My Name is Ruth and My Husband’s a Drinker
“I met Lois in Mt. Kisco, at my first meeting. She was clever and cute. At first she said, ‘My name is Lois, what’s yours?’ Then she said, ‘Welcome, we have a message for you we will give you at the end of the meeting.’”
At the end of the meeting, Lois told Ruth, “If you keep coming, we have two things to give you: hope and love.”
Today, Ruth is ninety-four years old and has fifty years of Al-Anon under her belt. The truth is, she’s one of the longest old-timers in the entire Al-Anon program. She went to her first meeting 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 touched Ruth’s life early, though she says her parents were wonderful. “I was their only child. They worked day and night, and there was no fighting. I was never deprived,” she said. During the Great Depression, both her parents worked to keep their Mount Vernon apartment. 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’re not articulated or addressed by anyone in the home. Ruth’s antennae was raised when she was young. In fact, many of her aunts and uncles were already alcoholics.
Ruth’s mother came to America from Germany at the age of five. “Mother was one of eleven children, ten of whom died of alcoholism,” Ruth stated, matter-of-factly. Her father was Scottish. He worked nights for the railroad, as an electrician 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,” Ruth remembers. At the age of eight, she followed her mother from Shraft’s to a new job, at The Excellent Goodie Shoppe, where she would help her mother hand-dip tiny delectables in chocolate. Ruth said 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 together,” said Ruth, beaming, all these years later.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, her father built radios in his spare time. Ruth helped him also, learning at his side. “Dad taught me how to wind the wire for armatures, which was intricate, delicate work,” Ruth remembers. The dichotomy between Ruth’s days echoes that of a woman I met once in the Deep South. She told me she’d 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. As Ruth 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 said, “and he kept dancing, but not with me.”
The “dance” turned out to be traumatic, entailing one of the most abrupt changes Ruth would encounter.
Ruth’s Young Adulthood and First Marriage
Ruth had eloped in 1936, to marry an Irishman named Bob. Bob soon declared himself 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 put it, “not with me.”
The marriage ended the night their daughter was born. Bob came to the hospital carrying Bobby, their fifteen-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 car. Ruth found it strange when her husband didn’t stop at their house. Instead, he drove slowly past, pointing at it and telling Ruth, “You don’t live here anymore.”
The next stop was their 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 story, simply said “that bastard!”
Doesn’t it sound like there’s a problem related to alcohol somewhere in this equation? But Ruth was in denial and people like the pharmacist didn’t know much about alcoholism in those days. Nobody did.
It was the pharmacist who suggested that Ruth go immediately to the police station and tell them she had nowhere to live. Ruth arrived at the police station, only to find 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 if they could put Ruth up for the night.
Fortunately for Ruth and her babies, the answer was yes. Even more fortunately, the owner of the rooming house turned out to have been the custodian at the school Ruth had attended. “That woman was a God-send,” Ruth said, “we cut up towels and sheets for diapers to get us through the night.”
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 lived with her parents. Then came the end of World War II, and with peace at last, soldiers and sailors began returning stateside.
Ruth’s Second Marriage
One of the returning men was Eddie, who had been Ruth’s childhood sweetheart. He wanted very much to marry Ruth and 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. They had a good marriage, but after ten years, Eddie was drinking to excess. Ruth didn’t leave him though. She said to herself, “If he’s a heavy drinker, he’s a heavy drinker, but I’m not going to be a single parent again.”
Ten years later, the two kids had flown the nest, and Ruth was forty. It was at this point that Eddie announced something Ruth hadn’t even remotely considered. He said, out of the blue, “Ruthie, I’d like to have child of my own.” Ruth agreed to seek her doctor’s advice about having a baby at her late age. The doctor’s response? “If God gives you one, you’ll have one.” “God gave Wayne to me,” Ruth said.
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 as they went to bed. Somehow, she’d 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, I did have a big mouth,” Ruth recalls.
She must have had a big mouth, because a neighbor in the quiet hills of Chappaqua heard her reading the book to Eddie. “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,” Ruth remembers. The neighbor was Bob, a member of A.A. One day, in 1960, Bob came over to tell Ruth he’d overheard her nightly procedure. By that time, there were four Big Books in the attic wall, where Eddie had hidden them from his “big mouth.” At this point, Bob had been listening to their 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,” he replied. To Eddie he said, “Eddie, you’ve got a problem, and it’s her.”
Al-Anon and Ruth
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 said, “and we sat in the car for two hours talking.” According to Ruth, her attitude was, “Okay, 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, coffee, and china.” Ruth said she felt welcome, especially by someone named Lois.
“I met Lois 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.”
Lois made pretty darned sure Ruth kept coming. “The following Tuesday, Lois called me saying she didn’t have time to do the coffee for this morning. That was the beginning of my service,” Ruth said, a smile on her face.
Ruth began attending meetings regularly. There were four meetings that were convenient: one in Chappaqua, one in Mt. Kisco, one in Bedford Hills, and one in White Plains. “Over time,” Ruth said, “I lost my desire to try to change Eddie.” Perhaps as a result, Eddie was feeling relief from the ceasing of Ruth’s nightly readings. “But then,” Ruth said, “he got scared. The following January, on the first, he had his last drink.”
Eddie got into the A.A. program eventually, and the two became “program people.” In New York, in 1960, AA was still a relatively small cadre of people. Service was done at Stepping Stones, the home of Lois and Bill W. “Stepping Stones was the original WSO,” Ruth said. 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,” Ruth says, laughing.
The Family Groups of AA gradually morphed into Al-Anon, but in those early years, Al-Anon’s were called AA wives. “We went out to meetings with our husbands. The AA meetings were always upstairs. We were always in the kitchen,” Ruth said. Meetings were fairly structured, with elections by ballot on a rolling basis. All positions were nominated and voted upon by the group. “I was structure-happy about Al-Anon because I was brought up with it,” Ruth said. “Structure,” she hastened to point out, “is not the same thing as control.”
The Growth of Al-Anon
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 “popping up” meetings. Eddie and Ruth had moved to the Shoreline when their son, Wayne, was six. Eddie wanted to build a marina. When asked the name of the marina, Ruth answered, “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 New Yorkers who had property on the Shoreline, and they helped her start some meetings. “They are not my meetings,” said 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.”
Shoreline meetings literally “popped up” in Ruth’s opinion. First, Clinton wanted a Monday night meeting, then Madison wanted a meeting, where, at first, hubbies came with their wives. Then came a Saybrook Step Meeting, and gradually, more and more 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 insisted. “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 opportunity to share how God was helping me in my day-to-day life,” Ruth said.
The one word Ruth uses to describe herself today is grateful. Which seems right. She had sixty years with a good husband and is celebrating her own fifty years in Al-Anon recovery. Eddie died in December of 2000, but their son, Wayne, lives up the hill from Ruth. He’s married now, to Cindy, and they have a child of their own, 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’d 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 exclaimed, her blue peepers shining bright.
Isn’t it nice that Ruth’s story ends where it began, with what Lois first said to her? If you keep coming, we have two things to give you: hope and love.