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About Me and My Mom
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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 I would 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 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 said with a smile. 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 was 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 Sevingne.

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 whining 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 each other 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 make a big noise but never owned one. We got it to 110 mph 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.

ORDER IT NOW

She understood the awful callousness that feeds tolerance of injustice. When former President George W. 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 Feb. 7, 2020. She was 84 years old.

No one who knew her will meet anyone like her again.

 
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  1. IvyMike says:

    Hooray! for Ted and his Momma,too!

    • Replies: @RadicalCenter
  2. Justice says:

    She sounds like she was a wonderful character. A lovely tribute. I’m sorry for your loss.

    • Agree: Hail, RadicalCenter
  3. anon[269] • Disclaimer says:

    Mr. Rall, thank you for this wonderful, inspiring column.

    “Of course not. God is a myth. I’m French. Being Catholic is about culture!”

    This vignette perfectly summarizes the reality behind the most important human issue of all, that religion is the truest psychological distillation of culture, which is in turn the greatest expression of human biology.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  4. Thomasina says:

    She had passion, kindness, conviction, values. Because of this, she lives on – in your heart and in your memory. No one can ever take that away. She is in everything you say and do. What a wonderful legacy.

    I miss my dad. To me, he was the greatest gift, aside from my children, that I ever got. I guess we were lucky to have that.

    May she rest in peace.

  5. She sounds like a wonderful person.

    One of the things I consider most amazing is that she apparently provided you a “safe harbor” while growing up, and in the US that’s a very rare thing. It continually astounds me that the guy I work for lived in the same house all the time from when he was born until college, that he always had enough to eat, enough clothes to wear etc., in other words, a basic level of safety and stability and comfort that in my experience is almost preciously rare. It seems she was one of those rare heroes who provided you this.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d be interested in hearing about how your apparently French parents came to live in the USA. Growing up bilingual must be pretty neat.

  6. dearieme says:
    @anon

    As a British sage once observed, you have to remember that on the Continent there are educated and intelligent people who are Roman Catholic.

    • Replies: @RadicalCenter
  7. After reading with appreciation some of your recent articles, notably the one on your epic trip into Iran, I found this personal account interesting and moving. Condolences, Ted.

  8. anon[335] • Disclaimer says:

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute. Stories such as his have lasting value for the people who read them. I feel I have been introduced to your mother.

    “Come on, mom! You’re an intelligent person. You can’t possibly believe that some man in the sky controls everything.”

    Granted, but don’t dismiss the possibility that the great forces of the universe which the sciences in their infancy are identifying may include a grand intelligence. Or a Platonic Ideal or principle of intelligence that is working itself out through time. Such intelligence could encompass though not be limited to a man in the sky.
    As Aristotle said, the mark of intelligence is the ability to consider an idea without believing it. If biology and practicality recommend religious belief, don’t assume there is harm in it. Don’t assume that a hard nosed modern atheism is somehow the only intelligent point of view.

  9. 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.

    Dude, that’s really hard core. Disturbingly. I just grabbed my mother’s swinging arm and told her we weren’t going to do things that way any more, but I never thought of killing her.

  10. Ted Rall writes above re his mother:

    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.

    So Ted Rall’s ‘failed marriage’ mom abused Ted Rall himself, to the point that as a teen-ager Ted Rall found it necessary to threaten to kill his mother

    And Ted Rall now writes in fond memory of her, Ted speaking of ‘forgiveness’ and alleging she ‘owned her crap’ and ‘changed’ (once it was in her clear self-interest, as an aging older woman alone, to appear to do so)

    What a sad commentary on the state of parenting, Ted Rall’s experience maybe not so uncommon

    Worse in our times? More common in ‘atomised’, less social cultures like the modern West? Or was it always like this?

    • Replies: @Thomasina
  11. Muggles says:

    Nicely done. Thanks.

  12. Thomasina says:
    @Brabantian

    “She spanked and slapped and whipped me with a belt.”

    Yes, and you, Brabantian, just spanked, slapped and whipped him with your words.

    There’s good AND bad in all of us. She obviously gave him more good than bad, and he’s smart enough to know the difference.

  13. @IvyMike

    Whether intended or not, your comment sounds sarcastic and inappropriate. The lady just died, and he is sharing his love for her. This is not the time to be a wiseass or attract attention to yourself for laughs.

    God comfort Ted and may his mother Rest In Peace. She will liven up heaven and be rightly welcomed there whether she believed in it or not.

  14. @dearieme

    That’s cute 🙂

    But of course, on EVERY Continent there are goodhearted and intelligent people who are Roman Catholic, and I say this as an ex-Catholic.

  15. Anon[602] • Disclaimer says:

    Goomba Goom 🙂

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