Cartoonist uses her craft to tell universal story of aging parents

In her poignant book “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast recounts her parents’ final years and how she coped.

By turns touching and laugh-out-loud funny, the memoir pays homage to the complex people her parents were and also chronicles Chast’s anxiety about switching roles as they became more dependent on her.

Roz Chast will speak in Lafayette. photo/bill hayes

Chast’s father, George, died at age 95 in October 2007, and her mother, Elizabeth, died at age 97 in September 2009. “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” was published in 2014.

“I never pictured myself writing this book or talking about this subject, but as we age we think about all these things more,” she said in a phone interview.

Chast, 61, will revisit that story Oct. 30 at the 10th annual fundraising gala for Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. “The Art of Living” will be presented at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, where Chast will read from the book and share some of her New Yorker cartoons.

“This topic of aging parents — how we deal with it and how we don’t — hits close to home for so many of us,” said Avi Rose, executive director of JFCS/East Bay. “We’re expecting that the insights in her book will be reflected in her conversation with us.”

Rose added that early next year, JFCS/East Bay will launch a series of programs that “create a context for further conversations” on the topics Chast will address.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Chast started drawing cartoons at an early age. She majored in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design but soon went back to cartooning. At the age of 24, she sold her first cartoon to the New Yorker, which has published her work ever since. Her cartoons and editorial illustrations have appeared in more than 50 magazines and journals.

Chast said in an interview from her home in Connecticut that her Jewish upbringing influences her work and her life, though her parents were not religious.

“My being Jewish also is intertwined with being from New York, with being concerned about social issues,” she said. “All that is very much part of my awareness, and though I don’t consider myself a religious person, I do identify as a Jew.”

The artist’s self-image from 2015 image/roz chast

The book was a New York Times best book of the year, a National Book Award finalist, winner of the Kirkus Prize and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for the best books of 2014. Chast has written more than 15 other books, some for children.

How does Chast view her own experience with aging?

“I don’t think about it any more than I have to,” she said. “Why would you? When I do think about it, there are a number of things I hope will be different for me. For one thing, I am a thrower-outer, so I have less stuff.”

In “Can’t We Talk,” Chast writes about cleaning out her parents’ home and finding a kitchen drawer full of jar lids. “Many people with parents who grew up during the Depression find jar lids or a collection of pieces of string,” she said.

Chast said she hopes the practice of infantilizing seniors in their last years soon will be a thing of the past.

“My parents were not mentally incapacitated, but when they lived in an assisted-living residence, they were offered jigsaw puzzles as entertainment. How boring,” she said. “One night, the theme in the dining room was ‘Outer Space.’ I don’t understand this. These people were not third-graders.”

Chast is optimistic the situation will have improved by the time baby boomers must depend on others to care for them.

“I’m really hoping for medical marijuana — not to smoke it, but edibles — because why not?” she said. “We will demand it, yelling, ‘We want brownies!’ ”

She laughed and added, “More and more, I feel like I’m an old hippie.”

The Art of Living,”
5:30 p.m. Oct. 30 at Temple Isaiah,  945 Risa Road, Lafayette

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.