Previously published pieces of mine have been published in Skirmish, Socrates, Aphelion, The Woven Tale Press, Idea Gems, SNM Magazine, TWJ Magazine, Shadows Express, 365 Tomorrows, Shadows Express, Redhead Magazine, Aquarius Atlanta, Vocal Images, Cover of Darkness and CLR India. I am the Chorus Master of a Chorus in Germany, a big band vocalist, an operatic baritone and an exhibited artistic painter.
THE MRS. MARDORF SAGA
By Herbert Eyre Moulton
As a professional actor, I have had the joy of working worldwide with the likes of Clint Eastwood, Alan Rickman and Larry Hagman. Being MCA’s star in the Dinner-Show-Scene in the 1950’s proved to be just as fun as conducting the Camp Gordon Chapel Choir during the Korean War. The joy of spending my later professional years creating student programmes for the Austrian Radio and becoming well-known as the commercial face for Viennese chocolate and continental banks crowned my career.
Not bad for kid from Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
I never forgot my roots.
Therefore, I will take you back to those good old days before Illinois was online. Back then, life was different. And I’ve often wondered: was it only during Depression times that people got so overly sentimental or has the economy nothing to do with it? I recall tears shed by my mother Nell and her lady friends, sitting in our Glen Ellyn house at 429 Taylor Avenue, on occasions both doleful and joyous. I always put down these lachrymose demonstrations as being a part of the territory, and on Nell’s part, pure Irish.
But others, as well. Menfolk, even myself included, often succumb. Turn on Puccini’s La Boheme and watch my reaction. Breaking down and having a good cry has always been a kind of release from the tensions of hard times, especially the 30’s in Glen Ellyn, as I remember them.
The very titles of the films saw at the old Glen can still tickle the tear ducts: Of Human Hearts, Valient is the Word for Carrie, Imitation of Life, Stella Dallas, Little Women, Dark Victory. Not to mention those that came later, such as the Lassie series. Anything to with animals, strays or otherwise made us awash in sentiment, most likely as a counterbalance to universal unemployment and businesses and banks folding up like lawn chairs.
Among countless birthday cards and scattered newspaper clippings, as well as documents about carnival prizes and Pet-and-Hobby-Shows, are a series of post cards, notes, booklets and prayers from the First Congretional Church Sunday School to which my devout Catholic mother sent me from 1931 to 1933. Our family was a living Ecumenical Movement. My father Big Herb was from old Protestant stock, Nell an intense “bead-roller”, all three of us dwelling splendiferous peace and harmony, decades before Pope John XXIII.
Nell and my redoubtable Sunday School teacher Mrs. Mardorf prepared me better for my Christian future than they knew. Although portions of this collection are sentimental, they still count as authentic Depression Days attitudes, the very stuff of our lives in those far-off, no doubt over-romanticized times. Anyone who has leafed through these Moulton family books has paused smiling, sometimes laughing at, for example, all the “We-miss-your-smiling-face”-bits and “Your-little-chair was empty”-quotes.
I seemed to have been absent a lot.
Of the contents in general, the common opinion has always been: “But what a legacy your parents have left you! These are priceless! They could never be replaced!”
Decades before Women’s Lib, here we have endearing and enduring evidence, as if it were really needed, of how strong a matriarchal a society America was in those days, and all the better for it.
Our sentimental saga begins with my immortal words:
“Now I go to Sunday School and I enjoy it so much!”:
MY FIRST DIPLOMA
This certifies that Herbert Moulton is promoted from the Cradle Roll Department of the Glen Ellyn First Congretional Church to the Beginner’s Department.
(Three impressive signatures) September 21st, 1931
So, I’d been attending that stalwart Cradle Roll Department for some time before I received my first diploma, which was accorded all the deference and respect such a document might receive were it issued from Oxford or Yale. Pinned to it was a lapel button with a toddler’s face and Beginner’s Department, which I still wear now and then for fun.
My entrance into that department, however, was accompanied with the usual childhood “disease”. Mine, luckily, were always of the mildest variety, beginning with ...
Glen Ellen News, Friday, September 30th, 1931
ILL WITH WHOPPING COUGH
Little Herbert Moulton of 429 Taylor Avenue, is quaranteened at the present time with Whopping Cough. At least, that’s what the sign next to the Moulton’s front door states. Luckily, this is an extremely mild case, due perhaps to the nine injections administered lately by the family doctor from Villa Park.
Nevertheless, Little Herbert will have to be quaranteened for at least another two weeks. He is grateful for all the phone calls and Get-Well-cards he has received and he and his parents hope it will not be long before he is his usual happy smiling self and out among his little friends once again.
Nell pasted the clipping into the Moulton Family Album and next to it, of course, the usual photo of the little patient, big as life and smilingly pointing to the quaranteen sign at the front door.
This caused a ripple among that same circle when Nell sent one them, Irene Marley from across the street, home in tears because of the quaranteen. A moment later came an indignant phone call from Irene’s mom, Myrtle, a strict Catholic-turned-Christian-Scientist.
“You don’t have to worry about Irene,” said Myrtle. “She’s God’s child. Nothing can happen to her.”
“Well,” countered Nell. “Herbert is Nell’s child and he is quaranteened by law because he has a contagious disease. Irene can come back and play when the sign is down.”
My light siege of illness (neither a whoop nor a cough, apparently) brought a nice post card from Mrs. Mardorf, ever on the job, bless her. It depicts two sad looking little urchins seated on either side of an empty chair and looking utterly despondent.
The printed message reads:
“Your little chair is empty
We miss your smiling face,
We certainly hope next Sunday
Will find you in your place.”
Note: even then people were seeking to put Little Herbert in his place.
And a personal note, of course, from Mrs. M.:
“Dear Herbert, we surely miss you at Sunday School and hope you can come back soon. It was so nice of Mother to call when you could not come. Lots of wishes for a speedy recovery from Mrs. Mardorf and the Beginner’s Department.”
I was no sooner back among my Little Friends when one of them, again Bold Irene, God’s Child, lured me into a nasty accident. Four months older than me, she was forever challenging me into feats of derring-do, this time to ride my three-wheel velocipede down the little hill in our yard. Well, of course I did, and of course, somehow I crashed against the edge of the cement sidewalk, causing a broken collar-bone and a lot of pain, as well as indignation from Nell.
Again, she dispatched my Dulcinea in floods of tears and rushed me to the hospital.
Back in the headlines once again:
Glen Ellyn News, Friday, November 6th, 1931
FALLS FROM VELOCIPEDE
Little Herbert Moulton, 429 Taylor Avenue, is once more on the village sick-list. He fell from his velocipede last Saturday and is suffering from a broken collar-bone and sprained wrist. He getting along nicely, however, and it is hoped he will soon be his happy self again.
Accompanying photo shows plump patient on the front walk, outrageously smiling, right arm in a sling, and left entwined round a broomstick – whether to fly away on or just to sweep the leaves away, who knows? Nell’s handwritten comment: “Just a little fall, but a big ‘airplane’ brace which I wore for three weeks.”
Lord, the woman tempted me.
And sure enough, a day or so later, our friendly mailman, Mr. Gorman, delivered the following from – you guessed it – Mrs. Mardorf and Co. Two tots in mini-cloche hats clutching buttercups on their way to a distant church:
“I think these tots are talking
As to Sunday School they‘re walking,
They’re wondering if they’ll see your smiling face.
For you’re missed when you’re away,
And I hear the children say
That they’re always glad to see you in your place.”
(Note: again that emphasis on putting me in my place.)
Dear Herbert, writes Mrs. M., we surely missed your little smile last Sunday and we were all sorry you were hurt. We want you to come back as soon as you feel able. We will be glad to see you. Love, Mrs. Mardorf
Christmas 1931, on 429 Taylor Avenue in Glen Ellyn, produced a pasted example of my own handiwork. It featured an extremely creepy bit of verse, as gooey as it was theologically bogus.
Back in the good old days of the Holy Inquisition it doubtless would have led to an extended session on the rack. The Sexist Propaganda machine had been working overtime:
“I know that God loves me, Mother dear,
Because you tell me so,
He loves me every single day,
And all the whole night thru,
I have never seen him, really,
Nor heard his voice, ‘tis true,
But when you hold me close,
I know he looks and talks like you.”
The next step is outright Worship-of-the-Mother-Goddess, or just plain old-fashioned American Mom-Adoration. And the Grand Inquisitor is already heating up the irons.
For this effort, we used flour-and-water paste and I was soon standing in a puddle of water, to my intense embarrassment. As I remember the actual Christmas foll-de-roll, though, it was all, in a word, glorious. Even the visit from St. Nick, who always polished off the sherry and cakes my folks had left for him by the fireplace, was impressed.
The first Sunday of new year, January 4th 1932, was the first Sunday in a year for the world and for America: Happy Nadir, Everybody!
But with The Mrs. Mardorf Saga, it was just a variation on an old theme.
For the first time, a certain crispness informs the greeting. But first the printed biblical bit – with a rather sugary picture picture of Jesus as The Good Shepherd – and the request: May we not count on you to be with the other children in Sunday School next Sunday?
And the weekly pep-talk from our Mrs. Mardorf continued:
We missed your little face this morning. I hope you are not ill for if you are I’d be very sorry. I will look for you next Sunday. Love from Mrs. M.
It did the trick.
Besides spending my life on the theatrical stage, I would later study theology, conduct the Camp Gordon Chapel Choir in Georgia and sing hundreds of church concerts.
At that point, though, the Glen Ellyn son of an Irish immigrant was more intent on laying in bed and reading Superman comics. Okay, and listen to my father’s opera records.
I took a longer look at Mrs. Mardorf’s enclosed picture of Jesus and his lost sheep painting with a caption:
The Savior said: My sheep hear my voice and follow me . – John 10:27
A subtle hint for little Herbert?
Now, with the breaking news of March 6th, 1932, we come to one of the landmark news items. The headline alone, if chanted over and over again, becomes a fine Mantra:
HERBERT MOULTON JR. IS ALIVE AND WELL
The Glen Ellyn News, Friday, March 4, 1932
Little Herbert Moulton, son of Mr. and Mrs. Moulton, of 429 Taylor Avenue, was reported to have been electrocuted on Wednesday by a live wire, which was absolutely untrue, but the rumor spread like wildfire and Mr. and Mrs. Moulton have had a constant stream of visitors and telephone calls from friends who heard of this report.
They are very grateful and appreciative of all the kindness, courtesy and sympathy shown by everyone in what seemed a terrible calamity and want them all to know that they have a new conception of the generous and sympathtic heart of all Glen Ellyn, and especially of little Herbert’s place among his friends and their parents.
How the story started no one knows, but young Herbert is alive and well, we are told.
I well remember the circumstances centering around this nugget. One of those horrendous ice-storms that devestate the Midwest along about March every few years. We’d been out somewhere in the car, and when we came over the hill and approached our house, we saw a crowd of people gathered outside the front door – all of them there to check out this story they’d heard about what Nell in her report so modestly called “a terrible calamity”.
There, my mental newsreel ends, but it’s obviously a true recollection.
Seven decades later, my friend Cal Potts in his Golden Oldies periodical The Gray Bard, reprinted it for kicks, and it got considerable feedback. Throughout, one detects the fine Irish-Florentine hand of Nellie Moulton.
Anything for publicity, some of the latest readers grumbled, even at the age of four. Reuters, Time, CNN, feel free to copy.
Springtime, 1932, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
My happy, smiling face seems to have been missing quite a lot that season, for here’s the next number in the on-going Mardorf-Moulton website correspondence, 1932-style. The postmark is incomplete, but the sentiment is as ever compelling ...
The postcard depicts a forlorn landscape, and not for the first time we have a brace of tykes – umbrella, raincoats – gazing at a vast rainbow across a darkling sky, with a text that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of those highway Burma-Shave advertising series:
Did you ever see a rainbow
Lacking yellow, red or blue?
Well, your class is such a rainbow,
And the missing part is you!
And Mrs. Mardorf’s inevitable follow-up:
Dear Herbert, we missed you so today and hope you are not ill. Please come back soon for your little chair is so empty and we miss you so. Love, Mrs. Mardorf
It sounds a bit like Lilliput-Land, doesn’t it?
It must have been in May 1932 that the iron entered the soul of Mrs. Mardorf for good and all. Here’s the next, mimeographed with spaces left to fill in the names. Mother’s Day and the most unashamedly sexist effort yet ...
Dad could just as well have dropped dead years before.
The form, dialogue, is, of course, pure ancient Greek.
Dear Herbert –
Who do we love most of all in our home? I think it is mother!
(Subtext: And to hell with Dad.)
Who loves you most? I think it is mother!
Who gets you ready for Sunday School?
(The tone grows wearier.)
I think it is mother.
(Remember, repetition is one of the cardinal characteristics of Brainwashing.)
Does mother know what a happy time we have in our class every Sunday? We want her to know so we are asking that you bring her next Sunday on Mother’s Day. All the others are asking their mothers, and it would be so lovely to have all our mothers with us.
(And here comes the bottom line, the true nitty-gritty:)
Perhaps mother could not come and stay as long as we do, but we would be glad to have her for a little while.
Lovingly, Mrs. Mardorf
Rather obvious, wasn’t it?
Mom is welcome to come and hang out for a minute or two, and then get the hell out. Come, come, Mrs. Mardorf, that isn’t like you at all. Maybe, she was having a bad hair day. Not impossible, even with her.
The card was another flour-and-water-paste-up-job with a silhouette.
During this same summer of 1932, I was also enrolled in the Daily Vacarion Bible School at The First Methodist Church, playing no favorites, as always:
“My first school days,” writes Nell, “I learned many interesting things, had milk, and enjoyed it very much. Mother took me at 9 and came back for me at noon.”
All I retain from this is the memory of the milk and the vanilla wafers, and laying our heads down on the table afterwards for a little snooze, which had the walls rocking with our cascades of giggles.
In case an emetic is needed at this point, here’s the poem that was cut out of a daily newspaper and pasted next to the Mother’s Day masterpiece. This is one of the several that must have appealed to our editor, Nell – neatly typical of the early 1930’s, and well in keeping with the opening remarks I made about “Period-Sentiment”.
When my baby shoes were scuffing
Thru the years that used to be,
Many time you caught me bluffing
Just to keep you close to me.
Thru my sorrows you would cheer me,
Driving all my tears away,
And I feel your presence near me,
Mother mine, on Mother’s Day.
For my love for you increases
With the coming of each dawn.
Like the sun it never ceases
Though my baby shoes are gone.
- Anon. (as well it might be!)
Friday, July 15th, 1932 –
Well, I do remember birthdays in our cosy Sunday School.
Delicious home-baked cakes with lighted candles, fruit juice, and being allowed to waltz up to the front of the room where the paper birthday apple-tree stood, covered with paper-blossoms, and pick out one to take home and keep as a souvenir – which I did, for almost 70 years. Verses, too – first on the small tag attached to the blossom, complete with a song-bird:
Oh, Herbert dear, we’re happy,
That the rainbow is now complete,
Your Christian future shining,
Sunday School is sweet.
Inspired by this warm welcome, I admitted it. I just had to.
Herbert Eyre Moulton, son of an Irish immigrant and a Glen Ellyn salesman with ancestors that arrived with the Mayflower, was after all very happy to be back.
Just like Bogie told Claude Reins at the end of the 1942 film Casablanca:
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”
Always reenacting scenes from the movies of my youth, I, in my later years, felt compelled to take Bold Irene to the side and tell her that I was looking at her, kid.
But I might have just told her that I, frankly, didn’t give a damn.
All in all, though, the romantic sentiment of those days gave me hope that humanity’s sense of wonder was a victory in itself.
~CHARLES E.J. MOULTON/HERBERT EYRE MOULTON (1927-2005)