Widow's Lament

In 1956, Anna Elisabeth Colsch married a GI from the Frankfurt Army base and followed him to Minneapolis. He died in a car crash a few years later. Or so she was told.

The man called in another officer for a second look. It all checked out. Johnny was alive and well, they told Angelic, and living in Yakima with his fourth wife. He was 62 years old, about to take early retirement from the company he'd worked at for years. This was 100 percent her husband. It may be time, they suggested, to contact an attorney.

Angelic left the building that day, she recalls, in shock. She'd had no word from her husband, not in the months after his disappearance, not in the three decades since his father had pronounced him dead on the phone. She'd been abandoned. She'd left Minneapolis, finally, for Ohio, after receiving a series of what she calls "death threat" phone calls late at night from an anonymous caller she'd presumed Johnny owed money to. She'd travelled to Florida with her son, and been put back on a plane by her father-in-law, "who pulled a beautiful aquamarine ring off my finger at the airport to pay for the tickets." She'd repeatedly relied on the kindness of strangers--clergy, fellow German expatriates, sympathetic listeners at the corner store. She'd been destitute more than once after coming back to Minneapolis, to the point of eating in soup kitchens and sleeping in the bus station with her son before the police evicted them. She'd spent years at odd jobs, doing janitorial work, pressing shirts at the very company whose delivery truck Johnny'd wrecked the night of his exit. She'd eventually retired, sold her small house, and moved into an efficiency to save money. In the early 1990s, her only child, Renaldo, was shot to death in Cambridge, Minn., and buried without a headstone because she couldn't, and still hasn't been able to, afford one. She'd never remarried, Angelic says, "because my only love was Johnny. Until that day I found out he'd done me like a dog."

What to do? She started collecting benefit checks--from her own account and from Johnny's--in early 1995. Fine by Angelic, at least financially. Then in March 1996, she got a letter from the Social Security office that read, in part, "Thank you for informing us of your divorce." Surprised by this new news of her marital status, she called the next day and was connected with an inspector. They talked for over an hour, during which Angelic learned that Johnny had filed for an invalidation of their marriage on the grounds that he was duped into it: In his petition to the Superior Court of Washington, Kittitas County, Johnny claimed that on March 29, 1956--the day of his supposed marriage to Angelic--he did not speak or read any German; he hadn't understood what was taking place. What turned out to be a wedding service was, to his knowledge, actually a ceremony marking Anna Elisabeth Colsch's officially approved immigration to the U.S. He'd simply come along to sponsor his girlfriend, he told the court, not to marry her. According to Johnny, it wasn't until late 1994, after he filed for his Social Security benefits, that he found out Angelic was claiming to be his legal wife.

On the advice of an attorney in Yakima, Johnny had combed the Minneapolis area phone books, looking for his ex-girlfriend and alleged wife. No luck; she was unlisted at the time. His next step was to pay--according to court records--$1,250 for a legal notice that ran from July 22 through July 29, 1994, buried in the Star Tribune's back-section classifieds. The Summons by Publication stated that an action concerning the validity of the marriage between one John P. Swanson and one Anna Elisabeth Swanson was under way in Washington, and would be settled within 60 days if she didn't respond. Angelic never saw the notice. On Sept. 19, the judge ruled in Johnny's favor by granting not a divorce but an invalidation of the marriage. Which was fortunate, his lawyer says, because an actual divorce would have meant Johnny'd been living as a bigamist during his subsequent marriages.

What to do next?

Go to Yakima.

Order in the Court

Angelic landed in Seattle in early June 1996, and from there took the bus to Yakima. She checked into a cheap motel across from the station, woke up the next morning, and searched the phone directory: no Johnny. That afternoon, she walked down to the tax department at the county courthouse. Staffers there pulled his file: 5603 W. Lincoln Ave. The following day she called for a cab from a nearby shopping mall. It arrived almost before she hung up the phone.

"Take me to my fate," she told the driver. "We went to the right street and I said, 'Go around the block.' We circled it three times and then stopped. It was a huge place on the corner, with For Sale signs in the yard. I saw two men sitting in the back. I asked the taxi driver to go ask how much they wanted for this home. And I went along, holding onto his arm. As we approached, one of the men stood up and came toward us. I just stared and stared--after 35 years, there was Johnny!

"Well, all the blood drained out of me. I turned into an ice cube. Just frozen there. Johnny said to the driver, 'I'm John Swanson. I want $500,000 for this place.' And the driver said, 'That's a little stiff for my pocket.' Then Johnny looked at me. I was gasping for air. I thought I'd faint on the spot. Johnny had the same scar on his forehead he had when we met. I don't think he even recognized me. I didn't say one word. Then the taxi driver led me back to the car and I collapsed. I'd just seen my dead husband!"

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