The Divine Mrs. O
The Words and Wisdom of Marjorie Orcutt
by Charlie Breuninger
Photo by Charlie Henderson
I used to think that, with the possible exception of William Burroughs, nobody had done anything really original with the English language since Shakespeare. I also used to believe that good old-fashioned grab-'em-by-the-throat commentary on the follies of modern society died with H. L. Mencken. And I would have scoffed at the notion that someone could combine truly spectacular linguistic fireworks with the wisdom of the sages and publish the result in a newspaper column. But that was before I discovered Marjorie Orcutt.
Mrs. Orcutt penned a column for the Chester County Press, a weekly newspaper serving communities in our little corner of Pennsylvania. Titled "Of days gone by...," or "Historic Oxford," or sometimes simply "Words of Wisdom from Mrs. Orcutt," her column recreated the Oxford that Marjorie knew as a youngster. That in itself was a remarkable achievement, considering that she wrote the column into her late '90s, an age at which most of us, if not already pushing up daisies, will have forgotten our own names.
But it was the extras that made her columns worth seeking out and savoring, because Marjorie wasn't content merely to recall the past. No siree. She had something to say to all of us today, many things in fact, and she said them with a style all her own. You see, Marjorie refused to be bound by the constraints of "proper" grammar, syntax, or the time-honored essay form. And since she believed in speaking her mind, she used her column to air her singular views on morality, politics, the weather, and other topics of general interest.
Marjorie had an uncanny knack for finding relationships between seemingly disparate entities. For example, in the following excerpt, she tackled the delicate subject of the color of wedding gowns advertised by local bridal salons, but did so in the context of roommates:
One shop spoke of the lovely pastels. Well, according to the day's courtship, and the freedom of roommates and even our co-educational colleges, I think those brides' pastels are just right.
Finding out if you can live in harmony before marriage isn't the answer, if after a ceremony, the groom gets to wondering about the roommates who have perhaps preceded him. Or if she accuses him of possibly seeing his previous roommates, a disaster will follow nine times out of 10.
The result is divorce. I believe that marriage is doomed from the start unless they were fortunate enough to have been the one and only one, and had no other roommates before.
Now admit it, you probably never thought roommates and wedding gowns had much in common.
A major hallmark of Marjorie's literary style was her sophisticated use of the "stream-of-consciousness" technique pioneered by James Joyce. In what was perhaps her masterpiece, she deftly manipulated this let-it-all-hang-out form of expression to elevate your basic "kids these days" rant to a scathing indictment of contemporary morality, education, and parenting.
About the parking lot up at the mall, to me it's a shame that grown kids have no other way to spend their time except to get together, drink beer or shot horse, heroine or use some other drug. Don't say it's because there's nothing else to do. When there was, they didn't take advantage of it...It's the generation itself.
It is the fact that at age 16 you have to have a car, no matter how you get it. And a girl with no morals because even with sex education, that has taught them nothing except the use of the pill.
Young people are never telling their parents anything because they do not converse with one another. If they did want to talk, would the parents have the time?
There are the ever-present bums who buy the kids six packs and whatever. There are also those people who constantly complain of anything that young people do, who, they themselves never had any children of their own or somehow were lucky enough to have raised and faithfully married them off.
Maybe the fear of AIDS will help this and if not, God pity them.
Fire and brimstone from a prophet who exhibited a surprising knowledge of street-level drug activity. But lest you think that Marjorie was just an old curmudgeon, consider her idea of a rip-roarin' Fourth of July:
I guess the last time I really had a good old-time fashion 4th was back in Quarryville in 1915. That year we placed three or four inch long crackers on the ground, lit them and put milk cans over the top. Believe it or not, the explosion lifted them 25 feet in the air!
That's the last time that I indulged but I sure liked it. Maybe this is a safer and better way, and I know it is, but to me the good old-fashion 4th was a real humdinger.
Speaking of humdingers, one of Marjorie's favorite subjects was politics. She was tough on politicians, especially those who meddled with our national holidays.
Some idiot, in Congress, brought out the idea of taking a day in between the birthdays of these two men and calling in President's Day. Not one person in the Congress had the guts to make an objection to it. And the law was passed.
One day was used to celebrate these two great outstanding presidents of our country. In this great patriotic United States, where are the patriots? Baah.
Baah, indeed. But Marjorie had an idea. Why don't we celebrate the birthdays of three great black men on one day? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly deserves his day, but why not add Booker T. Washington ("he was great") and George Washington Carver ("He literally saved the South, but cotton was through")?
If we group our outstanding white men together, let's do the same for these three blacks. It takes all kinds of people to decide these things, and let's give them all the privilege of doing so.
Doesn't one of our great documents say "All men are created equal"? I believe it does. Who decides on these changes. Were you ever asked? I never was.
Nor was I. But if she decided to run for office, Marjorie can count on my vote. I was particularly fond of her views on our penal system:
I'm afraid that the do-gooders who don't like institutions, even for the undesirables, for two reasons should reconsider. First, they think it takes the liberty away from the poor things who are imprisoned. They should be given the chance to become normal if they're just left here among the rest of us, even if we are scared to death. And most of all, they don't like to have them near where they live, God forbid!
Wake up! You can't have your cake and eat it too. The prisons must be built, criminals must be confined and they don't need luxuries. They are there to be punished. If they had wanted an education, they should not have become dropouts. The postman doesn't ring twice. So why give them a second chance at our expense for rehabilitation?
Why indeed? It's about time they finally put the arm on that crowd. But all this talk about criminals brought another topic to mind, which she addressesd in the very next paragraph:
Of "We the People", if you have two or only one baths in your home, you must have sewage. Therefore a disposal plant. Let's try and adjust.
Mind your own business and live as good and desirable citizens. Obey the laws, treat other people the way you would like to be treated, and remember that a good mind has no race, creed, or color.
Yeah, sometimes she lost me too. Marjorie's speculations on the weather often put her in a philsophical (some would say “existential”) mood:
Perhaps the year has started like the month of March, in like a lion. Remember it won't be long til spring. Today is a day and we're alive and God's in His heaven... All's right with the world.
Trying to build up my own ego, I guess. Hope that it gives you a little boost also.
Aw shucks, Marjorie. But thanks, anyway. It could definitely be worse:
Man is funny. Here are a few lines I read somewhere which I think really describe people as a whole; As a rule, man's a fool, when it's hot he wants it cool, when it's cool he wants it hot, he's always wanting what it's not.
Anyway, aren't you glad we're not in the midwest or even in Chicago?
You bet your tintype I am. But as Marjorie noted, we have made dramatic advances in cooling technology since the olden days:
Ladies used hand fans, rich people in big hotels had ceiling fans, as we do now. But then they were manipulated by the pulling of strings by servants who were detailed for that special duty.
The rest of us just had to adjust. And then came electricity, and eventually electric fans. Now, boy oh boy, we are air conditioned.
Well, as I have said, time marches on. Some things I applaud; some I deplore. But if you people will put up with me as nicely as you have over the years, with God's help and yours I'll try and adjust to whatever the pages of the Book of Fate opens up.