Tag Archives: mother

My Dead French Grandfather Helped Me with COVID-19

Image result for deserted roads covid-19

After my mother died on February 7th I gathered her valuables and photo albums and drove home to New York. But there wasn’t enough room in the car for everything I wanted to keep.

There were tchotchkes like a silly white ceramic salt and pepper shaker in the shape of Arab kings. It wasn’t my taste but it had been there my entire life so I wanted it. There was a box of birth certificates and other official documents from her parents and grandparents back in France. Her bike. She bought a wooden chair for five dollars at a garage sale, stripped off the hideous paint and discovered it was early 19th century Shaker; I didn’t want to let that go.

One more trip to Dayton was all I needed.

Her house sold faster than I expected. Closing is in a month. The buyers want to move in then. So I’d have to get my stuff out. My realtor was generous. She offered to pack everything up and store it for me until the end of the coronavirus crisis. But as a rule I prefer to do it myself. Things you care about get lost and screwed up when you leave them to others.

COVID-19 be damned, I packed up to drive from New York to Ohio.

It was going to be a cannonball run. Twelve hours from New York to Dayton, one day to pack, twelve hours back. I’d only need to get gas once each way. If I needed to urinate, I’d do it on the side of the Pennsylvania’s Interstate 80. As Gary Numan noted, the automobile is the epitome of social distancing.

Aside from the possibility of contracting the coronavirus, my plan entailed the risk of being trapped at some checkpoint or forcibly quarantined as lockdowns continue to spread. Ohio has a “shelter in place” order. There are rumors that nonessential travel verifiable by documentation has been prohibited. The White House wants anyone who leaves New York to self-quarantine for 14 days. As of this writing, however, the highways are supposedly open. But will they be on Friday?

I couldn’t sleep last night.

What if I got sick somewhere in western Pennsylvania or eastern Ohio? I wouldn’t have any clue where to go. Would I be able to drive the remainder of the way to Dayton? Would I get stuck there? If I were on my way back, would I be in good enough shape to make it back to New York? There were too many variables to feel good about making the trip.

It’s not like I am particularly risk-averse. I’ve filed conflict reporting, including from Afghanistan. But something kept telling me I was being stupid.

Then my grandfather spoke to me. Not literally. He died over 30 years ago. But I could hear him in my mind, telling me a story for the umpteenth time, so clearly that I re-remembered the timbre of his voice.

The story concerned his best friend.

When France fell to the Germans in 1940, the country was partitioned. The western Atlantic coast and northern France including Paris were subjected to direct Nazi occupation. The center and the south became known as the absurdly misnamed “Free Zone,” governed for the first couple of years of World War II by the treasonous collaborationist regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. My grandfather and his family lived in the free zone. His boyhood best friend lived in Paris.

A member of the French Resistance, he learned that Jews and others deported to Eastern Europe would never return, that they were being mass murdered by the Germans. He determined to save his friend, a Jew living in Paris.

Using forged papers that could have gotten him shot on the spot had they been discovered, he illegally crossed the line of demarcation into the occupied zone and made his way to his friend’s apartment in Paris.

You and your family, he told his friend as they smoked together, must leave at once. I have arranged forged documents for you. I will take you over the mountains to Spain where you will be safe.

His friend trusted him implicitly. I understand, he said. Then he went to talk to his wife.

After a time, his friend returned to the living room to inform him that they would not be leaving with my grandfather. They had a beautiful rent-controlled apartment, nice furniture. He specifically mentioned a fine china cabinet. Holocaust rumors seemed so over-the-top. Perhaps, he told my grandfather, everything will be alright.

After liberation, my grandfather returned to Paris where he learned that months after their meeting, his friend, his friend’s wife and their two daughters had been deported to Auschwitz. They almost certainly were gassed upon arrival.

The apartment was bare, the door wide open. Someone, neighbors probably, had taken everything, even the china cabinet.

“My friend died over an apartment and some stuff,” my grandfather remembered. He was still angry. “Never die over stuff. Society can collapse in an instant. Accept the truth, pivot and never look back. It’s the difference between life and death. Never risk death over a stupid china cabinet.”

COVID-19 isn’t World War II and driving to Ohio is hardly on par with waiting out the Nazi occupation of Paris. Yet my grandfather’s lesson was pertinent. I nearly risked myself and everyone that I came into contact over stuff.

Stuff doesn’t matter. People matter.

I’m sure my realtor will pack everything up diligently.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

About Me and My Mom

            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 did.

            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.” 

“I don’t like this,” she told me. “It feels like being dead.”

            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.

Bicycling in Dayton, age 80.

            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.)

Yvonne Rall, Educator and Passionate Advocate of French, Dead at 84

            Yvonne Rall, a brilliant and demanding educator who left her mark on thousands of high school French students, died February 7th in Kettering, Ohio. The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

            She was 84.

            She was my mother.

            A native of France who arrived in the United States at age 25 in 1961, my mom became a memorable presence at Centerville High School near Dayton, Ohio for her stylish wardrobe, commanding presence—she was 5’9” with hazel eyes that could transition from a kind glint to piercing contempt in an instant—and passionate advocacy of French language and culture.

            During her tenure from 1973 to 2005 Rall initiated the school’s advanced-placement French program, began a French Honor Society and was named Teacher of the Year in 2001. She held a bachelor’s degree from Wright State University and a master’s from the University of Dayton, both in education.

            She was as feared as she was fondly remembered. Students recalled a sharp-tongued teacher who enforced a zero-tolerance policy toward slouching, laziness and the use of English in class. She was also kind. She arrived early and worked late each day in order to tutor students who needed extra help. She inspired several of her students to become French teachers.          

            Née Yvonne Touzet in Mugron in the southwest department of Landes, she was born on May 3, 1935 to Charles Touzet, an orphan, merchant mariner and fisherman who suffered from alcoholism and had trouble holding a job, and Marie Le Corre, her mother. Marie apprenticed to wash and fold the distinctive bigoudène lace headdress of Brittany but that work dried up after a government campaign to unify the country by eradicating expressions of Breton, Basque and Provençal culture.

            Born at the height of the global Great Depression, Yvonne’s childhood was defined by abuse, poverty and deprivation. “My parents repeatedly told me I was an accident and that they didn’t want me,” she told me. Weeks after her fifth birthday, Germany invaded France. As the army disintegrated and the government crumbled before the Nazi advance, Marie dispatched Yvonne and her older sister Janine to the town well to fetch water for the stream of refugees now called l’éxode. “They passed by our house for months,” she recalled. “No one said a word.”

            World War II was traumatic. Touzet’s second-grade teacher, accused of resistance activity, was executed by a Gestapo firing squad in the school courtyard as she and her classmates were forced to watch. A member of the Communist Party, her father joined the Resistance. His long absences left the family without a breadwinner. German authorities targeted the family members of the maquis for reprisals, which forced the Touzets to move from town to town in the Vichy-administered “free zone.” Seeking work meant exposure to arrest. Hunger was constant. Her 1943 Christmas present was an egg.

            On a hot day in July 1944 Yvonne found herself alone in a village main square when she noticed a cloud of dust on the horizon. As a column of vehicles drew closer she saw that the lead tank carried an American flag. To alert the townspeople that liberation had arrived she raced into the village church. Forty years later a resident recognized her: “You’re the girl who rang the bell!”

            “I fell in love with America that day,” she said.

            A voracious reader—she loved history, politics and anthropology—blessed with a steel-trap memory, she drew on her encyclopedic power of recall and curiosity to rise to the top of her classes. But the French economy remained hobbled during the postwar years. She couldn’t afford to attend college.

            She moved to Paris in search of work. At age 25 in 1960 she landed at NATO headquarters as an office worker. There she met her future husband, Fred Rall, Jr. A bright aeronautical engineer who has been called “the father of the modern Air Force,” Rall was on assignment as an officer. The two were married in Chicago in 1961. They lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts while he studied at MIT before moving to Kettering, Ohio after he was reassigned to Wright-Patterson air force base. She worked as a homemaker and, after I was born in 1963, as a mother.

            My parents were a poor match. Like many men of his generation, Fred was a dry, laconic workaholic and political conservative who viewed his wife as subservient. Urbane, charismatic and witty, Yvonne did not believe in limits when it came to the American Dream. She described Fred as cold and authoritarian. After Fred expressed approval upon learning of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the marriage disintegrated. The couple separated in 1965 and divorced in 1968.

            In divorce negotiations my mom traded away alimony in exchange for college tuition. Active in social-justice movements, she protested the Vietnam War and marched for women’s and gay rights. She volunteered for Democratic campaigns. She chose the teaching profession because the workday ended at 3 p.m. so she could be home when I came home from school. She became a leader of her teacher’s union.

            She became a U.S. citizen during the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations. In addition to teaching, she was a published poet and paid translator.

            Always unorthodox, she engaged with citizenship in her own way.

            A devout Roman Catholic and opponent of abortion, she nevertheless supported Roe v. Wade. “It’s not the government’s business,” she said. She worked for the release from prison of a teenager who murdered her child after concealing her pregnancy and secretly delivering it.

            Sitting on a jury for the trial of a young man charged with selling drugs and assaulting the police officers who arrested him, she pointed out to fellow jurors that the cops were each twice the defendant’s size. “It was ridiculous,” she said, “the assault charges were just not credible.” Hers was the lone vote to acquit. She refused to change her mind. He walked.

            After the man was released she asked his lawyer to arrange a meeting. “You’ll never get another juror like me,” she warned him. “Next time it will be a bunch of white Republican racists. So straighten up.”

            My mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s was the subject of a National Public Radio profile in 2019. She lived independently, as she preferred, until the last year of her life, when she suffered serious injuries from a fall.

            Yvonne Rall is survived by her son, the political cartoonist and writer Ted Rall and her grandson, Erick Rall. She never remarried.

            Donations may be made in Yvonne Rall’s name to The Montgomery County Drug-Free Coalition, an organization fighting the opioid crisis in Dayton or, alternatively, to the Bernie Sanders for President campaign, which she supported.

(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.)

Of Course My Mom Still Needs Glasses

When people have Alzheimer’s, there’s a general tendency to give up on them in other respects. No one really knows or can know how much sensation or input people with Alzheimer’s continue to have, but it seems shortsighted and a little insane to think that they don’t need such basic amenities as eyeglasses.

Memory Care for Alzheimer’s is Kind of Soviet

Alzheimer’s patients like my mom are segregated into special memory care wards of nursing homes. Is it really a good idea to keep people with this problem together?

My Mom the Fussy French Eater (It’s Killing Her)

One of the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease is when the victim refuses to eat. My mother was always a fussy eater. She’s French. If the food didn’t taste great, she just wouldn’t eat anything at all. Now she’s losing a few pounds every month. The nursing home is doing everything they can but obviously this can’t go on forever.

Before I Knew My Mom Had Alzheimer’s, Her Weirdness Drove Me Crazy

My continuing series about my mothers struggle with Alzheimer’s turns the tables on me, the cartoonist, her son. Looking back now, I can see that many of the things that she did that drove me crazy were really early warning signs of the disease. Now that I know what’s going on, I am able to be patient. Why wasn’t I before?