God and Other Men

Cape House Books invites you to read the first chapter of God and Other Men by Myrna J. Smith. For more information about the book or to order a copy, visit our God and Other Men page.


Chapter 1: Gary’s Leaving

As I stepped into the kitchen that cold, dark Sunday night in February, I noticed immediately that two chairs were missing from their places around the kitchen table. Though I wasn’t surprised, I felt a tightening in my heart as if I had to brace myself for what was to come. I had been skiing with my son and two daughters that weekend and was eager to feed them and get them to bed. I didn’t have the courage to check the rest of the house before finishing the bedtime routine. The rituals helped calm the rising anxiety that flowed through my body. My husband of seventeen years had moved out of the house that weekend. I had told him to take whatever he wanted.

Once the children were in bed, I investigated missing items more thoroughly: two chairs from the dining room; one television, the small one; and two paintings, one with flying ducks, given specifically to him by the mother of his high school friend, and one of clowns, painted by a colleague of mine. He’d taken the case of his grandmother’s hardly used silverware, which we’d displayed prominently on the counter next to the dishwasher. It was just silver plate, not real silver. I preferred stainless steel, anyway. Also gone were a few kitchen tools—a wine opener I liked, a spatula, and a can opener. He took some dishes and two pots. Surprisingly, he left half the Fostoria crystal glasses his mother had passed on to us as well as a white vase that had been a wedding present from one of his professors.

When I opened his office door, I couldn’t help being jarred by the emptiness of the room. Gone were his desk, the bureau, and the bed he used as he gradually moved more and more of himself into his office and out of our bedroom. I opened the closet and ran my hand along the cool pipe that had held his clothes. I left the room and made my way down the hall to check the closet there. The familiar smell of leather from his black and white high school letter jacket did not greet me. The closet was half empty. Each discovery of something missing in the house expanded the emptiness in my heart.

Though I had longed for intimacy, as I suspect Gary did, we had had no idea how to achieve it. In the evenings, after the children went to bed, we usually sat across from each other in the living room and read the local newspaper. I would sit on our green couch, he in the chair opposite me. They were the only two places with good light. We would discuss the news, read each other interesting tidbits from the paper, and maybe Ann Landers or a good bridge hand. We would exchange information about his office politics, my students. The arrangement was pleasant, homey, but not intimate: we never discussed our discontents with each other so they spread like crabgrass, entangling all aspects of our lives.

I sat on the green couch around 8:30 and had finished the paper by 8:40. After all, it wasn’t The New York Times. Then I wandered again, wishing I had formed habits like listening to music or watching television, but neither of us had allowed these enjoyments to become part of our lifestyle. We had focused on reading, writing, and studying, and we both embraced silence. But without him shuffling through papers near me or in his office, the silence felt oppressive. No streetlights lit my country road, and neither Gary nor I had fixed the outside house lights. The intense darkness added to my sense of isolation.

What was I going to do the rest of that evening and all the evenings to come? I could read a book or prepare for the English classes I taught, but I didn’t have that level of concentration. Besides, time was not really the problem. What or who would fill the capacious void in my chest? I saw a terrible loneliness stretch out before me like railroad tracks I had once observed as a child. Then, like now, I wondered: will they go into eternity?

My thoughts turned to an earlier period in my life when someone else I loved had moved away. When I was 14 my paternal grandmother moved from eastern Oregon, where we lived, to Portland, where her daughter, my aunt, lived. Until then, Grandma had lived less than a quarter of a mile from our house in a simple, tiny home. Inside those three rooms I found companionship and unconditional love. She taught me all kinds of card games, including casino, canasta, and pinochle. But mostly we played cribbage. I loved pegging around her old cribbage board and was proud to beat her if I could. We listened to soap operas on the radio, mainly Stella Dallas and Young Widow Brown. She often made pancakes, even for dinner, a treat for a child whose mother always served vegetables. I used to tell her, “I love you up to the sky and back,” something I never said to either of my parents, and she replied with some alternative like, “I love you up to the moon and back.”

Grandma. This picture was taken in 1911 when she was 28. My father would be born three years later.

I didn’t mind her primitive outhouse, a two-holer, with the Montgomery Ward catalog for toilet paper. Nor did I mind looking at the tar paper, sometimes in tatters, on the sides of her house. What I saw, and what stays in my memory, were the beautiful morning glories that grew high and wide, covering half the house with blue blossoms. Growing anything required effort in that high desert: crops grew courtesy of water collected in mountain reservoirs and released through a series of canals and ditches constructed during President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Grandma had a well from which she pumped water for the flowers and her house. Every year she grew those heavenly blue morning glories with their yellow throats and brought color to that brown and black house in that brown and gray expanse.

Sometimes on a summer evening we would sit in front of those morning glories and watch lightning strike in the mountains that surrounded our valley. Grandma would say, “How far away is that lightning strike?” I would count to ten or even fifteen before we heard the crackle of thunder. Then I would divide by five, giving a rough estimate of our distance from the strike. It was never near enough to be threatening. I felt secure there.

Grandma didn’t leave all at once. From time to time she took the bus across the state to stay with her daughter and then return. But the day came when she didn’t. I have no memory of that event. I only know it happened. I know my reaction to her leaving only because my aunt told me of a letter I wrote to Grandma in which I pleaded with her to return because I couldn’t live without her.

Within the first year of her leaving, our family made a trip across the state to visit her and see her new living quarters—a small house next to the service station my aunt and her husband operated. They lived in an apartment above the station. On the long drive I sat in the back seat and dreamed of what it would be like to see Grandma again. I thought how wonderful it would be to bask once more in that perfect acceptance and love. Maybe we could even play some cribbage, I thought to myself. Somehow I couldn’t imagine that her attention would not be focused on me.

Almost sixty years after that event, I still remember walking into that little house with great expectations that were immediately dashed. She hardly noticed me; her focus was on her own oldest child, my father. During the entire stay I didn’t get a chance to spend any time with her alone.

I felt rejected by her, so I returned the favor and carved her out of my conscious life. I saw her when the family gathered, and she came to my wedding, but seeing her no longer made my heart tingle.

I found relief, as I always have, by being successful in my school or academic life and by having either a best friend or boyfriend. Gary grew up twelve miles from me. Our parents knew each other because both his and my paternal grandfathers had struggled to make farms out of the desert when the Works Progress Administration put in the irrigation projects. Our grandfathers, along with their grown sons, had had to tear out the native sagebrush and cheatgrass to plant wheat, barley, and alfalfa. I didn’t see Gary, however, until our elementary schools played basketball in eighth grade, and I didn’t meet him until our freshman year in high school. We were immediately interested in each other and had our first date before the end of the year.

We married our junior year in college, just before our twenty-first birthdays. I still wasn’t close to my parents, and I felt that without him I would be completely alone in the world. In some ways we were a good match. We were both committed to success because of our families. His father had become a self-made cattle rancher and moved far beyond Gary’s grandfather’s financial accomplishments. My parents, true children of the Great Depression, had remained poor. My father scratched out a living, farming only sixty-five acres and later working as the janitor for the local school. Gary wanted to replicate his father’s “success.” I wanted to escape my father’s “failure.”

With Gary in Las Vegas on our honeymoon in 1961.

Gary and I did well in college, well enough to continue graduate studies in the Midwest. For those first five years we had a strong marriage, mainly because we kept our common focus on success. After academic jobs in Wyoming, we moved to New Jersey where he landed a job with a pharmaceutical company and I with a community college. In a few short years we achieved the American dream: three beautiful children, a house on four acres, two cars, a dog, a horse, and parties with our social group almost every weekend.

But every day I felt the cracks that had formed as soon as we finished graduate school—the breakdown in communication, our vague angers and resentments. We never openly fought. We just picked away at each other for the smallest of sins. I couldn’t stand it if he chewed gum around me. He became annoyed if I left a crumb on the counter or failed to polish the cooking pots. I couldn’t bear the way he criticized the kids; he couldn’t bear my “hippie” friends. Our life reminded me of a shiny, Red Delicious apple still on sale in the grocery store long after the season: it looked great, but it was mushy under the skin and rotten at the core.

Eventually Gary and I tried marriage counseling, a pointless exercise because the rift between us was too deep by the time we went. Besides, he already had made the decision to move back to his parents’ cattle ranch, back to the brown desert. Although my parents still lived near his family, I did not seriously consider moving, not that he ever asked me directly. To me, the place was bleak, dry, soulless.

The all-encompassing loneliness I felt that first night on the green couch was not a stranger to me. It had appeared before. When I was twelve or thirteen, three horror stories appeared in Reader’s Digest. My father read them and talked about them at the dinner table, piquing my interest. Always wanting to impress my father, I read them in one day. In “The Specialty of the House,” a chef and restaurateur serves his special dinner once every couple of months to a select group of friends he is fattening up to become the next specialty of the house. At the end of the story the restaurateur walks out with his next victim, “patting his meaty shoulder.”

Neither that story nor William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” with its murder and necrophilia, put me over the edge, but Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” did. Jackson writes about the citizens of an American town who annually stone to death the person who “wins” the lottery. In the story a young wife and mother wins, and even her children participate in the stoning. The senseless, random evil touched me in some deep place. I felt as if I were in a dark hole. I slept during the day, not wanting to eat, and felt despondent.

My next round of darkness came when Gary and I temporarily broke up during our junior year in high school. The night we broke up, I went to my bed, lay on my stomach, and cried. Though I tried to muffle my sobs with my pillow, my parents must have heard me. Daddy came to my bedside and patted my back. “Gary and I broke up,” I sobbed.

“That must be what divorce feels like,” he responded in a comforting voice.

Even though my father made me feel better that night, neither of my parents said anything to me the next day or the next week, and I didn’t volunteer more information about the breakup or my pain. I didn’t want to expose my vulnerability. That depression lasted until Gary and I made up a month later.

Three years before our separation, I taught some of the poems from Live or Die, Anne Sexton’s book, to an evening class of mostly adults. We ended the class on the poem “Live” in which the pull Sexton felt toward the forces of life—her husband, two daughters, and the birth puppies she didn’t drown—appeared to have won out over self-mutilation and death. She ends the poem on this happy note:

Just last week, eight Dalmatians,
¾ of a lb., lined up like cord wood
like a
birch tree.
I promise to love more if they come,
because in spite of cruelty
and the stuffed railroad cars for the ovens,
I am not what I expected. Not an Eichmann.
The poison just didn’t take.
So I won’t hang around in my hospital shift,
repeating The Black Mass and all of it.
I say Live, Live because of the sun,
the dream, the excitable gift.

The students and I felt certain Sexton had overcome her worst demons and would live. But she didn’t. She killed herself a few days after that class, and some dam within me broke, allowing blackness, flowing like water, to engulf me. For three days I felt lost. Had I chosen to teach Sexton’s poetry because I, like her, felt on that precipice between life and death? Had I, like her, felt that a husband, children, success, and friends were not enough? Did we both have a void in us that the world could not fill?

No one in my family suffered from depression. If they did, they had not spoken of it. I recognized its symptoms mainly from Emily Dickinson’s poems in which she calls depression “an imperial affliction” or, in contrast to my blackness, “that white sustenance, despair.”

I still carried out my roles, as my Puritanical upbringing and marriage had so deeply trained me to do. But I moved like a robot. Living seemed pointless. I couldn’t work up any feeling for my friends, children, or work because the darkness dominated my mind.

On the third day of my depression, a Saturday, Gary and I stood in our kitchen, which had been painted bright orange. I began cleaning out the dishwasher. While handing him pots, I began, “I have been feeling depressed.” I tried to look at his good eye; the other one, damaged in a childhood accident, usually wandered. I thought, Can he see me? Can he see my pain? He said nothing. I bent over to pick up the bowls and felt their smooth surfaces. I finally said to him, “If this blackness continues, I will have to kill myself.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “Don’t you dare leave me with these three kids.”

The comment did not encourage me to talk further. In fairness, I had not communicated how seriously the condition affected me. After all, we did not talk about our feelings, especially dark ones. When I woke up the next day, the black had lifted for no logical reason. Perhaps some part of me recognized that I had to rescue myself. Or perhaps just speaking that little bit of dark truth had freed me.

William Styron speaks of incomplete grieving being a contributor to depression in his book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. He believes the death of his mother when he was thirteen contributed to his depression. Certainly I had not grieved openly or consciously when Grandma moved. My parents didn’t help me and may not have even known about my suffering. I have always been good at masking negative feelings. Though my first round of depression occurred before Grandma left, something happened to my psyche when she did. That next year I gained twenty pounds and I began hating my parents, something that lasted well beyond normal teenage rebellion.

I began therapy after my Anne Sexton depression. I didn’t see then, as I do now, that the emptiness inside me, manifested as depression, had been with me all my life. When Grandma moved, it had intensified. Little events, like reading stories or poems about evil or death, or big events, like Gary leaving, brought the emptiness forward. Going from Grandma’s arms directly into Gary’s arms had contributed to my inability to work out the difficulties with my parents. Had Gary not filled the void Grandma left, I might have been desperate enough to talk with my parents about my fears and loneliness. If I had been able to communicate with my parents, maybe I would have been more equipped to work things out with my husband.

Why I had such difficulty talking to my parents, I am not sure. I frequently felt like the odd person out. All the family liked to take their ease. No one was in a rush to do anything. None of the other children studied hard enough to be a straight-A student, as I was. Except in the spring, when crops had to be planted in a timely way, Daddy took a nap during the day. Often he would return from the morning chores, or sometimes after lunch, and lie down on the tweed living-room couch and sleep for twenty minutes. He did his work dutifully and skillfully, but ambition, especially for money, eluded him.

No matter what else my mother did during the day, she took at least forty-five minutes to eat every meal. She rarely ate sweets and died thin, but she relished every meal. She sewed most of our clothes and ironed for everyone, but she did everything at her own pace—slow. My three siblings had the capacity to enjoy our parents’ pace. Not I.

When I was still in primary school, Daddy read an article about phrenology. He felt the bumps in all of our heads, and sure enough, I had more bumps than anyone else. “Ambition bumps,” my father declared, and that was not a compliment. By first grade I decided to be the best student (or best anything) and didn’t give up on that goal until many years later.

As long as my grandmother lived next door and gave me recognition and love, I didn’t notice that my parents didn’t seem to care about my report card. After she left, I felt more and more estranged from them for vague reasons: they didn’t give me enough attention; they loved my older sister and younger brother more; they were not materially successful. Even as I resented them, I wanted their recognition and praise. They never gave it, probably because they didn’t think I needed it. After all, I received lots of recognition in school. Once in high school, I kept earning A’s with the exception of a B+ in Algebra II. The teacher wrote on the report card, “This should have been an A, but Myrna talks too much.”

When I showed my father the report card, he walked into the kitchen, grabbed a pen, and wrote, “You should hear her mother.” He didn’t say one word about my grades.

Though I dutifully called my parents regularly throughout my life and visited them every couple of years, we spoke about safe subjects and enjoyed each other’s company by playing the family card game, pinochle. I talked to them about my successes but never shared my sorrows. When I called and alerted them to the separation from Gary, I know they blamed me and those “ambition bumps.” Referring to my career, my father once said, “It seems as if you want to be a man.”

So when Gary and I separated and I still didn’t have my parents’ understanding or support, I felt more isolated than ever. In retrospect, I see I didn’t want them to know I needed support. I didn’t want anyone to know about the crack in my psyche that could open into a wide crevasse if someone so much as stepped on the weakened snow of my heart.

Over the next few years, the loneliness I felt that first night after Gary moved out became less poignant: I organized my life to avoid its sharp edges. I moved one of my children into what had been Gary’s office, bought a new small television for my room, and even watched it occasionally. I no longer spent long evenings on that green couch, though I did spend many hours on the black or brown couches of several psychotherapists.

I also did what my family members and millions of others all across the world have done when they found the world lacking and their own hearts empty. I began looking for a spiritual path. If I could not find happiness as a wife, mother, and professional, maybe I could find it in religion.

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