My mom died last week. Her obituary is online. It is, as obits should be, about her. Too many women’s lives are contextualized around their roles as wives and mothers. So I kept myself, and our relationship, in the background.
Now for a personal remembrance.
Like all mothers and sons, we argued. A recurring conflict concerned religion. When my son was born I promised my mom to raise him Catholic. I figured that, like me, he would abandon the faith but move on with some useful ethical and cultural residue. I had him baptized. Which, according to the film “Warlock,” should protect him from getting eaten by Julian Sands.
We didn’t attend mass, though. My mom badgered me about it. Finally, I admitted the truth: “I did intend to, but, with a newborn, a lazy morning over bagels and the Sunday Times is too precious to squander on getting dressed up to talk to someone who isn’t there.”
A decade later she was bitterly ranting about my religious abstinence for the God-knows-what time when I snapped: “Come on, mom! You’re an intelligent person. You can’t possibly believe that some man in the sky controls everything.”
“Of course not. God is a myth. I’m French. Being Catholic is about culture!” WTF?
Fifty-plus years about God wants this, God hates people who, God wants you to pray blah blah, and it was propaganda all along! Conscious propaganda. She knew it was a lie. The funny part was that she thought she could guilt me into doing obedience. It never worked on me. Nor on her.
It took my mom most of my life to realize that we were wired the same way. “Mom,” I said, “if you had made the cultural argument from the start I might have bought it.”
She grimaced. Her eyes grew bigger. “Well, damn,” she smiled. She loved the life of the mind. Her true religions were ruthless criticism and logical rigor.
We had fun.
She retired, late, at 70. “You’re going to drop dead in front of your students” unless you quit, I warned. I should have shut up. She didn’t have a second act in her. She puttered around her small house, read, took lunch with friends and watched CNN and too much Fox News. I may be wrong; I worry that retirement set the stage for Alzheimer’s. The tons of artificial sweeteners she consumed didn’t help.
I don’t do denial. I watched her box of medicines expand as she aged, believed her when she said she wouldn’t be around forever and determined to spend as much time with her as possible before she died. I tried to make her life bigger, to keep her intellectually challenged and connected.
I called her at least daily. Our conversations typically included discussions of the day’s news. She enthused about the books she read well past any indication that I was interested; a side benefit of her death is that I will never again have to hear about Madame de Sévingné.
Inevitably, she would wonder aloud about her failed marriage to my father. Why did he leave her? Why couldn’t he love her back? Would I be angry if she got back together with him? (No.) “Mom,” I’d repeat, “he remarried during the Nixon Administration. He’s still with her. He’s never coming back. Why don’t you find someone new?”
“All the men are too old,” she’d say.
“You’re old,” I’d point out.
Silence. With my mom, no reply equaled grudging agreement.
Upon arrival at her house, she’d motion me toward the sofa. “Sit down,” she ordered. She expressed exasperation at my whinging that I had just traveled 1,000 miles, needed to pee or wanted to shower or whatever. If she’d had her way we would have spent every waking hour of my visits to Dayton in her living room, staring at one another while she talked on and on.
I rebelled. “From now on, whenever I come here, we have to travel somewhere by car,” I informed her. “Sitting in your living room is intolerable.”
“OK,” she said. She respected when you put your foot down.
We went to the Kinsey Institute (surprisingly dull), Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, the bourbon trail in Kentucky, the bizarre domed hotel at French Lick, Indiana, countless house museums. Toward the end we wandered alone, just the two of us, through the hulking freezing shambles of the Mansfield Reformatory where they filmed “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Our last sortie before The Fall/The Home/The Dying was a year ago to the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina. I rented a Dodge Charger because my mom liked fast cars that made a big noise but never owned one. We got it to 110 in Tennessee. “Not very impressive,” she said, eyes twinkling even as the Alzheimer’s stole more of her.
No one was sharper than Yvonne Rall. Late in life she self-diagnosed after reading about Asperger’s syndrome; we agreed hers was a mild case. There was no need to confirm with an expert. Hers was the kind of smart that was simply always correct.
She was a perfectionist. “That could have been a good cartoon,” she’d say. “Appliques-toi.” Apply yourself. Her house was meticulous.
Nothing frustrated my mother more than laziness, whether physical or intellectual. Any problem could be solved; all that was lacking was gumption. On a trip to France she insisted on joining me on a mountain biking expedition. She kicked my butt. She was 65.
She understood the awful callousness that feeds tolerance of injustice. When Bush began his drone assassination program, I predicted that American liberals would protest in the streets. “No they won’t,” she predicted. “No one cares about brown people.” Yet she couldn’t understand why rich people didn’t give their money to the poor.
She wasn’t perfect. She spanked and slapped and whipped me with a belt (usually not with the buckle side) until I was 13 or 14 and surpassed her in height and informed her that I would kill her unless she stopped. I was serious. She stopped.
I was sexually assaulted by a junior high school custodian; she didn’t believe me.
After I moved away I worked hard to forgive her, she reciprocated by listening and owning her crap and really, actually changing, and we forged a close friendship. People heard me talking to her in fast-loud French and assumed we were fighting. No, we were spirited. My mom interrupted constantly. “I have so many thoughts in my head I need to get out and I’m afraid I’ll forget them,” she said. I shouted to slip a word in edgewise but I wasn’t angry. We laughed a lot.
My values come from my mom. We live with infinite possibilities. We can make work rewarding and end wars and take care of one another. We just have to do the work.
Yvonne Rall died, as the euphemism goes, from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, on February 7, 2020. She was 84 years old.
No one who knew her will meet anyone like her again.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)