Valerie Voyles Phillips
This is Miss Helen’s favorite photo of Valerie. I can see why, can’t you? Isn’t she beautiful, our Valerie? And the thing about Valerie: her beauty is inside and out. It’s organic. It’s through and through. It’s authentic. All the makeup and plastic surgery in the world can’t create this kind of beauty. It just can’t.
When I think of Valerie, I think of her faint stutter, the hesitancy with which some words fall out from between her lips. I never really thought of it as a stutter until today. It’s always been just the way she talks.
She is smart, you know – brilliant, really – and that brilliance is woven together with the homespun wit and wisdom of her mother. What a combo: intelligence and wisdom.
When sitting, Valerie rocks gently, as though she’s in a front porch rocking chair we can’t see. I don’t know why she does it, but I think it might confirm that she’s an old soul, living deeply and authentically far ahead of her years. Even in high school, she’s lived from a place I’m still trying to get to.
This is Valerie’s little brother, Larry. He had a crush on me once upon a decade. I still have the love letters he wrote me – those big, deliberate words written with a little boy’s hand using a big, chunky pencil on pages of 3-ring paper snatched from Valerie’s notebook. Funny, I don’t ever remember Valerie being embarrassing, even when he asked her to deliver his love notes, though she certainly didn’t offer any commentary when she tossed them in my direction.
My birthday is February 14, and Valerie’s is February 15, you see, and for reasons I can’t explain – maybe time just got away from them, maybe they just wanted to be different, maybe they just weren’t all that good at math – our parents huddled up and threw us a Sweet SEVENTEEN birthday party.
Valerie was dating Dan Turner at the time. Dan is now married to Kathy Turbeville who was at the party with Joe Lee that night, a guy I’d dated previously.
I was dating Dwayne Lindsey who Valerie went on to take as her first husband after we graduated from high school.
Growing up in a small town you learn that everybody has history and stories and a life before you, and you don’t let things like former boyfriends get in the way of a good girlfriendship. Shoot, you learn early-on not to let anything get in the way of your relationship with a girlfriend cause good girlfriends can be mighty hard to come by. When you love somebody, you weather storms, you deal with whatever comes up, and you never, ever cut the ribbon of connection. You don’t even consider it. Our mothers, friends forever and a day, taught us that.
It was such the well-orchestrated ruse, that Sweet Seventeen Shindig, that Valerie and I were totally and genuinely surprised. Dan and Dwayne planned a double date at some exotic destination that allowed us to dress up for the night, and they picked Valerie up first because she lived “in town.” Mother and Daddy had other plans (wink, wink) that coincidentally had them leaving in dress-up clothes and leaving the house before I did. Just before Dwayne’s white GTO pulled up in my driveway, Daddy called (from the clubhouse, of course, but it was before caller id, so I didn’t know that at the time) to say shoot – he’d forgotten to lock the gate at the golf course and wondered if we’d mind going by to lock up. “Oh, and be sure to check the clubhouse doors, too,” he said without a trace of a smile.
Nobody minded, especially since the golf course was within walking distance from my front door, so that little side trip wasn’t going to make us late. Well, you’d think we would’ve noticed something when we pulled up and saw cars in the parking lot – and maybe we did – but we never dreamed that we’d hear a riotous SURPRISE when we walked through the unlocked clubhouse door. It only now occurs to me to ask Why did we even go inside at all?
With all the tape and construction paper the local 5 and 10-cent store had to offer in those days before Amazon and Walmart were even ideas, Miss Helen and Mother, along with Mr. Charlie and Daddy and even our boyfriends who’d been let out of school for the afternoon to help (Our mothers worked at the local board of education, so they simply called the principal and told him they needed the boys’ help. It helps to have friends in high places.), transformed my family’s small town golf course clubhouse into a festive haven where we teenagers could be young adults for a night – even holding hands and slow dancing right in front of our parents – without all the responsibilities, trials, and heartbreaks we now know are inherent in adulthood. Did our parents think about that as they watched us that night, I wonder? Was that the real gift of that night, the gift it takes decades to realize?
In addition to friendships that have lasted a lifetime, our friends chipped in and gave us each a heart-shaped pendant with sparkly little diamonds to mark the occasion. I still have mine. I think I’ll wear it to the memorial service.
Valerie, you see, died in the dark thirty hours of Sunday morning, along with her husband, Darrell and her daughter, Emily, when their house burned to the ground.
Because there’s an ongoing investigation and unimaginable things must be tended to, we don’t know when the service will actually take place. So in the meantime, as we wait, let’s hold our own collective service, swaddling the friends and family of Valerie, Darrell, and Emily in our warmest, most loving and kind thoughts and prayers, why don’t we? What say we pay tribute to Valerie and Darrell and Emily by letting our friends and family know how much we love them. Many of my elementary and high school friends still live in our not-so-small-anymore home town. I’ve moved away, but there’s still a strong connection, a groundedness that means the world to me. There’s something quite comforting about having friends who’ve known you through thick and thin, though feast and famine, and love you regardless.
As Miss Helen (Valerie’s mother) and Larry (Valerie’s brother) along with Darrell’s family members tend to the business at hand that must precede planning the service, let’s do what we do best: tell stories. Please pull up a chair and share your favorite stories and memories about Valerie, Darrell, and/or Emily in the comments here or in the comments on my Facebook posts. Miss Helen and Larry are reading, and your words are a balm to their souls.
And as we go forth, let’s all rock gently in a rocking chair only Valerie can see.
You know, I’ve long said that my children made me the best friends. Now I realize that my mother did, too.
Other photos from the photo album of That Sweet Seventeen Party: (cue Those Were the Days music)
Dianna Harrell and Gary Baker
Elender Ballard and Webb Howell
Ginger Jones and Glen Ward
Chris Rollins and Robert Reeves
Jim Nations and Dana Daugherty
Joan Dumas and David Knowles
Kathy Turbeville and Joe Lee
Karen McClanahan and Addison Lester
Kathy Dettmering and Buddy Bridges
Markie Swafford and Terry somebody (whose name I can’t remember)
Pam Burdette and Gordon King
Brenda Tyree and Butch Rush
SueEllen Daniel(s) and Mike Gable (They are now married.)
Suzanne Davis and Doug Walker
Dwayne and me, changing the music
(Yes, those really are vinyls.)
and last, but definitely not least:
the people who made this all (right down to the two guests of honor) possible:
Ada and Crawford Hewell
Miss Helen and Mr. Charlie Voyles
Dear Valerie, I’m betting . . . hoping . . . that with the arrival of you and Darrell and Emily, your daddy now knows how you and I felt when we walked through that clubhouse door. I love you, and I miss you already.