Tennessee Waltz

He talked about creeks, mud cats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and Cahaba lilies.

Mister Vernon died last night. He went easy.

You never met him, but you knew him. He was every white-haired man you’ve ever seen.

He spoke with a drawl. He talked about the old days. He was opinionated. He was American. Lonely.

Miss Charyl, his caregiver, did CPR. She compressed his chest so hard his sternum cracked. She was sobbing when the EMT’s took him.

Caregiving is Charyl’s second job. She’s been working nights at Mister Vernon’s for a while.

She arrived at his mobile-home one sunny day. Mister Vernon was fussy, cranky. A twenty-four carat heart.

She listened to his stories—since nobody else would. He had millions.

He talked about creeks, mud cats, frog gigging, bush hooks, and running barefoot through pinestraw and Cahaba lilies.

And he talked about Marilyn. Marilyn was the center of his life once. His companion. But she was not long for this world.

He talked politics, too. Charyl and he disagreed. Mister Vernon would holler his opinions loud enough to make the walls bow.

He was a man of his time. An oil-rig worker, a logger, a breadwinner, a roughneck. He helped build a country. And a family.

Each day, he’d thumb through a collection of old photos. His favorite: the woman with the warm smile.

Marilyn. The woman who’d helped him make his family. Who’d turned his kids into adults. Adults who had successful lives and successful families. They live in successful cities, they do successful things.

“He sure missed his kids,” says Charyl. “They hardly came to see him. They were so busy.”

Busy.

Last night, Vernon asked Charyl for a country supper. She lit the stove and tore up the kitchen. She cooked chicken-fried steak, creamed potatoes, string beans, milk gravy.

“Marilyn used to make milk gravy,” he remarked.

She served him peach cobbler. Handmade. The kind found at Baptist covered-dish suppers.

“Marilyn used to make peach cobbler,” he said.

After supper, he shuffled to his easy chair. He watched the news with the volume blasting. He got tired. He shut off the television.

“I’m going to bed,” he said.

Charyl helped him into cotton pajamas. She washed his face. She laid him in bed. She tucked the corners of the quilt beneath his shoulders.

“Sing to me,” said Mister Vernon.

“Sing?”

“I wanna hear a song.”

“Dunno what to sing, Mister Vern.”

“How ‘bout the ‘Tennessee Waltz?’”

Charyl cleared her throat.

She sang from memory. Eyes shut. It was more than a melody. It was the favorite song of a man with busy kids. It was his song. His era.

It was girls in faded floral-print. Men in boots. A generation of dirty hands, cutting timber, pigging pipes, and striking arcs.

When she finished, Vernon’s eyes were closed. She kissed his forehead. He was cold.

“I love you, Vernon,” she whispered.

He breathed a sigh. His chest rose and fell just once.

Marilyn was waiting at the gate.

Vernon might be the most average elderly man anyone’s ever heard of.

But America will not be the same without him.

Neither will his successful kids.

33 comments

  1. Diane Enloe - April 24, 2017 2:42 pm

    WOW! Just WOW!! Your writing is amazing! Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Leigh Rankin - April 24, 2017 2:43 pm

    well, THAT made the tears come. I’m a recent follower, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE your work.

    Reply
  3. Sue - April 24, 2017 2:49 pm

    We are losing all our Mr. Vernons, and the world is a lesser place without them.

    Reply
    • Beverly - June 17, 2017 2:54 pm

      Unfortunately, you are so right…

      Reply
    • Kathy - June 18, 2017 3:11 am

      Amen Sue… The world will be a sadder place without them! ❤️

      Reply
  4. suzette bowman - April 24, 2017 3:21 pm

    Just about every one of these have brought a tear to my eye. Thank you for writing about sometimes the invisible and forgotten. Every one has a story that deserves to be told.
    And you keep it real! You have such a unique gift!

    Reply
  5. LindaD - April 24, 2017 3:27 pm

    Thank God for people like Charyl.
    My mom’s hospice nurse sang to her at the end, too. But she wasn’t alone. I was there, too. It was one of the most profound moments of my life.

    Reply
  6. Bill Wilhelm - April 24, 2017 3:30 pm

    Those stories are priceless, as you well know. Thank the good Lord that you are getting around to a multitude of them. I’m doing the same, Brother Sean…or at least as much as I can remember. Keep up the wonderful work, please.

    Reply
  7. Sandra Marrar - April 24, 2017 4:40 pm

    You made me cry…again!

    Reply
  8. Joyce - April 24, 2017 4:43 pm

    Even when you make me cry, I love reading your stories. Or should I say especially.

    Reply
  9. Lisa - April 24, 2017 5:35 pm

    Add WWII veteran and truck driver, it could have been my father. I was working full-time and having health problems, I didn’t take care of him like I should have. He started falling, I took him to Jackson Hospital expecting them to send him to a nursing home, he died three days later. If your parents are alive, enjoy them while you still can or be prepared to feel guilty. What goes around, comes around.

    As an old Crenshaw girl, I love your stories and look forward to reading them.

    Reply
  10. Susie Munz - April 24, 2017 6:24 pm

    Good story with a strong message.

    Reply
  11. Dolores Fort - April 24, 2017 7:18 pm

    This is so important! For those who still have their parent(s), make sure you keep in touch and see them as often as possible. You never know when it just might be the last time!
    Thank you, Sean, for another beautiful story. Haven’t commented on your previous stories, but this one really hit me and I had to comment.

    Reply
  12. Sam Hunneman - April 24, 2017 7:40 pm

    Be at peace, Vernon. Blessings, Charyl. You, too, Sean.

    Reply
  13. Randy Prewitt - April 24, 2017 8:08 pm

    You are priceless. You are Americana. As for Mr. Vernon’s successful kids, Bless his Heart — I just guess they aren’t so successful after all, are they? Thanks.

    Reply
  14. Maureen - April 24, 2017 9:38 pm

    you always touch my heart

    Reply
  15. Judy Miller - April 24, 2017 11:33 pm

    My Daddy’s favorite song.

    Reply
  16. Judy - April 25, 2017 12:41 am

    So sweet…so profound. You are thought full and thoughtful. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  17. Michael Hawke - April 25, 2017 1:57 am

    Thank you. That was outstanding.

    Reply
  18. Judy Riley - April 25, 2017 3:38 pm

    Too many Vernons out there….hope they all have a caring Caregiver….

    Reply
  19. Judy Riley - April 25, 2017 3:40 pm

    To many Vernons out there…..pray they all have a loving, caring Caregiver.

    Reply
  20. gary jensen - April 25, 2017 7:42 pm

    Wow. This was intensely beautiful for me. Left me sobbing. That’s some good writing.

    “He was American. Lonely.” Years ago (early 1970s), on one of my first hitch-hiking road trips east I got a ride in a funky old station wagon with a couple who we’re reading The Pursuit of Loneliness (American culture at it’s breaking point) by Phillip Slater. Yeppers on the lonely, and on the breaking point. In college I studied sociology because of that book.

    And the distant “successful” kids… Echoes of John Prine’s “hello in there”… (Here’s to Chuck & Bonnie, my own elderly cranky falling apart neighbors… need to check in with them).

    And I could taste the peach cobbler. Oh man!

    Nice job, Sean.

    Reply
  21. Debby Haddock - April 25, 2017 10:34 pm

    You touch and break my heart at the same time. Thank your for your stories, as I look forward to each and every one of them. My Southern roots feel every word you write.

    Reply
  22. Patti Shell - April 29, 2017 7:56 pm

    I fear we are losing all of the Vernons and I question who we are raising to fill their shoes! This was a touching essay that hits one right in the heart! Thanks for writing this… I feel the same way as right after I listen to John Prine’s song “Hello in There”!

    Reply
  23. Sharon Stewart - May 31, 2017 5:20 pm

    I so loved this story. It brought tears to my eyes when I got to the part of her singing the song, Tennessee Waltz to him. This song is near & dear to my heart as my father-in-law wrote that song many years ago, along with Pee Wee King. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story.
    Sharon Stewart (Redd’s daughter-in-law)

    Reply
    • Gerald - June 17, 2017 1:15 pm

      How interesting. That song was considered to be the first international hit as I am sure you are aware. People all over the world loved it.

      Reply
  24. Esther Scott - June 3, 2017 11:14 pm

    I truly appreciate reading your stories. I love words… and especially things I can relate to.

    Reply
  25. Rita Loveday - June 17, 2017 1:34 pm

    I have Mr. Hugh, my father in law, here in our home now. Every day he is a little slower, the cancer working on him. Lordly, I am not looking forward to that day when he leaves…..

    Reply
  26. Deanna J - June 17, 2017 1:35 pm

    Vernons are the amazing part of our country that is leaving to soon, the busy kids will regret how busy they were when there kids get to busy!
    Love your post, praise God for the Cheryl’s in this world who aren’t to busy!

    Reply
  27. Ronda - June 17, 2017 2:29 pm

    You make me cry, smile and think of the good things in life. Thank you Sean. I have been trying to share you with tge world.

    Reply
  28. Jay - June 17, 2017 3:51 pm

    Families have changed in America. Kids move away and as old folks leave this earth- one by one-there is no one at home to care for mom or dad. It is a guilt trip for all the family. Then, some children age and leave this earth before the parents. Nothing is easy when families are states apart. So you do the best you can and it’s not what anyone wants to do. Moving an elderly person is difficult and risky. And then there is the dementia progression -Alzheimer’s. I’m there as you can tell and feel sad and guilty everyday.

    Reply
  29. June Roulaine Phillips - June 18, 2017 3:08 am

    I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
    Now I know just how much I have lost
    Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing
    The beautiful Tennessee Waltz…..
    for all the Mr. Vernon’s out there.

    Reply
  30. Linda - June 19, 2017 10:57 pm

    My daddy is 92; born, raised and lived his entire life in Jackson County. He is a WWII veteran and raised 10 children on a truckers salary and farmed, to put enough food on the table through long winter months. I left home at 19 and returned at 56. These days I have with him are more cherished than ever. He still lives alone, takes care of five cows, mows his grass and recently passed his eye exam so he can continue driving. He is what Mr. Vernon and so many like them, should be today. I pray they will find their way to become like these men.
    Your words put to pen Sean, give me hope in today’s world. Thank you; and God Bless You.

    Reply

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