Yvonne Burge died in Sept. 2022. Ages aren’t something I keep track of, but I’m pretty sure she was in her early 80’s. She fell and broke her femur which led to other complications.
Most obituaries, I think, focus on the good parts of the deceased’s life – and I’ll get to that – but I think it is important to recognize that Yvonne died a lonely and isolated person (although not bitter or angry). I met Yvonne though the Antelope Valley Freethinkers, but it was only about a month before I moved a thousand miles away that I became friends with Yvonne. What follows is some of what I know about her through 1-2 hour phone calls we had every month or so over the past eight years. As an indication of her loneliness, she would sometimes call me needing to talk because she was, as she said, “in a bad place.” Another example is that, for many years, it was not unusual for her to be drunk when we talked. Yvonne knew she had a drinking problem and worked on it. There was an AA meeting close to her but she couldn’t deal with the religiosity of it (as is true for many people – a major shortcoming of 12-step programs). She seemed to have gotten her drinking under control since I don’t recall her being drunk on the phone during the last year or so.
Yvonne was effectively estranged from her son (although there was some minimum contact). Another son committed suicide decades ago. Her daughter suffers from mental illness (and associated financial problems) and, in my opinion, engaged in elder abuse for years; sometimes screaming at Yvonne and playing the “If you love me, you’ll do [fill in the blank]” card. Yvonne was living on Social Security and HUD housing but went above and beyond her means both financially and emotionally to try to help her daughter. Several years ago Yvonne finally accepted the fact that she couldn’t help her daughter and broke off contact. This inability to help her daughter created a great source of sadness and guilt in Yvonne. This is an example of how the lack of mental health care in our society doesn’t just affect those with mental illness, but those around them as well. I also blame the societal myth and pressure that a mother is supposed to be able, if necessary, to take care of their children till death do they part. Another aspect of this is that her husband took custody of their children when they divorced. She didn’t contest the custody since, as was (and often still is) common, she had no power and no means of supporting her children. And then, the father of her children seemed to have no interest in their children as adults.
Yvonne kept in touch with her sister, but Yvonne was an atheist and her sister is very religious so it was difficult for Yvonne to talk to her sister. I learned of Yvonne’s death from her sister, but it was only because her sister and son didn’t know Yvonne well enough to know what Yvonne wanted done with her estate and corpse. Her sister remembered that I had helped Yvonne out and contacted me through Facebook. I suggest anyone wishing to donate in Yvonne’s name do so to a nonreligious children’s organization.
The only other relative I know of is a nibling I found out about through Facebook.
During her later years, especially post-Covid, Yvonne’s main social activity was through Facebook – which shows the positive side of social media. However, she struggled with technology in general and somehow she lost access to her account. She said she got a notice saying her access was removed with no possibility of recovery. I’m not convinced this was true, but I wasn’t in a situation to try to figure things out for her. She created a new account but that didn’t seem to have worked out either. So this shows the downside of social media; the loss of her Facebook account (on top of Covid) was disastrous in terms of her social engagement. No blame, but I offer this as a lessons learned. Do you have friends you are only in touch with through social media? Do you have backup strategies for contacting them if they stop interacting on that media; some way of finding out if they are okay or dead? How long would you wait? Would you even notice? I contacted all of her Facebook friends (her account was still up) to let them know of her death and there were quite a few people that responded with grief; there were people that cared about her. Not to put too fine a point on it but, although I’m fairly certain her sister notified Yvonne’s remaining family, there was only one person (me) who knew about her death, knew methods for contacting some people that knew her, and cared enough to do so. Perhaps I could have used this Facebook friends method to encourage people to reach out to her before she died – but there are a lot of other perhaps’s as well.
Locally, she occasionally attended the Freethinker’s group, but they stopped meeting during Covid. Even with my encouragement she didn’t start attending the Freethinkers when they starting meeting again. People from the Freethinker’s helped her move (6-7 years ago? which she greatly appreciated) and they would have welcomed her. But none of them were close enough to Yvonne to check in on her. And, to be honest, Yvonne started to withdraw from meeting people; to the point that she told me she avoided some of the Freethinker members during a rally in Los Angeles she attended. Yvonne had also been a Universal Unitarian much of her life but didn’t find the local chapter attractive. In general, I think she got caught in the slow spiral into isolation; the further you go down the spiral the harder it is to pull yourself out of it.
The Antelope Valley (Lancaster and Palmdale, CA) is a very conservative and religious area. The other people in her apartment complex and the people at the nearby senior center were simply too religious for her to connect with. Otherwise, as far as I know, the only local contact she had was with her car mechanic (who treated her kindly), someone that occasionally provided tech support, and some social worker type people that she did not encourage to stop by. She occasionally mentioned other friends she talked to on the phone, in particular an art dealer(?) in NYC; I’m not sure how much she maintained contact with these friends towards the end. I never asked how she ended up in Lancaster but Hwy 14 between L.A. and Lancaster is sometimes called the “welfare corridor.” Lancaster is in L.A. County so the benefits are similar to living in L.A. but with a 15-20% lower cost of living; people tend to migrate to Lancaster and Palmdale. I assume this was part of the reason she ended up where she did.
Yvonne had an interesting and diverse life. She was originally from Cheyenne, Wyoming. She worked on the Alaska Highway, worked for a Jewish organization in L.A., did door-to-door political canvassing (in particular, an anti-nuclear campaign), and worked with children in various ways. She was concerned about national affairs and was very distraught by the election and term of the president I don’t like to name. The Antelope Valley’s economy is largely based on the military-industrial complex (e.g., Edwards AFB and Plant 42) and this in-your-face presence didn’t help her mental well-being as she felt strongly that our country is to militaristic. She was proud of the fact that she hitchhiked from Idaho to New York with $50 in her pocket to attend the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Yvonne never understood how intelligent she was. Even towards the end she was very cognizant and, for example, still driving a car. (She did, however, fall victim to one of the scams perpetrated on the elderly. Someone convinced her to buy a $500 dollar gift card and send it to them for computer insurance. Interestingly, and fortunately, her bank returned the money to her.) She was curious, utilized the library, and read a lot. When Yvonne and I talked it was about intellectual things and generally not chit-chat. Although she did reminisce quite a bit and usually gave an update on her two (sequential) dogs and, in the end, the two cats she had. (A neighbor took the cats.) She was still flabbergasted by the fact that she was actively pursued by sororities during college. (As a side note, her father not only encouraged her to go to college but told her she needed to in order to expand her experiences – yay dad!) Similarly she didn’t fully understand why Fergus Bordewich admitted her to graduate school and mentored her the way he did. Yvonne and I had very different knowledge sets – for example, she knew about art history and Russian literature, I’m a mathematician and scientist – and she struggled with why I enjoyed talking to her.
I expect some people to find what I say next inappropriate, but it appears it has fallen to me to speak for Yvonne’s memory. When I contacted people through Facebook I received a few (not many, but a few) religious condolences – the “I pray she finds peace” type of thing. Yvonne was an atheist. She didn’t believe in fairy tales or imaginary friends. Praying for her or saying anything religious about her disrespects her memory; also, the religiosity of the people immediately around her added to her isolation. On a personal note – and although I don’t speak for all atheists I know I speak for some – receiving religious condolences is an unwanted expression of religious privilege. Sending religious condolences to an atheist is inconsiderate since the sender did not consider the possibility that someone might not want to hear them; it is unempathetic in that it projects beliefs on to other people; and it is uncompassionate to inject religiosity into my grief. If you don’t know someone’s religious beliefs, then ask before saying such things or, better yet, keep your religion to yourself.
Yvonne was an intelligent, knowledgeable, curious, interesting, passionate, and compassionate person who had, for the most part, a good and productive life.
(PS. I normally post a picture to go along with my blogs, but I don’t have a picture of her. We were, after all, mostly phone friends.)
Quick update: Yvonne’s daughter contacted me to say she is not mentally ill. I reiterate: other than a few post mortem details, this obituary was written based on years of phone conversations with Yvonne.