One of the great benefits of poor insulation is a build-up of ‘Jack Frost’ on windowpanes. In my youth, swirling glacial patterns would appear annually on the bedroom windows of my parents’ suburban home, my permanent address until I married.
I tend to read animals and faces into wallpaper images, terrazzo flooring, tile arrangements, and wood panels. I have not seen Jesus, Moses, or any other figure related to faith, however, but an arrangement of blobs, dots, and squiggles on flooring has gelled occasionally into a man’s head, a cat, or even a dragon. As a child and confined to quarantine and my bed because of the measles, I stared for hours at my floral wallpaper and conjured up devils and demons—well, just their faces. I must have been quite feverish.
Window frost, also known as fern frost or ice flowers, is magical, especially for its evanescence. I know that what I imagine I see in its swirls will disappear as the temperature changes or heat through the glass melts it. For the time being, I might see flowers, stars, a twirling skirt, imps and faeries, fruit slices, or feathers. Every image underscores the transitory, impermanent nature of life and its gifts, a rather Zen Buddhist revelation.
Although we now have lived for more than forty years in an industrial loft, many windows of which are original to the 1880’s building, frost never accumulates on them. The windows are large, installed to maximize the amount of natural light available to printers who worked in our space in the last two centuries. I would have expected to see frost on the broad panes but continue to feel disappointed every winter when no fern frost forms. Perhaps I should be grateful. We have more than sufficient heat from our ancient radiators to toast us all winter long.
Nevertheless, I yearn for that bit of magical thinking in which I indulge whenever I do see frost on the panes. If snow accumulates this winter, I might have an opportunity to fancy faces again. In early 2021, after a snowstorm turned Chicago’s Grant Park into a land of frosty white forests and meadows, I saw animal shapes in branches bent under the weight of heavy snow, sleeping giants and dragons under drifts, tree trunks with white beards and open mouths, the scars of trimmed branches. As long as I have fuel for my fantasies, be it frost, snow, terrazzo, or wallpaper, every image I conjure up might someday be a character in my stories or an image in my sketchbook. That has happened before and I hope it will continue for many years to come.