Working in a palette of squiggles and frowns and exclamation points, New Yorker magazine cartoonist Roz Chast has for nearly 40 years chronicled the anxieties of contemporary life in scenes that, while universal, share the unique perspective of a Brooklyn-raised daughter of first-generation immigrants.
The ironies plumbed in cartoons with titles such as "Lullabies for Parents," "Is Clutter Necessary?" and "The Smart-Ass Phone" often drew inspiration from Chast's parents, George and Elizabeth: He gentle and bewildered, she acerbic and domineering.
George and Elizabeth lived in the same Flatbush apartment that Chast grew up in for 60 years, and when they began to decline, Chast responded in the only way she knew how. Right to the end.
As Chast writes in "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" a graphic memoir about her parents' last years, after Elizabeth died, "I was alone with my mother's body for a while. I drew her. I didn't know what else to do."
"Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" published in 2014, is a special achievement, at once funny, unsparingly honest and achingly emotional in its depiction of the major and minor dramas of Chast's parents' final years. George died in 2007 at age 95, Elizabeth in 2009 at 97.
The book was a finalist for a National Book Award and earlier this year won a $250,000 Heinz Award, which honors "creativity and determination in finding solutions to critical issues." Heinz Foundation chairwoman Teresa Heinz said of Chast, "in her articulation of our unspoken fears and dilemmas, she offers empathy and courage to confront them head on."
Chast will discuss the book and her other work on Sunday, Dec. 6, in the BankUnited Center at the University of Miami, an event sponsored by Books and Books and the Lowe Art Museum. The discussion is part of the Lowe's annual Bubbles and Brunch event during Art Basel Miami Beach, which includes a breakfast in the museum at 10 a.m.
While the attention the book has received acknowledges its universal appeal, Chast says her reasons for writing it were very personal.
"It was really about not forgetting. Not only the events, but what my parents sounded like, their expressions, the way they related to each other," says Chast, speaking from her home in Connecticut. "Writing is a way of remembering, keeping everything from becoming the big mush of the past."
"Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" follows Roz, George and Elizabeth through the gathering dust and stacks of clutter in the Flatbush apartment, to falls and hospitalizations, the hiring of caregivers and the move to a Connecticut nursing home. The attendant mix of frustration and shame is laid bare.
"I felt guilty not to be 'doing the dirty work' myself," Chast writes over a depiction of her mother in the attentive care of Goodie, a Jamaican woman hired as a full-time aide. In the cartoon, Chast grumbles, "Guess I'll go home now and DRAW!"
Each journey at the end of life is unique, Chast says, so she's not sure her book has enough useful tips to be considered an instruction manual for the children of aging parents. ("Except the elder lawyer. I didn't even know such a thing existed, so I put that in because it was so helpful to me.")
"If you are the person in charge of taking care of your parents, there's no one way that this thing goes, except what happens at the end. One of the main things we have in common is that there isn't really any infrastructure in this country as far as us taking care of our oldest olds," says Chast, the mother of a son, 28, and daughter, 24.
Even the definition of "old" has become vague, says Chast, pointing out that a search of the online version of the White Pages categorizes people by age, with the final group "65 plus."
"After 65, you're just in this big heap of old," Chast says with a laugh, a few days before her 61st birthday. "Sixty-six is not the same as 102, but you might as well be. It's just another piece of evidence of what we don't like to think about in this country — that people get old and they might need extra help. That's the thing we all do have in common."
Roz Chast will speak at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, in the BankUnited Center at the University of Miami, 1245 Dauer Drive, in Coral Gables. The event is sponsored by Books and Books and the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum and School of Architecture. Tickets cost $15. Call 305-284-3535 or go to Miami.edu/Lowe.