For most retirees, the transition from work to receiving that first Social Security check is relatively smooth. Not for Nancy Wilson. It took years of letter-writing and Congressional legislation, but her persistence paid off. And it has made all the difference.
Over tea in the snug cabin she occupies behind her son’s home, she told the story.
“I was 23, and an unwed mother in need of a job,” she recalled. She became a housekeeper in the home of a man whose wife had been diagnosed as incurably mentally ill and sent to live in a mental institution. She and the man fell in love, and, unable to marry because the state (Massachusetts) did not allow divorce on the grounds of insanity, the couple lived together for 19 years and raised three children, she said.
The man’s wife died in April, 1969, and the couple was married in May that year, she said, but her husband, who was then 65, had been diagnosed with leukemia. He died only six months later.
“I was 42 at the time, considerably younger than he was. When I was 64 I applied for his Social Security. I was denied. We had been married for six months; but according to the law, we had to be married for nine months.” [The law still specifies nine months, according to the Social Security Administration.]
“Nothing happened,” she continued. “I began getting in touch with everybody. Sen. William Cohen (D-Maine) tried to put something through Congress to change the law. He was unable to do anything. I kept working at it and writing to everybody, because I had worked all that time but my Social Security was virtually nil, about half of what my husband’s would have been.”
Finally, Rep. Tom Allen [who served Maine’s First Congressional District] put forward a bill [H.R. 392, in the 107th Congress], later approved, that declared that for the purposes of collecting her husband’s survivor benefit, Nancy Wilson was deemed to have been married to him for nine months.
“I would not be surviving now were I living on my own Social Security,” she declared. “And I prefer not to be on welfare if I can help it. So Social Security means a very great deal to me. It is my total income, so it made a vast difference in my life.”
Her life today is busy, ranging from writing a regular column in her local newspaper to playing (“I’d call it playing at,”) cello occasionally with friends. ”I’m as active as I can be,” she said. “I have serious arthritis, so I can’t get around as I would like to be able to, but the Social Security has kept me going.”
With it, she said, “I don’t have to rely on the children for anything. I can be independent with my own life.” She noted that Medicare has also helped significantly: she has had a knee replacement, a hip replacement, and a quadruple bypass that she otherwise would have been unable to afford.
Asked if she celebrated years ago when the Congressional action settled her Social Security, she laughed. “I’m still celebrating.”