Phantom of the Opera: Through the Eyes of Children

When my two children were young, my husband would often leave for 3-month deployments aboard a nuclear submarine. During his absence, my children and I enjoyed the live theater, symphonies, and ballet. We read poetry, books, and attended museums. We planted flowers and had sleep-overs.
When their father and I separated, my children and I moved here and there, eventually landing near my sister in central Illinois. I went to work at Bradley University to supplement our income. Money was tight, and I no longer could stay home with my children. I had to work. We survived with determination, budgets, and with the generosity of my sister and brother-in-law. Because we loved the arts, I took advantage of the perks of working at Bradley and took my children to free and affordable events on campus. The university’s arts and music departments were top notch.
And then one day I read in the newspaper that The Phantom of the Opera was coming to Peoria, Illinois. There would be no reduced tickets; it wasn’t a Bradley event. And on my budget, I couldn’t afford three tickets. I had an idea though. If I put aside a specific amount of money from my next two paychecks, I’d have enough to purchase two good seats for Phantom. And I wanted excellent seats.
The night of the performance, excitement swelled like musical crescendo in my son and daughter. They showered and dressed in their best clothes while I stood outside, wrapped in a quilt, watching fat snowflakes leak from the sky. The snowfall had just begun. After the cold had chilled me to the bone and the shivering wouldn’t stop, I went inside, turned on a stove-top burner, and put on the tea kettle.
My children were as beautiful to me that night as they would ever be. Their excitement created magic, and that magic swelled around me and wrapped me in its arms. My son and daughter glowed from the inside out. It was a snowy night. The flakes were fat and fell slowly from the sky. I felt like we moving around inside a snow globe that night in early March.
My children rushed downstairs and waited for me to finish my tea. Anticipation filled our house. None of us had seen Phantom. I handed my daughter, the oldest, their tickets and asked them to sit on the sofa for instructions. Don’t talk to strangers. Meet me after the performance at the exact location where I drop you off.  Don’t separate from each other no matter what. If one of you must go to the bathroom, the other will wait outside the door.  
My daughter was about this age.
During the drive to the civic center, I again reminded them of the rules. They laughed at me for worrying. Having been to many performances over the years, they reminded me they knew how to behave. We were all giddy. Their hands floated before them as they talked, as though they were catching melodies in the air. Several years had passed since my husband and I separated. The children were older, but still children. Their voices were poetry to me.
The snow was still coming down when we reached the civic center. I pulled the car close to the building and watched my children grab hands and run straight to the entrance. Before they reached the doors, they turned and waved to me. My daughter, her red hair falling over her face, blew me a kiss. My son waved, his hand high in the air. I laughed out loud, and smiled all the way home.
I went back to get them early and parked as close to the entrance as I could get. When the performance ended, snow flurries were coming down fast all over the city. Trees, shrubs, cars, and homes wore fresh white blankets. Trailing behind a large crowd, my children exited the civic center. They spotted the car. I watched them, magic still wrapped around me. Virgin snow caressed their hair, melted on their flushed faces. They slid into the car squealing, talking at once, sizzling with excitement.
I took the long way home, so I could listen to Alyson and Patrick describe the performance: the music, the soloists, the costumes, the set, the actors, and the chandelier. Their words were damp with the wonder and awe found only in children. And though their hair, faces, and shoulders were dusted in snow, a light burned in their eyes.
To this day, I’ve never seen The Phantom of the Opera except through the eyes of my children. And that’s the best way to see some things–through the eyes of children.

Years have passed. My children are now grown. They travel to faraway places without me and have seen Phantom a few times. They still love the theatre and have been to more Broadway shows than I will ever see.  My birthday present from my children and my husband this year: four tickets with excellent seats to The Phantom of the Opera at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. We’ll be there in a few days. I will see Phantom for the first time, and I’ll see it with my family. My children never forgot the snowy night I stayed home. Their gift to me, along with a note reminding me of that special night so many years ago, made me cry and swell with excitement.

I hate to see the arts cut. Yes, I do.

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A Day With Brody

After Brody jumps in the back seat, over the console and arm rest, and onto the front seat, I settle in behind the wheel of my car, an SUV, new enough that it shouldn’t be used for gallivanting through the countryside, down dirt roads, into the woods with low-hanging limbs and brush growing over dirt paths, but it’s the only vehicle I have on this particular day. It will have to do. I adjust a few nobs on the dashboard and the folksy sound of Lynn Miles fills the air.

Tapping out the rhythm of the music on the steering wheel, I leave Tifton. The South has opened up to Spring, and the feeling of rebirth has settled in my joints, in my heart, soaked through all my senses, and intoxicated me. I sip from the season like it’s a mason jar filled with peach moonshine. Brody sticks his head out the window, and I turn the music up loud. Tongue hanging red and limp from his mouth, his body shaking with excitement as he pants, my dog delights in this ride that takes us into the boonies. He is my buddy.

I park near the Willacoochee River, not far from a country church, behind some of my kin’s land, a place where my family went for picnics and swims in the 1960s, a place where we used to fish, a land and river I instinctively know through faded memories, scents, sounds, and stories told to me by my older brother and sister.

Brody leaps from the car and in an instant goes to chasing smells. I watch him go, then I walk to the water’s edge, crouch down, dip my hand in the dark river broth, whispering to reflections, fishing for memories. If not for the sounds Brody makes, I would be knee-deep in silence. The land and water change with each slant of light. Everything here pulses with beauty. The river and the trees are one. I see life reflected in the water, trees dripping with green, dripping with birds, dripping with my distorted face. April has settled over this place and colored it in a thousand shades of green. It is as though Monet and van Gogh have been painting all winter for this one day. Later, I will go home, pull out my oil paints, and try to capture some of these magnificent greens on my pallet. But Nature is always the best artist. No human can compete.

I come here for the beauty. I come to soak myself in memories before they evaporate, so l can write about the days of my childhood and let my children hold those memories in their hands. I come to calm this knot in my stomach that has entangled me in doubts about Dogwood Blues, my first novel. I come here to be nothing more than a soft shadow among a deep and wide river of solitude. 

Written by Brenda Sutton Rose

Wooden bridge

Brody waits in the car for me to open the door and let him out.
in May 2015

DOGWOOD BLUES on Barnes & Noble

Brenda Sutton Rose
Nominated for a Georgia Author of the Year for First Novel
Nominated for a Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction

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Scars of a Poetry Journal

Polly dropped by yesterday with a gift in her hands. The present was wrapped in what appeared to be old recycled paper, crinkled and tied with twine.

Polly told me, “I waited until you’d finished your novel to give this to you.”

We were sitting on the sofa in my office, sisters in heart and spirit. As I opened the package, I inhaled the rich scent of leather. Inside, I discovered a red leather book. I asked, “What is this?”
And Polly explained she had given me a poetry journal. She went on to point out a flaw in the leather. “Natural scars are used in every design.”

For more than a year I had been too busy to write poetry. My days and nights had been spent writing Dogwood Blues, a novel.

I love found items and objects with scars and blemishes, rust from the past. The paper of my journal is aged parchment and the journal itself is made of bull or cowhide, rough with texture—the feel of calluses against the pads of my fingers. The buttons are huge and turquoise. When I flipped through the pages, I found a leather bookmark. Every single thing about the gift, from the package to the bookmark, felt sacred to me.

And now, it is time to write a blemished poem. Words will slip from my tongue like old scars. At times, when the need to write hits me, I do feel as though my mouth is stuffed with blemished words, words that need life.

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Jolene's Baptism

 (This is one in a series of Jolene and Granny Barnes stories, best described as dark southern humor. It's what I write when I need a glass of wine.)

Jolene, an orphan from birth, never learned to swim because of her fear of alligators.  When she was a child, she’d often wake in the middle of the night, screaming with visions of alligators circling her, inching closer and closer to her sinking raft. Granny Barnes would pad across the hall to her room and climb in the bed with her only granddaughter. She’d whisper through her gums, “Baby, you are a blessed child. A very blessed child.”

Jolene didn’t feel blessed; she felt cursed by an intense fear of the horrid, hungry monsters living in southern ponds. Granny Barnes would hold her close and say, “Jolene, you’re as blessed as the itty bitty baby Jesus, and that’s a whole lotta blessin’."

By the time Jolene reached her teen years, she’d heard the story of her baptism hundreds of times, and the facts of that holy day fed her fears, resulting in ongoing nightmares. 

One night, Jolene came home late, well past midnight, with liquor on her breath, the scent of sex on her body, and one more skeleton to add to her cluttered closet.  Granny Barnes followed her to the bedroom and said, “You know, you could have drowned, but the good Lord saw fit to save you.  And here you are sinnin' like a Jezebel. He might as well just throw you back in the pond with them gators.”

Jolene said, “Granny. I’m tired. I just want to go to bed. All I’m doing is sowing some wild oats while I’m still young enough to do it. Please don’t tell me that story again. You know I have nightmares.”

“The preacher held you in his arms in the pond. Just the month before he'd asked forgiveness for lusting after the young widow Lawson. We was all just praising Jesus and pullin' down the holy spirit and a-baskin' in the love of God on that beautiful summer day. I declare there musta' been a hundred of us there to watch the baptism. Your Uncle C.J. had gone out early that morning to shoot any gators that might be in the waters nearby. We was all so worried about the gators that we failed to even consider the depth and drop-offs in that dark pond. You was just a squalling and your little face was red as a ripe Big Boy tomato.  You looked like you was going to explode right there in the arms of the pastor. Just split right open.”

Granny Barnes, who had already removed her teeth for the night, pushed her head out like a turtle stretched from his shell. She smacked her gums together two or three times, then snapped, “The preacher was baptizing three people that day, but he saved you for last since you was just a baby and hadn't done all the sinnin' that the other two drunks had done in their lives. Them two heathens got their souls washed mighty clean that day. Mighty clean. They had themselves a good baptizing, and then it was your turn.” 

Lips-a-smacking, she followed Jolene around the bed to her dressing table. “When the time came for you to be washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I handed you to the preacher, and he took you in his arms like you was the one and only Baby Jesus. You was kicking and screaming like the devil was a-chasing you, and you just a tiny thang. I reckon your Uncle C.J.'s shooting spree got you worked into a tizzy. And then, it happened.  It happened with no warning, but I can see it like it was just yesterday.” 

Jolene sighed and said, “Granny, please. I know the story.”

“Child, you was so hard to handle that the preacher nearly lost his grip on you and had to take a few steps backwards to steady himself, and when he did, he disappeared. Sank. He went under like Satan himself had done sucked him straight down to Hell with a nonstop ticket, all on account of his extramarital affair. The widow Lawson screamed so loud and long that confusion hit me on the head for a minute and left me stunned. Then I realized you was in the preacher's arms, heading straight to hell too. 

Your Uncle C.J. dropped his rifle and dove in the dark water after our little screaming tomato. All of us forgot about the preacher. All of us except for the widow Lawson, that is. My little orphan Jolene, stolen by Satan before she'd even been baptized, was sinking all the way down to hell in the arms of the womanizing preacher. 

When your uncle came up with you clutched in the crook of his elbow, we started rejoicing and speaking in tongues and shouting and praising the Lord.  We was huggin' and kissin'. I even kissed old man Jones. Mrs. Jacobs broke out singing When the Saints go Marching In, and pretty soon we was all joinin' in. Somebody was pulling the widow Lawson from the pond cause she'd fainted and was out cold. In all the chaos, we plum forgot the preacher was buried in the pond water, lost on Baptism Sunday, bless his heart.”

Jolene, who was taking off her mascara and looked like she’d been splattered around the eyes with motor oil, shuddered, and said, “Granny, every time I do something you don’t approve of you tell me about how I drowned the preacher. So what’s the point of the story this time?”

Her granny smacked her gums and said, “Well, I’m just sayin' that we could've left you in the pond like we did the preacher, but we didn’t.”

Jolene said, “Granny, stop it. Just stop it.”

Her grandmother leaned close and said, “Well, you know the gators probably ate him.” She walked to the bedroom door, turned back to her granddaughter, and whispered, "Sweet dreams, baby.” 

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The Youngs: Eating From the Same Table

Young family eating at the table in 1909.

Descendants of Catherine Young meet for the first time at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture. Approximately 100 descendants and 100 visitors were there for the reunion. It was a packed house.

When Catherine Young’s eleventh child, Jesse, was six months old, her husband, Andrew Jesse Young, died of tuberculosis. The year was either late 1907 or early1908.

I assume that Catherine wanted nothing more than to provide for her children. She held on to those starving aspirations until April 1909, three months after a social reformer named Lewis Hine snapped a photo of her with her sons and daughters.

She held onto those dreams until she made a decision that probably haunted her until the final days of her life. Catherine Young delivered the seven youngest of her children to the South Georgia Methodist Orphan Home in Macon, Georgia, 100 miles from Tifton, 100 miles from Tift Cotton Mill, 100 miles from the duplex at the mill village she called home.

Imagine what the scene might be the night before Catherine Young gave her children away. She and several children walk home from the mill, tired, dirty, and hungry after working all day. Seaborn, Elizabeth, and Jesse rush to her as she approaches. They hang onto her skirt. She reaches down and picks up Baby Jesse and takes Elizabeth by the hand. With Seaborn behind her, she lumbers up the steps and into the mill house. Outside, smoke from the towering smokestack rises and spreads ghostly over the village.

Catherine Young and nine of her eleven children. Three months after this photo was taken at Tift Cotton Mill village, she gave the seven youngest children up for adoption. Several of the children had been working in the mill to help support the family. The photo was taken by Lewis Hine. Joe Manning spent years searching for the identities of the children in the photo. The descendants gathered Saturday at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton, Georgia. Joe and Carol Manning were there for the reunion. The children from left are: Mell, Matty, Mary, Alex, Eddie Lou, Elzy, Seaborn, Elizabeth, Jesse. All but Mell and Matty, the oldest children in this photo, were taken to the orphanage.

Has she, in preparation for the event, put aside enough money to afford to prepare a delicious last supper? Turnips and collards would still be available in southern Georgia in April. Perhaps she has some sweet potatoes and has been able to purchase a chicken to fry. 

Or maybe she has nothing and can't feed her children a decent meal the last night they spend together. Love doesn’t cost money, and I believe Catherine Young’s heart is filled with love, yet tortured on this night. I believe she is starved of hope, afraid and anguished, after a cold winter with not enough food, not enough heat, and not enough money to purchase clothes for the growing children.

In Tifton and throughout southern Georgia, dogwoods bloom, shimmering gracefully on layered branches. Pecan and oak trees put out new leaves, and birds build nests on branches, and in bushes and shrubs. Spring, the season of new life, new growth, has tiptoed into the mill village. It is ten days after Easter and in the morning Catherine Young will leave her children behind at the orphanage. I like to believe she hopes to give them new life. After all, it is the season of resurrection.

Perhaps she sings to the smallest ones and holds them overflowing from her arms when darkness wraps around their duplex on April 21, 1909. Does she dare sleep at all and close her eyes to her babies? I suspect she holds them as long as she can, and, as they sleep, she inhales, one last time, the scent of their hair. She kisses their cheeks and listens to them breathe. Perhaps delivering her children to the orphanage is the highest act of love Catherine will ever perform. Perhaps.

Eddie Lou Young is on the right. She is Dr. Earl Parker's mother. He never knew until Joe Manning contacted him that his mother ever worked at Tift Cotton Mill as a child.

We will never know for certain the events of that night or the following days. We will never know Catherine's heart, the extent of her pain and how scarred the erosion of poverty and her final sacrifice would leave her. I wonder if she boarded a train to Macon early the next morning with her children. Or did an agent from the county escort them to the orphanage? She certainly would not have been able to afford the train fare for seven children and herself. Help had to have come from somewhere. Catherine's story and the stories of her children are scattered throughout with the word perhaps.

Descendants of Catherine and Jesse Young came together Saturday at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture, many meeting for the first time, 105 years after their family was torn apart. One handsome young man said in awe, to nobody in particular, “We are eating from the same table,” as he chose a few treats from a spread of desserts. He said it as a person who had never met the family members crowding around him and certainly had never shared a table of food with them.

We are eating from the same table.”

Because of the perseverance of Historian Joe Manning, who was determined to discover the identity of the children in a Hine photo taken in January 1909, approximately 100 Young family members joined for the first time Saturday to laugh, share family stories, and examine each other for familiar traits and expressions. They ate from the same table for the first time since April of 1909 when Catherine and her children shared their last meal together as a family. 

Mr. Manning and many of Catherine's descendants were brought to tears again and again at the reunion. I witnessed a happy and forgiving family, a beautiful family, a family overflowing with love and reaching out with open arms.
Mr. Manning meets Dr. Parker, son of Eddie Lou, the dark haired beauty in the photo of the two girls at the cotton mill.

Joe and Carol Manning in front of the smokestack at the abandoned mill.

So how do we thank Joe Manning who spent years digging through the Young soil, searching through a family’s roots, when "thank you" amounts to merely 8 letters of the alphabet, 2 syllables, 2 spoken words? He would tell us the reunion isn’t about him at all and he wants no thanks. He would tell us it is all about the children standing in bare feet beside their mother in January of 1909 at Tift Cotton Mill village. He would tell us it is about family.

“We are eating from the same table.”

When it became evident there would be standing room only, the partitions were opened and another 100 chairs added to the 100 that had already been reserved for the event.

Published 3/16/14
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He’s a big guy who sports a smile true to his heart and shakes with belly laughter that erupts with little urging.  In Brackish, a recently released book of poetry, that big man I call friend takes us to the gulf marsh where he digs, revealing entire stanzas buried alive, pulsing under mud and peat, thick and heavy with the past, and spreads the words before us like the day’s catch of fish, not yet cleaned, hearts still beating. It is a  feast for the heart. Revealing not one thing, but everything, his words drip of brackish water as he writes to and about the gulf ghosts that breathe down his back.  Freshwater of the future meets saltwater of the past. He reeks of home and fish; stagnant pools and marsh; a mill town coughing up sulfur; a father's cigarettes.  Jeff Newberry has something to say that is worth saying, and he refuses to wash the marsh mud from his poetry, dress it up, and spray it with fine cologne.  It’s a saltwater mouth in Brackish. Good Lord, I smell it. 


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