BOOK REVIEW: ‘Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?’

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Famous for her New Yorker cartoons, Roz Chast now turns her talents as a perceptive cartoonist to a memoir of her late parents in cartoons, drawings, and her own, hand-drawn narratives.

“Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” (Bloomsbury, 2014, hardcover, 228 pages, ISBN 978-1-60819-806-1) is a work in eighteen chapters with an Introduction and an Epilogue. The first chapter is titled, “The Beginning of the End,” where Chast lays the foundation of her parents’ personalities (strongly against such talk as aging and death) and aging issues she notices with alarm. Chapter Five is “The Fall,” when her mother decided to climb a ladder from which she fell, starting her slow decline over decades. Chapter 11 is “The Place,” the assisted living environment where the elder Chasts live when they can no longer be trusted to care for themselves. Chast outlines the sad occurrences surrounding her father’s decline and death, detailing the process of deterioration known as “Sundowning.” The last few chapters are considerably lacking in humor, since it takes Mother Chast many years to die, all the while costing many thousands of dollars monthly for “The Place,” in addition to round-the-clock nursing care and special needs items such as bed-wetting pads, adult diapers, and Ensure. To her credit, Chast almost gives discussing caregivers, explosive diarrhea, physical helplessness and dementia a happy face … but not quite.

Chast often writes about the money issue, and what she calls her parents’ “scrimpings” (their life savings) which she uses to pay for her parents escalatingly expensive maintenance. However, these paltry savings appear even to the casual reader as being rather significant. These savings must have been well into the low-to-mid six figures, hardly “scrimpings” by any standards. At one point, Chast does write a thank you to her parents for having saved so much for such an unpleasant end as theirs has become. Both parents died in their 90s.

Chast shares the burden of so many adult children of aging parents. She has a husband and children, and she needs to phone and visit often until those visits just aren’t enough. They now require care 24/7. Added to this is their not accepting their own mortality, not accepting their middle-aged daughter as a competent adult, and having their strange, co-dependent personalities. Once again, as we encounter so often in memoirs of overbearing Jewish mothers, we suffer the countless tales of a mother who is totally self-centered, arrogant, bossy, and occasionally violent. Both her daughter (an only child) and her husband fear her. We have run across such women in Elliot Tiber’s memoir, “After Woodstock,” which I’ve reviewed elsewhere. With “A Short Jew in the Body of a Tall Wasp,” Mark Okun’s memoir of growing up in a (loving) Jewish household, we have a perfect trifecta of Jewish children who have grown up and survived. No one could ask for better reading between the forced gaiety of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and the fictions they often embrace.
For a thoughtful, bittersweet consideration of parents who have died, Chast presents us with a wise and entertaining read for those of us who have already been there, and a cautionary tale for those of us who have yet to face it.

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