Gratitude for the Wives
“I believe that people are good if you give them half a chance and that good is more powerful than evil. The world seems to me excruciatingly, almost painfully beautiful at times, and the goodness and kindness of people often exceed that which even I expect.”
Lois Burnham Wilson
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“… And, speaking for Dr. Bob and myself, I gratefully declare that had it not been for our wives, Anne and Lois, neither of us could have lived to see A.A.’s beginning …”
As Bill Sees It, Page 67
…The Burnhams taught their children to be thoughtful and caring of others and to be of use in the world. The impressions of her home life are ones of excitement and lots of fun. Lois was particularly adventuresome and cared little for how she looked and was often referred to as a “tomboy.”
This aspect of her personality was given its fullest expression during the Burnhams long sojourns in southern Vermont. Each year, the family spent half a year in the Manchester, Vermont area where Dr. Burnham’s New York patients also spent long periods. Her parents were fully part of the upper-class social life there and were friends with many well-known people of the day, including Abraham Lincoln’s son whose children were among the younger Burnham’s playmates.
One of the children the Burnham’s played with, especially Rogers, was a boy who came each summer with his prominent family from Albany, New York. His name was Edwin or “Ebby” Thacher who would also become a close friend of Lois’ future husband, Bill Wilson, and be instrumental in Bill’s getting sober.
Rogers also found a pal in Bill Wilson, and in 1913 introduced him to his sister. Lois was over four years older than Bill, and being 22 at the time, did not regard him as anything other than her brother’s friend. But as the summers went on, she and Bill more and more found many common interests and gradually fell in love. They were both intelligent, athletic and fun-loving. Lois encouraged Bill at his studies and thought him to be a most remarkable young man. Her family shared this assessment. And so, in 1915, the couple became secretly engaged and married on January 24, 1918, just days before young officer Wilson shipped off to Europe in the First World War.
When Lois married Bill, she wed an upstanding young man of good character filled with exciting ideas about his future. What Lois did not marry was a drinker. On the contrary, Bill has a disdain for liquor partly because he believed it had played a part in his parents separation and divorce. It was a great shock to Lois some months later when, visiting her husband at his New Bedford, Massachusetts station, his soldier friends told her about Bill getting so drunk one night they had to carry him back to barracks. Lois could not believe they were speaking of her husband.
Bill shipped off to England, and Lois found work as an occupational therapist. As an educated woman, Lois believed in being independent and making her own living. She worked at the YWCA and was promoted several times within the organization leaving in 1917 to assist in a school her aunt had established in Short Hills, New Jersey. She left that position to marry Bill.
When Bill returned from the war, Lois hoped to start the family she always wanted. However, a series of miscarriages made childbearing impossible. This was a devastation for her. All Lois wanted out of life was a family and a home. Now she would not have the family. She and Bill tried to adopt, but they were unsuccessful. She later found out why – agencies performing routine background checks would eventually be told about Bill. Stories about his drinking would surface and be enough to make adoption impossible as well.
Bill’s drinking alarmed Lois very much. At first, she tried not to be concerned, but his drinking progressed during the early years of marriage to the point where he would see all his ambitions dashed and his wonderful opportunities for employment and advancement shattered. He became a broken man who eventually had to seek refuge with his wife in the house of his in-laws.
Lois employed many tactics over the years to help Bill get sober. She really thought she would be able to help him stop drinking. She would realize later how futile this was. Bill did stop in 1934, but it was not due to the efforts of his wife.
In 1939, Bill and Lois were forced to leave the Burnham’s house. Her father and mother had died, and the Wilsons could not afford to go anywhere except to the homes of various friends which they did for the following two years. Over the years, Lois had been the breadwinner bringing in a modest income from her work in department stores as a decorator and also from her consultations with private clients. While working at Macy’s she wrote an article on veneered furniture that was published by the popular House and Garden magazine.
Living as Lois once wrote “from pillar to post” was difficult for Lois. Not having children was a deep loss, and now, not to have a home was quite painful. She did her best and maintained her dignity throughout the ordeal but sometimes despaired that they might be homeless for a very long time.
But in 1941 an extraordinary thing happened. A generous offer was made by an acquaintance for the Wilsons to purchase a home in Westchester County. Due to this magnanimous gesture, the Wilsons moved into their first and only real home — Stepping Stones in Bedford Hills, New York. It took them 23 years, but they finally had a home of their own.
In 1951, Lois followed the suggestion made by her husband who had crafted the 12 steps of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous to create a similar 12-step program for the family and friends of alcoholics. In truth, there had been several family groups around the country that Bill had become aware of and Anne Smith, wife of AA co-founder Dr. Bob, had been involved in working with wives and families from the very first…
… Working from Lois’ upstairs desk at Stepping Stones, Lois and Anne B., a nearby friend whose husband was in AA, wrote to 87 non-alcoholics who had written to AA asking for information about alcoholism. The letters had come from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Australia and South Africa. Forty-eight people wrote back and eventually the organization known as the Al-Anon Family Groups was formed. It now has over 29,000 groups worldwide and a membership of over 387,000.
Lois Wilson died on October 6, 1988 at 97 years old. She was present and energetic throughout her latter years and enjoyed good health for most of them. She wanted to live to be 100 and almost did.
Lois was one of the 20th century’s most important women. Her life has been somewhat overshadowed by that of her husband, but, in recent years, she has emerged more visible than before for her unique contribution to humanity. It is through her tireless efforts and vision that Al-Anon is the strong organization it is today and why it continues to attract members through its message of hope and renewal.
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In the history of the fellowship we read the stories of Bill and Dr. Bob, their wives and the first hundreds of folks that they worked with wholeheartedly and with the only desire to help them achieve sobriety, behind every drunk, stands his wife.
Many of the stories we read from the back of the book historians write about failed marriages and separations. You don’t really ever hear the word “divorce” very much, and as I sit and think about it, I don’t ever remember coming upon that word as yet in our reading on Sunday’s.
There is something to be said about Love and Marriage. I think about these actions and sentiments as a backdrop to my own life as it was lived.
We all know what the history books say about each decade as it happened. The 20’s,30’s,40’s and beyond. Things were very hard. Survival was paramount during a time when there was not really all that much to hold on to.
It isn’t until you speak your vows to your beloved that they begin to manifest. For myself, I got some good practice in, prior to our marriage in 2004.
In my history, couples married for life. Talk of separation or divorce did not enter my lexicon until I was a teen ager. All of the wives in my family were long suffered. All of the men in those marriages were drinkers. Nobody said a word. Nobody dared speak out or even consider leaving, because where would the women go in any case, and with what/who’s money?
There are several texts “Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers,” “Pass it On,” and “Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age,” all of these books tell the back stories of the fellowship, where it came from, who was part of it, how it came to be, and finally where it finally went when Bill stepped away.
The reading tonight spoke of Founders. And in this reading Bill writes that he wished that he could remove the word “Founder” all together. But to this day June 10, is marked in Akron as the day (June 10, 1935) Bill and Dr. Bob set out to find the best way to reform alcoholics and A.A. was born.
In the beginning jobs were hard to come by, and owning a family home only happened for those who could afford it or were born into it. Back in Old New York, there are images in print of the places that Bill and Dr. Bob lived. And how their wives played a crucial role in the rehabilitation of the alcoholic who still suffers.
And you might imagine, a kitchen, complete with dining table and chairs and fair sitting rooms and bedrooms housing assorted drunks from town. While Bill pounded the pavement and tried sobering up the masses, The likes of Anne and Lois, busied themselves with jobs, AND cooking, cleaning and serving those who came to their homes. Imagine what that must have looked like in the 30’s and 40’s.
I can see it in my mind’s eye … Kitchens in the houses of my grandmothers. You actually ate in the kitchen at the table. My aunt had a very small kitchen and we ate in a dining room off to the side.
But just imagine what it looked like, opening your home to complete strangers, if only to help your husband sober them up and put them on the path. And from what we read in the history, the numbers were not very good. The odds FOR sobriety were pretty slim.
There were a handful of women who played a crucial role in the lives of the men who brought the program of recovery to fruition. There was something very solid in how the wives of Bill, Bob and assorted other characters stuck and stayed. It was not easy, by any stretch of the imagination.
Bill and Bob eventually got sober. I imagine in my minds eye, the conversations going on in the kitchens of many women together and by themselves, about their husbands, and just how they would like them to get sober, and how they were going to do that. The men eventually got sober, but not because of their wives.
In How it Works, it states that “We are not saints…” Both Bill and Bob had their assorted issues. And if you have ever seen the documentary, “Bill W,” I will only say that Lois was a rock star, in every stage of Bills life.
It WAS important, the roles those wives played in the maintenance of home, family, marriage and love.
Love the one you are with, and be grateful for their presence in your life today. It matter so much more when you have someone who loves you in your life, who supports you and wants the best for you.
Lois and Anne were those kind of women.