Do we have to listen to her again?

“There she goes again,” I said as I nudged another newcomer next to me. She was Mercy, one of the matriarchs of the Monday night meeting who at that time had 30-plus years of sobriety. I was a relative newcomer with a couple of years who thought I knew everything about sobriety and AA and the book and AA history and how to share at meetings and … well, everything.

I had read many books on sobriety and recovery and knew that the purpose of meetings was to dig deep into psychological “issues” and how they related to my sobriety. I knew deep down that a solution as simple as Mercy’s might have been OK for them in the old days of the 1950s when she got sober. But it was 1989 and now we knew so much more about sobriety than those old-timers.

As I sat there stewing in my own resentment juices, Mercy went on to share like I had heard her share at almost every meeting I attended. No matter what the topic or occasion, her sharing was predictable, boring and simplistic. She always began by talking about drinking too much and how her life was difficult as a Mexican woman in this rich portion of San Diego by the ocean known as La Jolla. She made her way through life as a housekeeper and as a domestic. It was hard work, especially for such a small and delicate woman as Mercy. No matter the situation, she always found a place to hide the bottles and a way to drink.

After describing herself as an alcoholic, she would always talk about how she got to AA. “I came to AA to get the family off my back.” Then would come a short lecture about not drinking one day at a time, women should stick with women sponsors, read the book, trust God, and most importantly attend AA meetings. She would finish her short two to three minute talk with a word of encouragement to the newcomer saying that if she could stay sober that they could too. And then she would slowly walk back to her seat in the front row and intently listen to the other speakers.

We newcomers would sit in the back, whisper to one another and grade her sharing as being old fashioned, simplistic, and dull. But as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s and then to 2000, something must have changed. The longer I stayed sober the more I wanted to hear that simple type of talk from the patriarchs and matriarchs of our meeting. I would sit straight up and listen as Mercy and the other true old-timers would share at the meeting.

Soon we were all waiting for Mercy to state her trademark phrase, “I came to AA to get the family off my back.” When she said it, we in the 10-20 year sobriety bracket, and we would just look at one another and nod. The meeting was complete. As she simply shared, Mercy had given us the truth about sobriety and AA: stay sober one day at a time, stick with a sponsor, trust in God, read the book and follow its instructions, and keep going to AA meetings.

Mercy kept going to meetings and sharing just like that until the last month of her life a little over a year ago. She died as she had lived for the more than 47 years of her sobriety, a dignified and stately woman who was the matriarch of our meetings. Her funeral was overflowing with the people she had met over that time period all of whom said the same thing, “She came to AA to get the family off her back.”

Her death and several others have thinned the ranks of the old-timers at our meeting. I miss their open, honest, and simple sharing. Over the years I learned Mercy’s simple recipe for AA success is a good one, and I hope I repeat from the speaker’s podium: stay sober one day at a time, stick with a sponsor, trust in God, read the book and follow its instructions, and keep going to AA meetings. Always end with a word of encouragement and hope for the newcomers who might still be struggling with sobriety.

With those true old-timers passing away or becoming infirmed and homebound, we with 15-20 years of sobriety are now being looked to as the old-timers at our meeting. When one of the new people calls us an “old-timer,” one of us will always interrupt and say, “Mercy, now she was an old-timer with almost 50 years of sobriety.” And another will loving reply with “I came to AA to get the family off my back.” Then we smile at one another and deep down I feel both happy and sad. Sad that Mercy is no longer with us but happy that she could transmit that life-giving AA message to us all.

It is my fervent prayer that 20 or 30 years from now a group of AAs will be standing on that same church porch looking out onto the sun setting over the ocean while quoting something I have said repeatedly. There could be no greater AA honor.

James J,San Diego, Calif