What you are about to read is a family fiction. The characters Mom and Dad should not be confused with my own parents. And no offense is intended toward the brilliant and amazing Roz Chast. I just made up "her" cartoon. (But I do adore her.)
For the past 35 years my mother has given me a gift subscription to The New Yorker magazine every April for my birthday. Mom has always been the one responsible for the cultural life of our family.
Dad is the cook. Which is a good thing because Dad likes to eat. Mom doesn't. She used to say if she could take a pill once a day, to provide all her nutritional needs, she'd be happy. No cooking, no eating, no dishes to wash. This is her idea of the Good Life.
Dad is all about Western omelets, lumpy (but surprisingly delicious) egg salad, juicy burgers, slabs of steak, corned beef hash and matzo brei. Also, the man was born with an outstanding ability to order Chinese take-out.
But he is anti-culture. If it has the word educational in it, he's against it. He would never give me a subscription to The New Yorker because he's very snobby about how snobby he thinks the magazine is.
He does like the cartoons, though.
From time to time I'll send him an envelope chock-full of drawings by George Booth, Victoria Roberts, and all the rest. Dad especially likes the cartoons that show two guys on a desert island, and any pictures of a king make him howl.
My mother would like to enjoy these cartoons. She really would. But she just doesn't get them. She calls me on the phone from their apartment in San Diego and asks me to interpret. Of course, by the time she calls, I don't remember what I sent and she has to clue me in.
"There's a woman sitting on a couch and she looks worried, though what she would be worried about I have no idea. And also there is a man sitting on a chair next to the couch, he could be her brother or maybe her son, he looks just like her so I don't think he's her husband. Though, come to think of it, sometimes a couple does end up looking a lot alike. Do you remember Millie and Sol Goldbloom from when we lived on Vyse Avenue? When they first got married they looked like themselves, but after a while they started to look like each other. Do you remember? They even wore each other's clothes . . . . "
"Mom," I interrupt her, "let's get back to the cartoon."
"Sure, of course," (she is very agreeable), "but I'm curious, do you remember Millie and Sol, because they were always very good to you, Millie especially, and she used to say if she had a daughter . . . ."
I assure my mother that I remember Millie and Sol who were always so good to me, (I don't remember them at all), and she continues to describe the cartoon.
"Okay, darling, the woman's on the couch and the man's in the chair, and then there's a dog, and the dog looks as worried as the woman so I figure this must be a very talented artist because she or he knows how to make a dog look worried and . . . ."
"It's a she," I say.
"The cartoonist is a she," I say, "her name is Roz Chast."
"How do you know that?"
"I know her style. She draws worried people sitting in their apartments. And the woman and man are probably married, not brother and sister, because all Roz's people look alike, but anyway, the point is, what does it say?"
"What does who say?"
"The caption. What does the caption say?"
"Oh, wait a minute, let me change my glasses."
There's a considerable pause while my mother switches from her looking-at-a-cartoon-illustration glasses to her reading-a-cartoon-caption glasses.
"I'm back," she declares.
"I'm still here," I assure her.
"Okay now, let me see," (I can hear her squinting), "it says 'The Finkelsteins, Apartment 3G, wonder what ever happened to the Minkowitzes in 3F.'"
"Is that all?" I ask.
"That's it. It doesn't make sense, does it? It's not even funny."
"I have a feeling the humor is in the illustration, Mom, there must be something . . . ."
"But why?" she cuts in. "Why do they care about the Minkowitzes? I never cared a hoot about the neighbors."
This stops me cold. I can't think of a single thing to say because she most certainly did (and does) care about the neighbors.
For 85 years my mother has lived in one apartment or another and she has always known who lived on either side of her, who lived down the hall, who lived up above and right below. She knew their names, their children's names, their grandchildren's names and their dog's and/or cat's names. She knew their birthdays, their food allergies, their literary taste or lack thereof.
And now she's telling me she never gave a hoot about the neighbors?
The silence grows. I have no idea how to respond to such a big fat lie.
"Sweetheart, are you still there?" she prods.
"I'm here," I say.
"Okay, who cares about the cartoon. Roz Schmoz. Tell me what you're up to. Are the leaves changing yet in Ithaca?"
"They're beautiful, Mom."
"Good. Enjoy. But don't send us any."
This is a reference to a bag of autumn leaves I mailed to my parents twelve Octobers ago. The gift didn't go over as well as I thought it would and every year since, one or the other of them has made a point of reminding me not to send any more leaves.
"But keep those cartoons coming," she says. "They make no sense to me but your father likes them. He says the only thing about New York that he misses more than the bagels is the humor."
"They don't laugh in San Diego?" I ask.
"No. Not really. It's a different kind of humor here."
"What kind is it?" I ask.
"The unfunny kind," she says.
I guffaw. My mother may rate less-than-zero on the comic scale, but this is something like a joke she's just made. However, since it wasn't intentional, she would not appreciate my appreciation.
Luckily, she misinterprets my guffaw.
"Gesundheit," she says. "I hope you're not coming down with a cold."