Bonnie Foerster was 24, working for a poultry company and married to an abusive husband who had blackened both her eyes and broken several of her ribs.
She was wearing dark sunglasses to hide her bruises, when Beverly Grossaint, 31, “took off my glasses, looked at me with those deep blue eyes and told me that she could see my soul,” Foerster said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Just like that, we fell in love.”
The year was 1968, and 50 years after that chance encounter, Foerster, now 74 and living in Salt Lake City, is mourning the loss of her partner, who died in May of pneumonia at age 82. The pair never married because they were suffering from various health problems in 2015, when same-sex marriage became legal nationwide.
Now, three months after Grossaint’s death, the couple has been declared legally married by a Utah court in an unusual case of a posthumous marriage union.
After Grossaint died, Foerster’s longtime friend and lawyer, Roger Hoole, told her it might be still possible for the couple to be married.
“I was floored,” Foerster said.
It had happened at least once before in Utah, and was upheld by the Utah Supreme Court in 2014. Each state governs its own laws of common-law marriage — which Utah does not recognize without a judge’s ruling — and the much rarer practice of posthumous marriages.
Hoole told her that posthumous marriage rulings are extremely rare, but he thought their situation met the section of Utah’s marriage guidelines that deals with common-law marriage.
The law stipulates several requirements, including that the couple must have lived together, treat each other as if they are married and present themselves so other people believe they are married.
It also specifically allows for one partner to file for marriage after the other has died, as long as the petition is within one year of the death, or “the end of the relationship.”
On Aug. 21, Foerster, who is blind and a double amputee, was wheeled into Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court. Hoole asked Judge Patrick Corum to declare his client legally married to Grossaint in honor of their five decades together.
Foerster clutched a small rainbow flag and summoned her courage. She told the judge how she had left her husband and moved in with Grossaint one week after their first meeting. She recalled the time they had marched together in New York City’s Gay Pride Parade in 1976, and were pelted with garbage by people protesting gay unions. She talked about helping to care for Grossaint in her last years.
Mostly, though, she talked about “Bonnie and Bev.”
Hoole filed affidavits from people who had known the couple over the years to support the idea that they had always wanted to be married and that they had a reputation of being spouses.
One of the pair’s friends, Ryan Garrett, 42, said he wrote in his affidavit that he had thought of Foerster and Grossaint as a “regular, old married couple” since he met them while helping to fix a plumbing problem in 2006.
“From that first day, I fell in love with them both,” Garrett said. “You could tell that they had a lot of affection and respect for each other. They really were inseparable.”
When Garrett was going through a difficult divorce, “they were both right there for me,” he added. “Instead of just one shoulder to cry on, I had two.”
At the end of the 20-minute hearing, Corum agreed, ruling that Foerster and Grossaint be recognized as lawfully married.
He said that during their 50-year relationship, they maintained a single household and joint finances, mutually contributed to the support of each other, and were treated by family, friends and neighbors as though they were married.
Foerster said she was overwhelmed with tears. She could barely believe it was true.
“We dreamed all the time about getting married someday, and even had a commitment ceremony,” Foerster said. “We always thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be wonderful someday to be recognized legally?’”
Through their health troubles, they had spoken with Bishop Terry Elkington of Salt Lake City’s Old Catholic Fellowship Church, who had planned to help the Catholic couple tie the knot.
“Beverly’s greatest wish was to legally marry Bonnie,” Elkington said. “The three of us had talked about it a lot before Beverly took a turn for the worst. They were so close and perfect for each other.”
In 2016, Grossaint, a former smoker, was struggling with health problems including vision loss, chronic heart failure and emphysema. In and out of the hospital for two years, she ended up in intensive care in the spring with trouble breathing, and doctors said there was nothing more they could do.
Foerster got a call from the hospice center saying it was time for her to come say her final goodbye.
“When she heard my voice in the room, she asked me to go,” recalled Foerster emotionally, “because she didn’t want me to see her dying. She wanted me to remember the good times, the happy times. But every day was a good time and a happy time with Bevvie. So I stayed.”
Positioning her wheelchair next to Grossaint’s bed, Foerster held her hand tightly and sang “Day by Day” — the song from the “Godspell” musical that they had made theirs after hearing it on the radio in 1972.
Because her wheelchair prevented her from leaning over to kiss Grossaint goodbye, she wiped the tears from her longtime love’s eyes.
Grossaint softly responded, “Oh, Bon, I will be waiting for you with open arms, and I will hold you eternally,” Foerster said.
Foerster, who lives in an assisted living center, was planning a memorial service for Sept. 15 but will now combine it with a “wedding celebration” party in honor of the judge’s ruling.