They moved as one, her parents, George and Elizabeth Chast, children of the Great Depression, who saved newspapers, could not part with old appliances or rubber bands, eyeglasses or pencils. They boxed the hundreds of letters they exchanged during George Chast’s World War II service aboard a Navy ship.
By the time their frailties convinced their daughter her parents should move to a place of assisted living, Roz Chast’s father, George, was 95, his memory failing.
And their only child was beginning to deal with the realities of money for care, two pensions from the New York City public school system and a “bare bones version” of Medicare, covering hospital stays, but not much more.
After George Chast died, Roz Chast’s mother lost her spirit. She stopped eating, slept most days. Artist Chast picked up her drawing tablet and sketched her mother, lying in bed during her last illness.
Roz Chast ends her book, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant,” with newly-discovered truths as her parents’ surviving daughter. She dreams about her mother and father and keeps their ashes in her closet, two separate bags, but close together.
Hers’ are not family recollections from a comfort zone. On one page in her book, Roz Chast drew “The Wheel of Doom,” featuring cautionary tales from her childhood, accompanied by warnings of dire consequences.
Somewhere among the kith and kin, (nearly everyone’s), there is an aunt or grandmother, an uncle who harkens back to personal experience and can turn going barefoot into a confrontation with a rusty nail and a possible case of tetanus!
In the Chast memoir, Roz Chast recalls her mother’s warnings for every life event from laughing during a family meal causing choking to an older friend nearly blinded from a mascara-caused infection. Cartoonist Chast was also lectured on unsuitable playmate choices. Some were labeled “too germy!”
Not long ago, a friend called to check on our Georgia weather. She sighed, recalling sirens going off in her hometown of Memphis as her husband stepped into the shower. From the door, she reminded him there was a tornado warning. He waved her away and turned on the water!
No gloom and doom tales in his life, but the shower stand-off reminded me of my mother’s account of a happening in her childhood. With no air-conditioning, summers meant open windows, some without screens. On a farm down the road from her family home, a man ended his day, soaping off the grime from an afternoon of plowing, while his brother cut the yard. The lawn mower blade came loose, flew through a window and tore through the shower curtain.
The poor farmer, believing cleanliness was next to godliness, was sorely wounded. To this day, I check for open windows when grass cutting is in season.
My guess is most families have their oft-told stories deserving space on “The Wheel of Doom.” Growing up, I was reminded to take a sweater with me if I was playing outside after supper.
“You’ll catch a cold in the night air,” my grandmother cautioned. I was a mother myself before I figured out the night air in Alabama is almost as warm as it is before the sun sets.
Roz Chast’s retelling of her life with her parents and their journey though “the jagged shoals of old age and ill health” is by turns sad, familiar and bittersweet. She is honest about her feelings as the child who became the sole decision-maker for her mother and father.
Still, as sons and daughters, we understand, given time, ours’ will be the pleas to stave off inevitable loss, the ones that begin: “Spare me losing you.”
Judy Elliott is a longtime resident of Marietta.