June 26, 2019KR OnlineNonfiction

In the Presence of God I Make This Vow

Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs.
—William Shakespeare

The immigration lawyer informs me she is considering dropping my father and his new wife, Anoma, as clients.

“This looks like fraud,” she says over the phone. She’s talking about a package of materials that I’ve sent her meant to prove that my father and Anoma are truly married to each other. The lawyer must submit the materials to the Unites States Citizenship and Immigration Services so that Anoma can gain permanent status in the States and the right to apply for American citizenship. The process is ordinary—any noncitizen who marries a citizen must go through it—and really requires only the public display of a marriage that we as a society tend to expect. The problem is that no one—other than my father, Anoma, and two of her sisters—were aware until recently of the marriage.

My voice quavers. “It’s not fraud. I really believe that.”

I don’t want the lawyer to refuse to represent my father and his wife, but I’m angry that I’m the one on the phone trying to help them. I myself didn’t know, for a fact, about the marriage until a few weeks before my conversation with the lawyer and became aware of the possibility only a few months after my father had a severe, life-threatening stroke that left him disabled. It had humiliated me to put the package together at all—a nearly three-year history of a marriage I didn’t know existed—and now I’m convinced the lawyer is mistaking my ambivalence for prevarication.

Bile surges into my throat, and I experience disgust at the sour, tangy after-taste. I consider accepting the lawyer’s attempt as an out, a way of my being free from having to help my father and telling my family that Anoma should make plans to leave.

The only noise is the steady, watery whoosh of traffic passing just beyond my curtained window. I stare at the empty, white wall in front of me. I’ve been a temporary tenant in my apartment for a year now, and I still haven’t put art on the walls. I notice for the first time the paint isn’t really white but stippled gray and uneven in places—more like the surface of a stone. The texture is mesmerizing and helps to focus me on my family’s present need.

“I don’t think it’s fraud,” I repeat, willing myself to sound more enthusiastic. “I believe they are genuinely married to each other.” And this much is true. Whatever my anger toward them, I don’t doubt this for a second.

“I recognize that every marriage has its own dynamic,” the lawyer insists, “but there’s so little here. There are no birthday cards. Not many photographs. He hasn’t changed his will.” It doesn’t help that when the lawyer speaks she sounds weary, more than angry, and disappointed in my family as if she’d expected us all along to let her down. I know what she’s implying. She thinks I’m part of whatever fraud she suspects because I’m the one that put the package of materials together. I’m reduced to yet another immigrant huckster trying to play the system.

She breathes deeply. “You’re claiming that he isn’t physically capable of traveling to DC, but he’s traveling to Sri Lanka in four months.” I blink at this. We wanted to spare him a trip to Washington, DC, to be interrogated by USCIS because he doesn’t leave the house much. The trip to Sri Lanka is different. It’s a family trip—we are all going—in part to help my father visit his homeland for the last time—the last time before he dies. His doctors have told him he shouldn’t go, but he’d rather die there than not return. Not one of us thinks this trip is going to be easy or particularly fun.

I also understand in that moment that the lawyer is vocalizing only what others—people trained to suss out con men and cheaters—will perceive. I sigh and parrot back to her own words: Every marriage has its own dynamic.

“Well, here’s the thing.” Her tone has become hard. She wants to end this conversation, rid herself of a troublesome client. “It looks like he married her so that he could bring her over to work as his maid.”

I feel the rush of blood to my face, the desire to ward away a deep humiliation. “My father has money,” I say slowly, carefully. I, too, am growing tired of this conversation, and if she wants to stop helping us she needs to say this directly. “He doesn’t have to bring a maid from Sri Lanka. He could afford someone here.”

Which is the real irony here because that’s what he originally had told us she was. When Anoma first arrived, he’d lied and said she was working for him as a caretaker and that she was here on a temporary visa. That was also the reason I believed the marriage was real now. It seemed entirely natural, in retrospect, that a year after his wife’s death, my father would find it hard to admit he had an emotional and physical need. He resorted to what he understood: an elaborate display of status.

When she still doesn’t respond, I say, “I don’t know why he kept his marriage a secret from us, but I don’t think it was fraud.” Then I add, “It’s cultural.” The lawyer seems to accept this last statement at face value, though I feel terrible. I don’t know any other Sri Lankans who would do what my father has done: marry his wife’s cousin, bring her back to the States, and then lie to his three daughters and to both families. My father is a singular construct in that way.


In June 1592, Maria Audley, an attractive sixteen-year-old, maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth, met for the first time Thomas Thynne, the son of a politically prominent and wealthy Wiltshire landowner. Thomas, also sixteen, was studying at Oxford, but John Marvin, another prominent landowner and friend of the Thynne family, had asked him—some will say later lured him—back to Wiltshire for a short respite from his studies and, apparently, the opportunity to carouse. In other words, he’d been invited to party, and the seed that this was some sort of celebration had been planted in Thomas’s head. In the historical records, Thomas Thynne is described as dark- haired and good looking, and his charm—which seems to be of the always-game-to-have-fun sort—is often noted. According to the accounts that exist, Maria was equally lively, doe-eyed, with strikingly dark, red hair. Chroniclers of this affair always note her hair; the detail becomes important later.

Thomas’s parents did not accompany him, which isn’t all that surprising given his age and stature. Maria’s family—Lady and Lord Audley and her sister Amy—do accompany her. Maria, as a maid attending to Queen Elizabeth’s most private needs, dressing her in the morning and undressing her at night, held a privileged position. The Queen’s sovereignty was absolute. She was anointed by God. Maria would have received the honor of serving the Queen as part of a political favor. As might be expected, Queen Elizabeth carefully controlled the lives of those serving in her privy chamber down to the smallest detail. She even promised all her maids an arranged marriage to suitable men in possession of manners, political standing, and wealth. According to one account I found, the Queen so carefully monitored her courtiers’ lives that she, at first, wouldn’t let Maria leave her service even for a day. She eventually reluctantly agreed only after Maria’s entreaties.

The weather in Wiltshire in the month of June would have been mild and most likely wet, but it was also the height of summer and could have easily been pleasant—the sort of romantic English pastoral you see re-created in film adaptations of Jane Austen novels. I like to imagine the breeze smelling wet and green, of gooseberries and of pine (mainly because that is my childhood memory of England). Thomas, a young boy easy to make happy, would have been buoyed by his return to this familiar countryside and the land that he loved.

He and his entourage didn’t meet John Marvin at his estate but at a nearby inn—the Bell Inn. There he and his traveling companions would have most likely sat down at a banquet of trenchers, large, flat, stale bread used to hold meat and vegetables—and since there’s a mention in the record of sweetmeats, there must have been several different types of meat with enough tryptophan to make even a grown man slightly groggy—and carafes of wine. At some point during this feast, Maria and the other women entered the room, and Thomas and Maria, despite the presence of both of their companions, sequestered themselves to a corner of the table. They huddled there for a long time alone, flirting and talking. According to one of the many depositions given later, the couple “grewe into such good liking each of the other as that they seemed desirous to be married presently.”

That two sixteen-year-olds gorged on meat and, possibly tipsy, finding each other attractive seems entirely normal. What strikes me as curious is the reaction of Maria’s parents, particularly her mother. Lady Audley appears to forget that her daughter serves the Queen of England and has been promised a very good marriage already. She also appears to forget that her daughter—at sixteen—is very young. According to later testimony—which may have been biased since there was a lot at stake for both parties—Lady Audley took her daughter’s hand and twirled her around for Thomas. I can see Maria pirouetting, giddily, her farthingale lifting slightly to reveal tiny, slippered feet, the gold brocade of her dress sparking in the candlelight. She was, most likely, tiny, the size of a twelve-year-old now, but she also had to have been bold. Maybe it was her relationship to the Queen that gave her so much confidence. She must have learned early in her life that every action is a performance. Whatever the reason, it did not bother her to be displayed to a boy and did not bother her when her mother essentially, and I’m liberally translating here from the Old English, declared that if Thomas liked her face, he should see her body.

Someone in one of the entourages found a minister who had also stopped at the Bell that evening and asked him to marry the couple immediately. The minister is old, nearly blind, but he agreed. One of John Marvin’s friends read the marriage ceremony out loud so that the minister, who couldn’t make out the words himself, could repeat the important oaths.  That June evening, Thomas and Maria promised in front of the relatively small gathering at the inn to cherish each other through sickness and health. John Marvin would later claim that he tried to caution Thomas and Maria and counsel them not to be governed by the moment, but if he did really say this, the couple did not take his advice. After the ceremony, their entourages accompanied Thomas and Maria to a bedchamber where both lay down together on the bed, fully clothed, and kissed, in full view of the Marvin and Audley families—a custom not unusual for the time. Though they both would later claim that they spoke intimately, the marriage was not sexually consummated that evening.

Maria’s marriage to Thomas is odd for many reasons.  Though they were legally old enough to be married, they were very young for people of their social standing. The landed gentry, during this time, tended to marry in their mid-to-late twenties. Most marriages of that time were elaborate social rituals, requiring negotiation—how much dowry should be paid, for instance—and planning. Thomas Thynne’s parents weren’t even there to give their approval.

The two families—the Thynnes and the Audleys—also hated each other. They were the wealthiest landowners in the county of Wiltshire, and they warred with each other over control of local politics. If the Audleys had tried to approach the Thynnes to arrange a marriage, it’s unlikely they would have approved. Both Maria and Thomas probably feared angering his father and mother. Maria, certainly, feared angering Queen Elizabeth. For that reason, and, perhaps, because the alcohol had worn off, Thomas and Maria, the Marvins, and the Audleys, agreed not to reveal their marriage publicly.


Two years after Anoma arrived, when I still didn’t know she was married to my father, we—and by we I mean my father, sisters, Anoma, and I—traveled to DC for a wedding. We stayed in a hotel, and I shared a room with Anoma.

My mother had been dead only a year when Anoma moved into our house. I had met her in Sri Lanka a few times, but I wasn’t especially close to her. The impression I had of her was that she was meek.

She is as thin as a whippet—starved almost. But she has large, expressive eyes and full lips and in certain moments, when she dresses up or wears makeup, becomes very pretty. At the time she moved to the States, she was sixty-five, too old to find steady employment in Sri Lanka (the retirement age there is fifty-five), so she did various chores for members of my family to earn money. She was a relative who could be trusted in a country where few people, outside of one’s family, can be. She revealed to me once, the only real interaction I had ever had with her, that she had wanted to be a nurse, but her father had fallen ill. She had made the choice to care for him for nearly a decade. The truth was, I thought of her as sad.

At the hotel, because it was the first time that we really talked, I learned more about her life. She had, it turned out, had a career working as a caretaker and aid for two families overseas. She had lived in Dubai and in Singapore and had liked both families she had worked for. They had paid her well, and she had led a cosmopolitan life, traveling freely in both cities, and making friends among other Sri Lankans who were similarly employed. She has a sister living in America, and her biggest dream was to come to America herself. She was thrilled to have accomplished that.

She was an odd mix of experiences. She had lived internationally, in major, urban areas, but this was the first time she had stayed in a hotel. I remember her awe sitting in the café the next morning, staring at the menu. She wasn’t sure how to read it, and she wasn’t very sure of what to order. She was thrilled when she received her breakfast basket—a biscuit, croissant, and jam—and apologized when she couldn’t finish it all.

After his stroke, my father needed someone to bathe him, help him to the bathroom, speak for him. Anoma became that person. Her English is poor, so I dealt with the nurses and the doctors, the negotiating with hospitals and critical-care services, but I am repulsed and cowed by the actuality of illness. I remember one morning, when my father was feeling particularly stressed, I could barely bring myself to touch him. His skin was moist and parchment-paper thin, and the feel of it sickened me. Anoma, though, found a washcloth and wiped his head and face and then held his hand and spoke softly to him in Sinhala. Later, she helped him into the bathroom and stayed with him to clean him. The one time she hadn’t been around, and I had to help him to the bathroom, I nearly vomited. I’m not sure my father would have survived the stroke without her.

My sisters and I discovered the truth of their marriage a few months after my father’s stroke while working with his accountant. My father and Anoma filed their taxes jointly. I had offered that they probably filed jointly to make things easier. “There’s no reason for them to file jointly,” my sister, a financial officer for a not-for-profit, explained. “Unless they’re married.”

When I asked Anoma if she were married to my father, she told me no. We had returned from the hospital. We were both exhausted, operating on little sleep, and overwhelmed by the day-to-day shifts in my father’s health. I wondered, as I spoke, if she understood my English, but I didn’t know how to say what I needed to say in Sinhala. Anoma clutched her purse to her stomach and stared straight ahead. Her voice was firm. They were not married. The immigration lawyer had helped her to get her visa. She even showed me her green card, which still had her maiden name on it. She had done nothing wrong. I asked her, then, if she really wanted to stay in America, if there was nothing here to keep her other than a work visa, and I was relieved when she replied, just as firmly as before, that she cared for my father, especially now that he needed her. Maybe I should have asked my father, but he seemed so often disoriented and so feeble I didn’t want to upset him. Perhaps I should have pressed harder then, but the fact was my father and Anoma’s marital status seemed to me to be the least of our problems. I wasn’t sure my father was going to survive the hospital. So I let it go.


I’m not someone to judge other people’s marriages. I’m queer and because of that I’ve never married. I have had short, intimate relationships with women. My longest relationships, though, have been with men. I’m sexually—if not always emotionally—attracted to both.

I’m introverted and private, but when it comes to sex I’m the always-game-to-have-fun sort. I’m ambivalent when it comes to commitment. In my thirties, I had affairs with married men. The last affair I had was with the husband of a friend of mine. I thought he was physically attractive, and we connected because we were immigrants to the States and identified as such. He was open about his womanizing, and his wife, my close friend, was so sophisticated and knowing and beautiful (especially in comparison to me) that I thought she didn’t care. I had no intention of breaking up their marriage. The sex was opportunistic—in his office or at my apartment—and had nothing to do with love. I never spoke to him on the phone. Whatever emotional intimacy we shared was sitting at the dining room table—the three of us—talking about loving country music as immigrants and our feelings of displacement and mutual loneliness.

One afternoon, I had stopped by their apartment in Midtown Manhattan to have lunch with her. We sat at the table sharing our meal, their one-year-old son between us. He giggled and gurgled and threw his food on the floor so that one of us would have to bend over to pick it up. If we refused, he’d grow agitated until we did what he wanted. “So needy. Just like his father,” my friend had quipped.

She was beautiful—even in sweats and an oversized shirt, her hair pulled up and secured at the nape of her neck with a clip—and so sure of herself. I really loved her. I wanted to hold her. In her grace and warmth, she reminded me of my mother. I teased her, flirted a bit. I made gentle fun of her cooking. She had cooked the rice Persian style—so that it had crisped at the bottom and turned biscuit-like. I joked that in Sri Lanka we would have thrown that rice out.

I glanced over at the bookshelf—works in English and Farsi, books that belonged to both him and her, books that were shared, read together at the dining table, together in bed. It came to me in that moment that their apartment wasn’t a place, but a living, breathing organism, each cell composed of the weaving together of the DNA of a marriage. The marriage was actual and palpable. I wasn’t a friend, a lover, a mistress. I certainly didn’t need to worry about being a threat. What I was was a short segment on a much longer strand. I remember being both awed by it all and recoiling briefly, not because of the affair, which was meaningless to each of us, but by the recognition that I’d been momentarily cannibalized. I was part of their relationship, and I served some purpose—something Old World and ancient. But we would never be truly able to acknowledge what that purpose was or that there might be some beauty in it. In another time, in another culture, but not in America in 2004. Because of that, neither one of us could truly help the other. Because of that, I needed to go.


Thomas and Maria’s marriage became public nearly three years after it took place. When Lord and Lady Thynne found out, they were devastated—and furious. For Lady Thynne it must have been a reproof, not only of her social standing, but her abilities as a mother. “How hard is my hap,” she is said to have declared, “to live to see my chiefest hope and joy my greatest grief and sorrow.”

Lord and Lady Thynne decided to pretend the marriage never took place and refused to acknowledge Maria or let Thomas go to her. For them, the marriage represented the deepest of insults. There was, first of all, the issue of the dowry. They lost a substantial sum, approximately £1,500. There was the social stigma of not having been able to control a roguish son. And there existed the ever-deepening hatred they felt for the Audley family. The fact that they had not given consent, that Thomas was not living with his wife, and that the marriage had never been consummated was enough, in their eyes, to make the marriage invalid.

Maria lost the most from the public revelation of their secret marriage. The Queen dismissed her after the marriage was revealed. The Audley family later claimed that there existed a suitor—one picked out by the Queen—who was wealthier and far more stable than the young, charming Thomas. If Thomas died, before the validity of the marriage was legally affirmed, Maria would have no rights as his widow—including the right to inherit money or property. During the many years that the Thynnes refused to acknowledge the marriage, Maria existed suspended. As a woman already married, no other man would want her, but as a woman whose marriage wasn’t recognized, she couldn’t see, much less live, with her husband. There must have been a great deal of shaming directed at her.

When it was clear the Thynne family never planned to recognize her, Maria, aided by her family, brought her case to an ecclesiastic court. After the Thynne family learned of the impending court case, they launched their own lawsuit. The case lasted nearly four years, and most of the individuals present at the Bell that evening were deposed. Halfway through the trial, the minister died, a fact that Lord and Lady Thynne used in their favor. They submitted to the court accusations the now deceased minister had no standing to conduct a marriage because he had been convicted of stealing and adultery and that there existed a written covenant between him and the devil. When it looked like Maria might win her case, the Thynne family submitted accusations to the court, accusing the Audleys and their supporters of fornication and adultery.

Through all this, Lord Thynne didn’t trust his son, Thomas, to say openly in court that he hadn’t intended to marry Maria. Thomas expressed a deep fondness for Maria privately and publicly and a desire to remain married to her even though by now he had not seen her in person for a few years. When he was finally compelled to testify, enough social pressure had been placed on him that he acquiesced to his family’s demands and stated that he had been duped into meeting Maria and had been too drunk to fully consent.

The story, though, does have something like a happy ending. The judge in the case eventually decided to speak to Thomas and Maria privately. Afterward, he determined that Thomas’s testimony was influenced by his desire to please his parents, and that the young couple had both intended to marry and desired to stay married. Intention was all that was necessary. The marriage was valid.

After everything, Maria still tried to win her mother-in-law over, writing her several letters:

To you my dearly loved mother are these lines sent from her that hath vowed to make herself as worthy as her best service can make her, of so kind a mother as yourself. . . . I crave nothing but your good opinion, which I will be thankful for.

In one of the letters she enclosed a lock of her red hair. It is thought that she did that to make herself real and palpable to a woman who still refused to meet her in person. Thomas and Maria Tinny never lived at his own estate during their marriage.

What evidence I’ve been able to find of Thomas indicates that he prospered in the years after the debacle. He remained wealthy and politically prominent, even serving in the House of Commons. Maria died in 1611, ten years after the judge validated her marriage, while giving birth to her third child. She was thirty-five.

The scandal surrounding the secret marriage and the court case consumed Elizabethan society. It was possibly, probably, an inspiration for Romeo and Juliet, though Shakespeare changed the setting to Verona and gives the romance between the two young lovers a much darker end. It also had an impact on the public perception of marriage at the time. Intention mattered. That a marriage was only just barely sanctioned and never consummated did not.

This perception of marriage as a private affair, one that could be simply witnessed by a clergyman, changed permanently 150 years later in 1753 with the passage of the Clandestine Marriage Bill, also known as the Harwicke Act. The bill rendered into statutory law what had long been ecclesiastical law: that in order for a marriage to be valid there had to be a formal, public ceremony and a bann or marriage license. It was not enough that a minister witnessed the exchange of vows. There needed to exist a formal, publicly witnessed ceremony, and the marriage had to be sexually consummated.

The bill’s existence was pragmatic. It was meant to protect members of the upper class from being lured into hasty marriages by their social inferiors, and it was meant to protect wealthy men’s property and ensure its strict transfer from people of wealth and social standing to other people of equal wealth and social standing. The law’s actual effect, though, was to reify the idea that marriage is a public spectacle. Anyone who has had to endure two years of cake tastings, dress fittings, venue shopping, and in-law cat-fighting, while all the while wondering why she can’t simply elope, has only to turn to the 1753 bill to locate the historical source of her misery.

I like to think of myself as someone who continually questions truths, but I’ve never really, until I started researching this essay, questioned marriage as pageant. In the naughts at the height of the fight for gay marriage, a friend asked if I’d changed my mind about getting married myself, and I told her I still fundamentally believed that the institution of marriage was problematic even as I defended tooth and nail the rights of my gay friends. What I never wondered about was the whole open display of it—why we even needed it to celebrate a couple at all. Why we needed a wedding to buy presents, help furnish a home.

This insistence that marriage be a display—recognized legally and most cases by a religious institution as well—is powerful and renders so many important, perhaps equally important and necessary relationships socially and sexually deviant. Morganatic marriage. Mistresses (and whatever the male version of that is). Dominatrices. Polyamory. Companionate relationships that don’t include sex. Military contract marriages. Queer marriages that have historically remained secret and private out of fear of the social and legal repercussions. When I ponder this list, which is probably very incomplete, partly because so many of these relationships have been lost to history, it seems strange to me how suspicious we are as a culture of any intimate relationship that doesn’t look to us, well, like the state of being married.


My father’s caretaker was the one who forwarded us the e-mail from the immigration lawyer. The three-year grace period had passed, and Anoma and my father now needed to prove that they were married in order for Anoma to remain in the country. The e-mail contained a list of documents Anoma and my father needed to supply: tax returns, photographs, birthday cards, testimony from relatives and friends, airline tickets, car and life insurance forms, a will. It was only then that we learned the truth. My father had married Anoma three years before in Sri Lanka.

Anoma and I sat in the kitchen, and she confessed to me that she loved my father deeply. She had not revealed the marriage when I first asked out of loyalty to him, because he was too ill to give her his approval to reveal the secret. As I spoke to her and realized how much she cared for him, I thought I could come to accept their relationship. Then she showed me a picture of her taken on her wedding day. Her hair is pulled back into a bun, and she is wearing makeup. She radiates pleasure, as does my father. At the physical presence of it, a secret picture from three years ago, I experienced a moment of head-spinning rage, something akin to what Lady Thynne must have felt long ago: I didn’t know anyone at all.

I can’t say why he didn’t tell us and why he swore Anoma to secrecy. My guess is that he was embarrassed and afraid we’d be angry that he married a year after our mother’s death. As time passed, it became harder to justify not revealing the truth earlier. I’m never going to get an answer from him, but, now, after some time, I’ve also come to realize, whatever my personal feelings, whatever my social expectations, my father and Anoma’s marriage isn’t really my business.

I have friends whose spouses are foreign citizens and whose marriages have been placed into limbo because of USCIS. One friend, a freelance artist, doesn’t make enough money to prove to the government he can support his family. Even though he and his wife have a child, she can’t apply for permanent residency. His wife travels between her native country and America, spending months away from her husband. Recently, the wife of the Indian engineer who was murdered in a Kansas bar, lost her right to remain in the United States even though she has legal employment here. A congressman stepped in at the last minute to keep her from being deported. I think of Anoma. If my father were to pass away tomorrow, she would lose legal standing and have to return to Sri Lanka. Her dream to come to live in the States wouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how much love she or my father actually feel for each other. And through it all, I wonder what real business it is of anyone’s. I wonder how much happier and secure so many people would feel, inside and outside of the institution of marriage, if we didn’t insist so firmly on the rigid public moral spectacle of it all. I side with the judge in 1601 sitting listening to two twenty-something-year-olds declare their eternal, youthful adoration for each other. Who was he—really, who am I—to question the private nature of someone’s love?


Sources referenced
Bennet, Eve Tavor. “The Marriage Act of 1753: A Most Cruel Act for the Fair Sex.” Eighteenth Century Studies, Family Values in the Age of Sentiment, 30, no. 3 (Spring 1997): 233–54. JSTOR.

Daybell, James, ed. Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1450–1700. 2001 ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Davis, Rebecca L. “Not Marriage at All, but Simple Harlotry: The Companionate Marriage Controversy.” The Journal of American History 94, no. 4 (March 2008): 1137–63. JSTOR.

“US soldiers ‘shop’ on Craigslist for wives to get more pay, benefits,” Jeff Billington. https://www.today.com/news/us-soldiers-shop-wives-get-more-pay-benefits-2D80186882

Wall, Alison. “For Love, Money, or Politics: A Clandestine Marriage and the Elizabethan Court of Arches.” The History Journal 38, no. 3 (September 1995): 511–33. JSTOR.

Photo of Hasanthika Sirisena
Hasanthika Sirisena’s debut collection of short stories, The Other One, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and was published in 2016.