Our wedding vow

Kerry Madden is the author, most recently, of "Harper Lee," a biography for young adults.

It’s June, the wedding month. And brides contemplating nuptials in these recessionary times should not despair. I am living proof that even modest weddings can lead to happy marriages.

My wedding cost $120 in September 1986 in Knoxville, Tenn. Kiffen and I had just graduated from college. We wanted an adventure before adult responsibilities weighed us down, so we had applied to teach English in China through the International Department at the University of Tennessee.

We’d hoped to go together. But then we were told the Chinese didn’t approve of unmarried American couples living and teaching together. I could go to Yellow Mountain in Anhui province, and Kiffen could teach at Hangzhou University. This seemed like a plan until the International Department informed us that Ningbo University in Zhejiang province needed two teachers and that, if we were married, they’d send us together. The administrator felt compelled to add a warning: “That’s not, of course, a reason to get married.”

We knew our desire to go together shouldn’t push us into marriage, and neither of us was afraid of being alone. But we both thought the idea of being together in China was more appealing.


One friend advised us to elope: “Get married in Shanghai! It’ll be so romantic.” But a more practical friend warned: “An international marriage is way too complicated with paperwork.”

We’d been living together for almost a year by then. Kiffen was the first boyfriend I’d had who cooked for me and walked my dog. We acted in plays together and made films. He worked the night shift at St. Mary’s Hospital on the mental ward. I worked at a bookstore and taught voice and diction to agriculture majors, who had to spit out their plugs of tobacco to recite Shakespeare.

Like the Chinese, my Catholic parents did not approve of us living together before marriage. They responded to my long missive detailing our love and commitment and explaining our decision to cohabit with accusations and scarlet letters.

On the flip-side, Kiffen’s mother completely supported our living arrangement. A widow and the mother of 13 children, she disapproved of early marriages. Frances, as all her children called her, thought that people who married young lost all drive and ambition. Wed too soon, she seemed to worry, and we might just kick back and eat pork rinds and boiled peanuts in east Tennessee for the rest of our lives.


Because we couldn’t please both sets of parents, the decision about whether to marry would have to be ours alone. One weekend, we made a list of pros and cons. The pros won out, and we set a date to elope the following Monday.

My father was coaching for the Atlanta Falcons then, and we waited until after Atlanta beat Dallas that Sunday night to break our news, hoping the win would have them in a good mood. My mother was relieved, despite our decision to not have the ceremony performed by a priest.

We waited until the next day to call Frances. “We’re thinking of getting married,” Kiffen told her. “Today.” Her reply cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

I hovered in the doorway, hearing just one side of the conversation, which went something like this: “Frances, wait. Frances, please. Frances?” Then he turned to me: “She hung up. And she threatened to burn the courthouse down. We’d better move quick.”

It was a good instinct. We learned later that Frances had jumped immediately into her car and headed for Knoxville (a three-hour drive from Nashville), determined to stop us.

We raced to buy wedding rings -- simple gold bands for which we paid $34 apiece. Then we hurried to the county seat and handed over $10 for a marriage license. For a wedding present, the state of Tennessee gave us matching gift bags of Tide, soap, condoms, tampons, toothpaste and a toothbrush. A man named Squire Max Wolf married us.

I wore a blue dress, red tights and saddle shoes. The best man, Kiffen’s brother, Joseph, wore shorts, and the maid of honor, my best friend Pattie, wore shorts too. I don’t remember what Kiffen wore, but I do remember the love and joy in his eyes. After the wedding, we went to the Bijou Theatre Bistro for champagne, but it didn’t have any, so we ordered red wine and toasted our first day of marriage.

We figured that Kiffen’s mother was by now drawing close. I dropped him off at his brother’s apartment, where he hoped to intercept her and calm her down before I saw her. We would all meet up later at the Budget Inns of America for a party.


As I pulled into the motel parking lot to rent a $30 room for the night, I glanced in my rearview mirror. My heart sank. Frances and Joseph were in the car right behind me. Kiffen had gotten to Joseph’s apartment too late: His mother and brother had already headed for the motel. Now Joseph would have to drive back to pick up Kiffen, leaving me alone with my new mother-in-law. It was exactly what I’d hoped to avoid.

I rented the room, and Frances followed me inside. We stood there a minute, awkwardly. Finally, I said, “Frances, I’m so sorry, but I love him.”

“Welcome to the family, Kerry,” was all she said, and held out her arms.

Frances will celebrate her 80th birthday this summer, and all of her 13 children and their families will head to Nashville. We will toast her, and raise a glass in love to remember her husband, Jim Lunsford, a fiddle player who died suddenly when Kiffen was 16, when there were still eight children left at home to raise.

It was easy to see why Frances worried about the pitfalls of early marriage for her children. On the night Kiffen and I married, after Frances and I cried and hugged each other, I promised her that we wouldn’t lose our ambition. Kiffen and I have now been married nearly 23 years. We have three children. Our ambitions have changed and matured. But they haven’t diminished.

We kept our promise, Frances.