring for your parents at this stage in their lives was a bit like driving blind. What was most surprising to you about the process?

I knew very, very little about that stage of life, so in a way, the whole thing was surprising. One of my grandfathers died before I was born. Two other grandparents died when I was around three or four. The last grandparent died when I was in college.  I was surprised by how much the body can endure and still survive, and also by the amount of paperwork.

Throughout the book, you are very honest about your fraught relationship with your parents—especially your mother. Did your feelings of resentment for them intensify when you had to assume the role of caregiver?

I wish I could say otherwise, that taking care of them brought out the best in me. But it didn’t always. And, as I said in the book, they didn’t like being taken care of either.

Your parents saved everything, leaving a house full of possessions when they moved to an assisted living facility. My favorite passage in the book is when you were going through their things, picking out what to save for yourself. But I’m curious, what happened to everything else that was left in the apartment?

I paid the super to clean it out. I told him he was free to take anything he found, or give it away, or throw it out the window.

You refer to yourself as “your father’s daughter.” Do you see any of your mother in yourself?

From her I have inherited a complete lack of fashion sense. I deeply wish this were not so. I can take a Hermes scarf and make it look like a two-dollar babushka from Sears. Not to brag.

Did you have female role models growing up, outside of your mother?

Not really. I was kind of an isolated person.

As a reader, I felt that you were under a great deal of pressure to be a “perfect daughter” throughout this ordeal. Did you feel affected by that pressure, and if so, did it come from within? 

The pressure to be a better caretaker/daughter came from within and without.

How was Jewishness expressed in your home? Did your parents raise you with any particular traditions?

We went to temple on the High Holy Days, but not every year. We were not kosher, but we lit Hanukkah candles. Sometimes we had a Seder, but not always. My mother sent me to school on the Jewish holidays because she was working. I was not bat mitzvahed. Despite this very lukewarm Jewishness, I was aware I was Jewish.

You were clearly exasperated by your parents’ refusal to discuss the hardships of their lives and the lives of their parents. This seems to go hand in hand with avoiding conversations about death and the future. Did this frustrate you more as a daughter, or as a storyteller?  

We didn’t have many deep conversations about anything.  It was the way it was.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is full of painful revelations, but it is also very, very funny. Can you describe how it felt to illustrate these intensely difficult, frustrating moments? Were you able to laugh? Was it cathartic?

Sometimes humor is strongest in the middle of awful things, or at least it seems that way to me. And yes, sometimes I did laugh. I was sort of horrified by my mother’s loony stories at the end, but they were pretty funny, too. The word “catharsis” to me implies a purging, a letting go, a leaving behind. I wrote this book to remember them, and the experience.

Did this experience change how you think about aging?

One change is I don’t like second-hand shops as much. I look around and think: this is all somebody’s dead parents’ stuff. I didn’t want MY parents’ old stuff, so why would I want YOURS?

Buy Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant here!

Share Share Share Share Share Share Share
1 Comment

I must admit, I had not been aware of Miss Chast's book until I received an email from JWA. Thank you. I declare it is important to speak, hear, and pray, about places of humanity. Caring for our elders and aging are two such places.

I live on an island in Puget Sound, here on the west coast in Washington state. Monday, I took the ferry to Seattle to have dinner with friends for my birthday. On the drive to the ferry terminal with only minutes to spare, before the ferry was set to sail back to the island--my dear friend was enthusiastically rooting me on--"you're going to make it, you can do it." What I was going to have to do, was climb stairs and run, and I'm not convinced that the 50s are the new 30s. Nevertheless, I decided in order to make the 9 o'clock sailing, it was better to have a mindset with the mantra: yes, I can do it! So I climbed the stairs as though I was in boot camp, ran through the ferry terminal with thoughts of the song--"Don't Rain On My Parade," while imagining that the Red Sea had parted just for me. I arrived at the ticket counter with two minutes to spare--I was greeted with the question: "Are you 65?"

I am always walking through pockets of fog this time of year. My mother's yahrtzeit is June 15th. She was 56 when she died. I'm 54.

I too have the desire to remember . . . I have three parents: my mother, a beautiful and gregarious woman, my father, a passive and quiet man, and then there was my Uncle Ed.

My Uncle Ed was funny, he was quite the gentleman, lover of chocolate, loved Spanish dance and music, he was kind and generous, and he saved everything--the cardboard spools from his adding machines, rubber bands, he had towers of magazines and newspapers that were older than me, empty boxes of Whitman's chocolates . . .

I am an only child. I have had places in my life where I wanted to forget any traces of resemblance to my family, or that I was even part of a larger tribe. Today--I do not want to forget, I want to remember . . .

Oh how I would relish one more visit, and experience the stale and stagnant air that would linger in my nostrils and on my skin for days. I miss the traces of white powder on the floor, that didn't make it onto my uncle's scalp, which was desolate. (right about now my Uncle Ed would say: "careful toots") I miss what seemed like every time we were together, there would be some kind of quirky happenstance. We would burst forth with laughter, and then my uncle would say: "you little gonif you."

My Uncle Ed never married. I was his only next of kin who he adored and loved. My uncle had Alzheimer's disease. For a decade we were lost and trapped in an unearthly system. My plea fell on mostly deaf ears, or ears that were motivated by evil. I had hired strangers to assist with his care. What emerged was horrifying and tragic. They isolated him from me. Changed estate documents and stole financial sustenance. My uncle was deprived his religious civil liberties and rights: he was not permitted to receive religious comfort or blessings from our Rabbi. He was not allowed to be moved to a Jewish nursing facility, but rather was placed in an evangelical Christian nursing center. My uncle was Orthodox. This is where he died.

I want to speak this story . . .

I want to thank you Miss Chast for courage and humor. Thank you for your lovely response to the question: "Was it cathartic?"

I also do not want to forget. I want to remember . . .

Roz Chast
Full image
Cartoonist and author Roz Chast.
Photographed by Bill Franzen
Subscribe to Jewish Women, Amplified and get notifications sent to your email.

How to cite this page

Metal, Tara. "The Cartoonist and the Nursing Home: Roz Chast Talks to JWA About Her New Graphic Memoir." 2 June 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 21, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/interview-with-roz-chast>.

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

The JWA Podcast

listen now

Poll

What Does America Need Right Now?

Sign Up for JWA eNews

 

Twitter

11 hr
On the power of gossip, and why insulting it just might be sexist. https://t.co/sacPvt6UlQ
13 hr
Hmmm controversial indeed. Thoughts? https://t.co/0jNpssteyI