Note from the Editor-in-chief, Marilyn L. Davis: Ever wonder what the early days of Al-Anon were like? Whitney McKendree Moore had the pleasure of interviewing Ruth in 2000 for this post.
We are grateful to people like Lois Wilson, wife of Bill Wilson for taking people under her wing like Ruth, and for the ‘Ruths’ of the world who made coffee and shared the message of hope and love.
By: Whitney McKendree Moore
Families are Impacted, Too
Today, Ruth is 94 years old and has fifty years of Al-Anon under her belt. Truth is, she is one of the longest long-timers in the entire Al-Anon program. She first came to meetings in 1960, when her second husband, like her first, turned out to be a drinker.
“I thought God was mad at me,” Ruth recalls. “Everybody who had ever crossed my path seemed to turn into an alcoholic. I thought it was my fault.”
Alcoholism had touched her life earlier, though she said her parents were wonderful. “I was their only child, she says. “They worked days and nights, and there was no fighting. I was never deprived.” During the Great Depression, both her parents worked to keep their Mount Vernon flat. However, Ruth adds, “They had a need to drink. They liked their drinks.”
Children seem to have an uncanny ability to detect problems, even when they are not articulated or addressed by anyone in the home. Ruth’s antennae were raised when she was young. Many of her aunts and uncles were already alcoholics.
Learning Much from Her Parents
Ruth’s mother had come to America from Germany at the age of five. “Mother was one of eleven children, ten of whom died of alcoholism.” Ruth’s father was Scottish. He worked night shifts for the railroad as an electrician maintaining signals along the New York-New Haven-Hartford line. Since Ruth’s mother worked days, Ruth would have either one parent or the other — Dad for days, mother for nights.
“When Dad went into working days, my mother would bring me with her to Schraft’s, where she was a hostess.” At the age of eight, Ruth followed her mother from Shraft’s into a new job at The Excellent Goodie Shoppe, where she would help her mother hand-dip little delectables (in the shapes of kewpie dolls, Santas, and Easter bunnies) into chocolate. Ruth says her mother was artistic and also handy with a needle. When a neighbor wanted a coverlet for her dining room table, she turned to Ruth’s mother to create it. The result was a lovely work of linen, augmented by six rows of scallops and countless fancy knots. “Mother and I made it,” says Ruth, beaming, all these many years later.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, her father built radios in his spare time, and Ruth also helped him, learning at his side. “Dad taught me how to wind the wire for armatures,” which was intricate, delicate work. The dichotomy between which Ruth spent her childhood echoes that of a woman I met once in the Deep South, who told me that she had been “raised with a bouquet in one hand and a shotgun in the other.” Ruth was raised with linen in one hand and wire in the other.
My Dream Man
As Ruth grew older and entered high school, she developed a romantic vision of what she wanted next. “My dream was to marry a tall, dark, handsome good dancer. I did,” she says, “and he kept dancing — but not with me.”
The “dance” turned out to be traumatic, entailing one of the most abrupt changes Ruth would ever encounter.
She had eloped in 1936 to marry an Irishman named Bob, who declared himself to be not the least bit interested in having children. Nevertheless, as babies are prone to do, a son appeared in 1938, followed quickly by a daughter in 1939. Hubby Bob had managed to “keep dancing” but, as Ruth says, “not with me.”
The marriage ended the night their daughter was born. Bob came to the hospital carrying Bobby, their 15-month old son, and escorted the family to the car. Off they drove, with Ruth holding her baby girl, while the toddler bounced along in the back seat of the vehicle. Ruth says she thought it strange when her husband did not slow down to stop at their house. Instead, he drove slowly past the house, pointing at it and saying to Ruth, “You don’t live here anymore.”
The Nightmare Begins
The next stop was the local drug store, where Ruth and her babies were deposited by Bob, who drove away into the Mount Vernon night. “I needed bottles,” Ruth says, “I was twenty-two years old with eight dollars to my name, a newborn in my arms, and a toddler at my side.” The druggist, when he heard Ruth’s tale of what had happened, simply said:
“That BIS-terd !”
Does this not sound like there’s a problem related to alcohol somewhere in the equation? But Ruth was in denial, and people like the pharmacist did not know much about alcoholism in those days. Nobody did.
The druggist suggested that Ruth go immediately to the police station and “Tell them you have no place to live.” Ruth arrived there only to find that the lieutenant on duty was someone she knew, a neighbor of her parents. The lieutenant immediately telephoned a rooming house across the street, asking the person at the other end of the line, “Can you put up Ruth Miller tonight?”
Fortunately for Ruth and her babies, the answer was yes. And even more fortunately, it turned out that the person at the other end of the telephone line also knew Ruth. She ran the rooming house but had also been the custodian at the school Ruth had attended. “The woman was a God-send,” Ruth says. “We cut up towels and sheets for diapers to get us through the night.”
Picking Up the Pieces
Ruth’s parents took the tiny family into their home the very next day. Still, it was shocking for Ruth to find herself so suddenly abandoned in the terrible economy of 1939. For the next seven years, she was a single mother and living with her parents. Then came the end of World War II, and with peace, at last, soldiers and sailors began returning stateside.
One of the returning men was Eddie, who had been Ruth’s original childhood sweetheart. He wanted very much to marry Ruth and to adopt her two children as his own. Eddie and Ruth were married in 1946, and the family moved to Chappaqua, New York, where Eddie owned a gas station and ran a good business. They had a very good marriage, but after ten years, Eddie was drinking to excess. But Ruth didn’t leave Eddie. She said to herself, “If he is, he is, but I’m not going to be a single parent again.”
Ten years later, the two kids had flown the nest, and Ruth was 40. It was at this point that Eddie announced something Ruth had not even remotely considered. He said, one day out of the blue, “Ruthie, I’d like to have a child of my own.” Ruth agreed to seek her doctor’s advice about having a baby at her late age. His response: “If God gives you one, you’ll have one.” Ruth says, “Wayne was given to me.”
More Shattered Dreams
Wayne was born in 1958, but as he was sleeping soundly in his baby crib, Ruth was honing a new habit: reading to her alcoholic husband when they went to bed. Somehow or another, she had obtained a copy of The Big Book from Alcoholics Anonymous, which she hoped would cure Eddie of his problem drinking. “I would read out loud as Eddie dozed off,” Ruth recalls. “I did have a big mouth.”
It must have been because a neighbor in the quiet hills of Chappaqua could hear her reading the book at Eddie. She says, “That neighbor could hear me fling the book at Eddie when he’d fall asleep on me, and I’d call him an SOB and a crazy bastard.” The neighbor was Bob, a member of A.A. One day in 1960, Bob came over at 7 a.m. to tell Ruth he’d been overhearing her nightly procedure. By that time, there were four Big Books in the attic wall, where Eddie had hidden them from the big mouth. Bob had been listening to the nightly diatribes for two solid years.
“I came to hear the rest of the story,” he said.” “What story?” Ruth asked in dismay. “The story you read Eddie every night of your life.” And to Eddie, he said, “Eddie, you’ve got a problem — and it’s her.”
Bob told Ruth she needed to go to Al-Anon, which at that time, was known as The Family Groups of AA. He and his wife, Nancy, took Ruth to her first meeting that same night. They left two hours early and drove to Mt. Kisco, where there was a meeting in the Episcopal church at 8:30 p.m.
“They kidnapped me,” Ruth says, “and we sat in the car for two hours talking.” According to Ruth, her attitude was, “OK, if I have to attend this meeting, then I’m going to find a sponsor for Eddie.” But, she says, when she entered the room, “The meeting looked so peaceful. There were just four people when we walked in, and they had a home-made cake and coffee — and china.” Ruth says she felt welcome, especially by someone named Lois.
“I met Lois Wilson at my first meeting in Mt. Kisco. She was clever and cute. At first, she said, ‘My name is Lois — what’s yours?’ and then she said, ‘Welcome — we have a message for you we will give you at the end of the meeting.’”Then at the end of the meeting, Lois told Ruth, “If you keep coming, we have two things to give you: hope and love.” Click To Tweet
Service Work Begins
Lois made pretty darned sure that Ruth would keep coming. Ruth says, “The following Tuesday, Lois called me saying she didn’t have time to make the coffee for this morning. That was the beginning of my service.”
Ruth began attending meetings regularly. Four meetings were convenient: one in Chappaqua, one in Mt. Kisco, one in Bedford Hills, and one in White Plains. “Over time,“ Ruth says, “I lost my desire to try to change Eddie.” Perhaps, as a result, Eddie was feeling some relief from the ceasing of Ruth’s nightly readings. “But then,” Ruth says, “he got scared. The following January first, he had his last drink.”
More Healing through AA and Al-Anon
Eddie got into the A.A. program eventually, and the two became “program people.” In New York in 1960, the program was still a relatively small cadre of people. Service was done at Stepping Stones, the home of Lois and Bill W. Ruth says, “Stepping Stones was the original WSO.” They helped Lois and Bill, even helping Bill Borchard, the author, and playwright, develop The Story of Bill W. “We all had input to it. Bill Borchard would go upstairs and rummage through the memorabilia. My nickname in those years was El Ruth.”
The Family Groups of AA gradually morphed into Al-Anon, but in these early years, Al-Anons were called AA wives. “We went out to meetings with our husbands. The AA meetings were always upstairs; we were always in the kitchen.” Click To Tweet
Meetings were fairly structured, with elections by ballot on a rolling basis. All positions were nominated and voted upon by the group. Ruth says, “I am structure-happy about Al-Anon because I was brought up with it.” “Structure,” she hastens to point out, “is not the same thing as control.”
More People Sharing the Pain and Promise of Recovery
Ruth attended the first-ever Al-Anon convention and has been up to her ears ever since, especially in helping to write Al-Anon’s earliest literature. When she and Eddie relocated to Connecticut in 1964, Ruth became instrumental in what she calls “pop up” meetings.
Eddie and Ruth had moved to the Shoreline when their son, Wayne, was six and Eddie wanted to build a marina. When asked the name of the marina, Ruth answers, “The GD Marina…. the God Damn Marina.”
There was only one meeting on the Shoreline then — it was the early days of Al-Anon everywhere. So, when Ruth found herself living in Clinton instead of Chappaqua, she became aware of the need for more meetings. She contacted some of the New Yorkers who had property on the Shoreline, and they helped her start some meetings. “They are not my meetings,” says Ruth. “God had given me the knowledge, so I’d say that the experience I was given by others gave me the boldness to say we need some meetings on the Shoreline.”
Sharing the Problem and the Solution
Shoreline meetings literally “popped up” in Ruth’s opinion. First, Clinton wanted a Monday night meeting; then Madison wanted a meeting where (initially) hubbies came with their wives. Then came a Saybrook Step Meeting, and gradually, more and more meetings along the Shoreline — from Old Lyme to Branford.
Today, there are seventeen longstanding meetings along the Shoreline, but Ruth is good in the Humble Department. “There are no celebrities in this program,” she insists. “When we come into Al-Anon, we find a spiritual foundation. The steps led me to trust in my Higher Power, and the meetings gave me the opportunity to share how God was helping me in my day-to-day life.”
Gratitude and Gifts to Others
The one word Ruth uses to describe herself today is “grateful.” Which seems right. She had sixty years with a good husband, and she is celebrating her own fifty years in Al-Anon recovery. Eddie died in December of 2000, but his son, Wayne lives up the hill from Ruth with his wife, Cindy, and their daughter Hayley, who Ruth describes as “six going on seventeen.” The day we came to interview Ruth, Wayne had prepared a lovely buffet luncheon, which was ready and waiting for us.
Ruth couldn’t see the abundance of that luncheon table because she has gone blind. A drastic turn of events, but she’s had some of those before. Despite (or perhaps because of) them, Ruth has gratitude for what God has given her. “God is nice! And good! And not mean!” she exclaims, her blue peepers shining brightly. Isn’t it nice that it ends where it began, with what Lois first said to Ruth:
If you keep coming, we have two things to give you: hope and love.
Bio: Whitney McKendree Moore
Whitney was born in New York City to medical parents — her mother an R.N, her father a neurologist following the footsteps of his father. Back in those days, physicians lived under an awning of prominence. Both her father and her grandfather were treated like demi-gods at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where the phrases “wonderful bedside manner” and “dear and glorious physician” were said aloud and a lot by her mother, who was also highly regarded as “possibly the world’s best Head Nurse.”
The young family lived directly across the street from the Hospital’s main entrance. Whitney remembers sitting in front of a big picture window on the lap of her nanny “Mrs. Marmalade,” eyes riveted on the Hospital’s grand doors. Her debonaire parents would emerge together each night, hands joined and arms swinging as if they were dancing across the street. Occasionally, when her father was detained, Whitney knew to watch a different set of doors — the doors of The Psychiatric Institute, which she called “The So-Quacky -Quacky.” This malapropism greatly amused her parents.
Voice and pen became Whitney’s personal ways to be heard. After she married in 1971, she published an article every year as she pursued her professional career and she continued to “sing constantly.”
Whitney Starts Her Recovery
A turning point for Whitney came in 1989, when she found her way into Twelve-Step recovery. There, people were sharing “dirty laundry” and seeking God’s guidance to overcome. Now her writing is focused on encouraging others that God is still in the miracle-making business. Her books are categorized as “inspirational” and her style has been described as “a rather rollicking read.”
Whether singing or writing, Whitney’s niche audience is Christian women in Twelve-Step recovery. She says, “People in recovery are used to rigorous honesty like those who faced the truth when the Emperor did not. They are my Tribe.”
Connect with Whitney
Writing, and recovery heals the heart.
Thursday Truths are the stories of addiction and recovery, told by addicts, alcoholics, and families impacted by this disease. It’s the stories that help those struggling. It gives them hope and directions for change.
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