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Frost on the windows

There’s one thing about winters from the past that I realize I’ve missed for a good many years. That’s those ferny, ostrich-feather plumes of frost on the windows. It seems that, when I was a child, the kitchen windows in our house were etched with frost nearly all winter. Frost on the inside of the windows where we could scratch it off with our fingernails to peer out, watching for Dad to get home for supper. It would be dark by then, of course, and Mother would have turned on the light outside the kitchen door; a sort of welcoming beacon for Dad as well as making it possible for us to see something through the windows besides just plain darkness.
There were coalmines near Knoxville, and nearly everybody heated their houses with coal furnaces. I remember waking in the darkness of early winter mornings to the sound of Dad shaking down the cinders from the furnace in the basement in preparation for getting the house warmed up so it would be cozy by the time we had to get up and get ready for school. Even then, we would put on our chenille bathrobes and fuzzy slippers and scurry downstairs to get dressed in the comparatively warmer playroom off the kitchen.
Mother would have something hot for breakfast nearly every morning during winter. Usually it would be a cooked cereal; probably oatmeal or Cocoa-Wheats, a chocolate flavored version of Cream of Wheat. Sometimes there would be pancakes or French toast with bacon and syrup, or soft-boiled eggs and toast. After breakfast, we’d get dressed and submit to the ritual of hair-combing. Mostly, it was only I who had to endure this morning beauty-shop ordeal because I was the only one of us girls who was doomed to those long stove-pipe curls that had to be brushed around Mother’s finger and adorned with ribbons. My older sister had a smooth cap of short hair that she could manage herself, and my younger sister wore braids which, somehow, she managed to preserve in acceptable enough condition that they needn’t be redone every day. Because of our winter flannel pajamas and the plaid flannel sheets Mother used on our beds in wintertime, my hair was always snarled with little knots of fuzz from the flannel and it took some time for Mother to brush and pick at the fuzz and arrange my curls to her satisfaction. Sometimes, when the curls began to droop after the Saturday shampoo and curling, she had to get out the curling irons, which were not electric as they are today, but had to be heated on the kitchen stove—often over-heated so that my hair emitted a slightly scorched aroma for most of the day.
Before nearly every home was equipped with automatic washers and clothes dryers, my mother did some laundry nearly every day during winter. There was a semi-heated enclosed porch off the kitchen where the old wringer washer was kept, along with tubs for rinse water, and in summer, it was handy for carrying the laundry outdoors to the backyard clothesline. But in winter, Mother dried the clothes in the house on rope lines strung around the kitchen, playroom, and living room. So, nearly every day when we came home from school, the house would smell damp and soapy, with a hint of bleach as the laundry dried, keeping the air damp and painting the windows with those enchanted gardens of ferns and ostrich plumes.
For many years, my dad was the Chevy dealer in Knoxville and employed, aside from two other mechanics besides himself, a salesman, a parts manager, and a bookkeeper. He opened the garage at 8 a.m. six days a week, took an hour off at noon to come home for dinner, and quit work at 5:30 p.m. when the town whistle blew, announcing that the business day had come to an end. If Mother needed something from the grocery store, he picked it up on his way home and might be a few minutes late, but it usually took less than 10 minutes for him to get home for supper. There was a big over-stuffed armchair next to a window in one corner of the kitchen where Dad could relax in his greasy work clothes while Mother got supper on the table, and my sisters and I would often pile together in the chair to scratch peepholes in the frost so we could watch for Dad’s pickup to turn into our driveway. The chair had been upholstered in Naugahyde (a precursor of today’s vinyl upholstery) so that it could be wiped clean but still smelled of the dirt and motor oil that Dad brought home on his work clothes. The smells of laundry and motor oil are still part of my life today, but I haven’t seen a feathery frost garden for years.