My dear Aunt Joanie (Joanna O’Sullivan) just texted me this beautiful photo of my Uncle Bill’s windshield on a cold morning out in Oregon where they live.
It instantly transported me to a very different place and time…
It’s about 8:00 am on a weekday. I’m a grade-schooler, and I just finished serving as an altar boy for morning Mass at our parish of St. Michael. It’s the depths of winter in Ironwood, Michigan, a little town eighteen miles south of Lake Superior and about 400 miles nearly due north of Chicago. I’m standing in the church’s vestibule, waiting for my mom to come pick me up and take me to school. She’ll pull up any minute now in our station wagon right outside the church’s two glass doors, so I‘m standing right inside them looking out for her. The temperature is far below freezing outside, so being able to wait indoors is a true blessing. But it’s pretty frigid there in the vestibule too. The metal-framed doors with their big glass plates top and bottom let an awful lot of cold in.
But the magical designs on the windows make it all worthwhile.
The extreme cold outside makes the moisture from the more humid air inside freeze right to the glass, creating hoarfrost, whose name phonetically seems awfully out of place in this house of worship. But the patterns it creates are heavenly: tiny clusters of ferns and pine trees and feathers and, of course, snowflakes, all painted onto the glass in a silver-white dreamscape, intermingling as the crystals grow outward from the doorframe onto the surface of the glass. When it was extremely cold, the frost would cover the whole window, and I’d have to melt a spy-hole with my fingertip to be able to see when Mom pulled up.
If she ran late, I’d spend the time playing with the patterns, melting some away with my hands or scraping them off with my fingernails, and adding more by breathing on the glass.
I’d peer through the crystals and see what they did to the light outside, turning dull streetlights into multi-pointed stars and making everyday objects into artworks all their own.
Eventually, Mom would arrive, and I’d run outside, hop into the car, and be off to school, the icy pictures forgotten.
Eventually, spring would come, and the doors would be clear again for months.
But every winter for years on end, whenever I was chosen to serve the dreaded 7:00 morning Masses for a week, I’d be reintroduced to the magic of the window frost for another few mornings.
Time marches on. I grew up and moved away. My brothers and sisters did too, so my parents got rid of the station wagon and drove a sedan. St. Michael’s closed and was torn down, and the metal-framed glass doors, along with everything else, are just a distant memory now. My Mom’s funeral was held over six years ago at a different church a mile or two away from where St. Michael’s once stood. It was in the winter, but that church’s doors are wooden.
Windows are made much better now, with double panes that insulate so well the frost never forms on them. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the last time I saw hoarfrost decorating glass… until my aunt texted me a picture out of the blue.
It’s a little miracle that my mom’s sister sent me a photo just because she thought it was pretty, and it sent me back decades, making me a little boy again, standing at the front doors of St. Michael’s, waiting for Mom and marveling at God’s magic displayed in simple ice crystals.
Editor’s Note: Image courtesy of Joanna and Bill O’Sullivan
I love your descriptions of childhood memories, Jim. While I have never been an altar boy, the wonder of hoarfrost on windows was very relatable.
Thank you, Charlotte!
Jim, beautifully written!!!
I appreciate that, Larry!
What a beautiful story and memory.