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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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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Ask me about my childhood, and I will tell you to walk to the edge of the woods with a choir of crickets chirping from every direction, your feet bare and tough, a hot, humid breeze breathing through your hair. Stand there, still and silent, and watch the dance of ten thousand fireflies blinking on and off in the darkness.  Inhale the scent of cured tobacco, freshly plowed southern soil, burning leaves, and honeysuckle. Swallow the taste of blackberries, picked straight from the bushes, and lick your teeth, the after-taste sweet in your mouth. Now stretch out on the ground and relax all your muscles. Watch nature's festival of flickering lights. Welcome to the summer of my childhood.

When I was a young girl, fireflies were as magical to me as a rare southern snow, newborn puppies, a full moon, and my daddy’s stories. Back then, fireflies came in masses to me and to my brothers and sisters, filling the nearby brush and woods with the golden-green glow of something elusive and mysterious.  

My youngest brother was a child when he told me that a firefly continues to glow for a short time after its death. Perhaps he was teasing me; I don’t know. But he planted in me the image of a fallen firefly, its light burning, life melting and oozing away, a lifetime of days and nights puddling near its wings, its warm glow growing dimmer. 

Fireflies arrive every summer and flock to the bushes in my yard but never in the brilliant masses that filled my youth. Back when my hair was long, my body firm, and my future a glorious blur, it was nothing to see thousands of those flying luminaries, dancing, pulsing, spreading their magic over the southern landscape. I no longer remember the last time I was seduced by a galaxy of fireflies, swarming in bushes and shrubs, shimmering like fallen stars in tall grass.

My brother left this world without warning in 2010. I will always remember what he told me about fallen fireflies, about their glow remaining after death. I whisper his name every time I see a firefly. 

1967 - 2010

Brenda Sutton Rose
Author of Dogwood Blues
Author Website
Follow on Twitter: Sutton_Rose214

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Flycatcher: A Celebration of Words

Rosemary Royston

Last week, my husband and I drove to Atlanta to attend the one-year celebration of Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination.  It takes a lot to get me out of the house these days.  I feel safe in the cocoon of my home office, surrounded by a thousand books and found treasures: rocks, driftwood, marbles, and arrowheads.  So you may wonder why I closed the door behind me and headed to Atlanta, three and a half hours from home.  Well, I’ll tell you: I love Flycatcher and the people responsible for its publication.  These talented editors, writers, and artists come with a heart that pulses with something deep and immeasurable.  I can’t say what it is; I don’t know.  All I can tell you is it sings to me like a violin. I heard the calling in southern Georgia and followed it to Atlanta.

Rev Coffee House is one of the coolest places I’ve seen in some time.  Art hangs in no particular order on the walls, and the scent of coffee greets you at the door. The furnishings are an eclectic mixture of old and new. While eating hummus with vegetables and drinking black coffee on that rainy night, I listened to the voices of other writers swirling around me, warm and vaporous.

I had fallen in love with Janisse Ray’s writings before I finally met and fell in love with her.  Although she couldn’t attend the celebration, Chris Martin, Editor of Flycatcher, read one of her poems, Red Lanterns, featured in the first issue of Flycatcher.  The words of that poem resurface in me again and again, a perennial in the garden of my soul.

It was Flycatcher that introduced me to David King’s works.  He comes to me in a language that never preaches, yet feels soaked in salvation. He wasn’t what I expected: I'd expected a lot from him, but he was even better than that. He made me think of a pentecostal preacher, leading me astray. I’d make that long drive to Atlanta to hear him read again

While searching for the guest speaker, I asked, “Which one is Rosemary Royston?” Karen Pickell said, “The beautiful one standing by my husband.”  I looked at the counter where customers were ordering coffee.  A gorgeous blonde stood between two men. I smiled and said, “And she’s standing beside my husband, too.”  Rosemary is a treasure, the Monet of poetry, her words as rich in color as water lilies. 

I could go on and on. There was so much talent there that night. Beate Sass played to me a song of history through her photography.  I saw eyes, black as coal, weathered hands, a map of a life traced into a face, an old upright piano waiting for magical fingers. And there was Peter Peteet.  He’s multilayered, multitalented and multicolored.  Jennifer Martin, a natural beauty was there.  I’d looked at her digital images, Seams, numerous times, thinking there’s a story hiding in those images, just waiting for me to write. Precious Williams, who spoke to me for the longest time, sharing a bit about her own life, introduced me.  She’s one of the amazing editors at Flycatcher.

I believe in Flycatcher because I believe in its editors.  Kathleen Lewis greeted us all as though we were old friends, coming together after years apart. It was a wonderful night and the taste of it lingered in my mouth long after the evening ended.

If you ever have the chance to attend a Flycatcher reading, I urge you to go.  You’ll find yourself wrapped in words as warm as a blanket on a rainy night. 

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Flycatcher: Where Nothing Dies Long

I took this photo while at Red Earth Farm, home of Janisse Ray and Raven Waters.  It's a beautiful, old crepe myrtle, dressed in  Spanish Moss.

Last night, I sat down to read the first issue of Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination.  With a glass of red wine beside me, I read the issue from beginning to end, something I seldom do.  I’m the person who flips through a magazine, reading articles that catch my attention, later returning to read the leftovers.  Well, there are no leftovers in this amazing issue of Flycatcher.  I savored every word of every essay, every poem—I tasted it all. And I went back for second and third helpings of the visuals.

I urge you to read Chris Martin’s notes, A Monk and a Mountain, before moving to the rest of the magazine.  He prepares a table for a feast of creative writing, using pottery from the past, recipes from our land.  As I write this, I think of Lexical-gustatory Synesthesia, a rare form of synesthesia in which words, both written and spoken, elicit involuntary sensations of taste.  The menu includes 51 dishes.  Prepare to taste.

Some of my favorites: Relics, by David King; Deciduous, by Rosemary Royston; Feathered Moon, by Sheri Wright; Red Lanterns by Janisse Ray; Salve, by Rosemary Rhodes Royston; Seams, by Jennifer Martin; To See It, by Dan Corrie; Wake, by Peter Peteet; Bones, by Donna Steiner; On Rocks, by Rebecca Vidra;  and Christopher Martin’s notes. I have spooned through them again and again—the taste remained long after I read the last word.

I never did drink the glass of wine.

Burial Ground by me.

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