I spent some happy time on Wednesday reading this graphic book (graphic autobiographical story?) at the library. I picked it up because I recognized the drawing on the front as being by the same artist who often has cartoons/covers on The New Yorker. I spent so long reading the entire thing because, DAMN, Roz Chast knows how to tell a story in words and pictures.
Roz’s parents were, euphemistically, “older” parents. As in, they were older than dirt when they had her. And they were the kind of people who, due to family history, the Depression, WWII, and personality, never looked on the bright side of anything, if they could help it. When they were in their nineties, and both started having physical problems, Roz started cataloging her experiences as an only child trying her best (which admittedly, wasn’t always great) to help her parents, who most decidedly didn’t want anything she had to offer. After they died, she put together this amazing story, using text, drawings, and photos to chronicle the last few years of George and Elizabeth Chast.
There is a sequence about parental non-cleaning (grime): Roz comes to visit her parents at their apartment (the same place she grew up) and realizes that sometime in the past few years, her parents have stopped cleaning. "It's not ordinary dust, or dirt, or a greasy stovetop that hasn't been cleaned in a week or two. It's more of a coating that happens when people haven't cleaned in a really long time. Maybe because they're old, and they're tired, and they don't see what's going on." The "grime" page includes little drawings of household objects that have succumbed to neglect. And yet Elizabeth furiously will not allow Roz to clean anything or throw anything away. It is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
I am not an only child and my parents are nothing like the elder Chasts, but reading this, in the middle of the laughter, felt a cold sense of dread. I feel like the only one in my family that worries about these things. My sister has her own family and has distanced herself, both geographically and emotionally, from her “birth family”. My parents, despite (or maybe because of) grim experiences with their own parents in their final years, seem to have decided on a strategy of Let’s-Not-Talk-About-It-And-Maybe-It-Will-All-Work-Out-Okay. When I tried to open discussions with my mother what her preferred course of action would be if they ever needed to go into a home, the only answers I ever got were “Are you in a hurry to put me in a home?*” and finally “Just do whatever you think is best.”
Unless your parents are already dead or you have a grand plan for avoiding all end-of-life issues (and if you do, would you share it with me?) we will all be facing the sorts of things Roz Chast did between 2002 and 2007. Our stories won’t be the same, because all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and we all deal with the hard stuff in ways that play out family history and personalities. We also don’t have Roz Chast’s gift for humor and her artistic talents… which are exactly what made this book about a difficult subject so enjoyable.
*Each time she said it I felt a little more in a hurry to do exactly that.