“Rock On” Means So Much More Now . . .


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.

ValerieVoyles DanTurner

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

JimNations DanaDougherty

Jim Nations and Dana Daugherty


Joan Dumas and David Knowles


Kathy Turbeville and Joe Lee


Karen McClanahan and Addison Lester

KathyDettmering BuddyBridges

Kathy Dettmering and Buddy Bridges


Markie Swafford and Terry somebody (whose name I can’t remember)


Pam Burdette and Gordon King

BrendaTyree ButchRush

Brenda Tyree and Butch Rush

SueEllen MikeGable

SueEllen Daniel(s) and Mike Gable (They are now married.)


Suzanne Davis and Doug Walker

JeanneHewellDwayneLindsey 1

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.


  1. Susan Lenz

    Several years ago I lost a friend … not a childhood friend … not even someone I’d known for many years … not even someone I knew significantly well … just a friend. Steve and I went to dinner with him and his wife several times. We always laughed. We shared common interests. There was something special about him from the moment we met. There was a genuine spark of true friendship until he died unexpectedly of a heart condition right before his 42nd birthday. I cried on an off for days. Shock and disbelief mingled with regret for a good-bye that wasn’t possible. It was hard. Thus, I’ve been thinking about you, your family, your friends, and all the people who were obviously touched by the friendships and kinships with these special people. I cannot imagine the grief. Please, please know that this post touches my heart and that I add my prayers to all those praying now. Don’t let this terrible situation impact your recent epiphany. Though I didn’t know Val, I can’t imagine that she’d want you to pause long in your creative endeavors but to celebrate life with every stitch.

  2. Leigh Vance Waller

    Jeanne, this was linked to FB by my husband’s aunt. I read the entire thing just loving the voice of the author! And then I got to the end and saw your parents! I am so sorry about your loss but it was so good to ‘hear’ your stories again!! Hope the family is well.

  3. Cathie (Clevelandgirlie)

    such a beautiful story. beautiful life. beautiful friendship.
    i am so very sorry for your loss.

  4. Marie

    Im so very very sorry for the great loss you all have endured. My heart thoughts and prayers are with you all. I absolutely enjoyed reading this story. It helps me know Valerie and her friends and family so much better. God Bless you all.

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Hey, Sugar! I'm Jeanne Hewell-Chambers: writer ~ stitcher ~ storyteller ~ one-woman performer ~ creator & founder of The 70273 Project, and I'm mighty glad you're here. Make yourself at home, and if you have any questions, just holler.

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