Tag Archives: Chicago winters


Each of us can relate somehow, some way, to a cold winter morning. Well, perhaps most of us. Yet a few of us have such a gift they can relate to others their own experiences with cold and winter mornings (poets and storytellers especially).

I have read of soldiers in Alaska, in Moscow, in the Ardennes, in Afghanistan: cold winter mornings that I have no concept of or experiences with. War is not kind. . . .

My cold life in Chicago had me in -18 degrees one winter night. My cold life in Minnesota had me at -16 degrees one Christmas: “way below zero.” The nose hairs froze. Not fun for sledding or the toboggan. Dressed for school? Watch A Christmas Story: see Ralphie’s brother waddle off to school. (And don’t forget that tongue frozen to the flag pole.)

A CHRISTMAS STORY  huffington post

Cold Walk in A Christmas Story (Huffington Post)

House cats do not have to go out for a walk on cold winter mornings. Most dogs are accustomed to morning walks, cold winter morning or not. I had to walk the dog: “Hurry up! I am freezing out here (in a Chicago alley in the early grey cold winter morning)!”

On some cold winter mornings, Jim Miller, my friend and high school classmate, and I arrived early a few times a week during our senior year at our seminary. We were chosen to sing the liturgical responses for morning Mass, at seven. Cold, stone-walled chapel, cold vocal cords, and a chapel organ that was temperamental when the bellows were cold.


Saint James’s Chapel

On cold winter mornings, along city streets, steam could be seen coming from that small hole in manhole covers–or steamy exhaust from city buses, and from cars.

cold cleveland steam.

Winter’s Steam (www.

So, those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will soon have those cold winter mornings–or already have had a taste of winter. As sure as the sun rises and the sun sets, winter arrives. And cold-weather records will, no doubt, be set in the U.S. and in Europe–again).

One April, with spring approaching, April 4-6, 1968, some teaching colleagues and I were attending a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A guest speaker was a poet named Robert Hayden. He received a gracious introduction and a warm audience-reception. I was there; I knew little of him, about his work.

He read a poem. He began another–but could not continue. He said, “. . . ,” then began to cry. He left the stage.

April 4 Martin Luther King, Jr. is shot dead at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupt in major American cities, lasting for several days afterwards. Minneapolis was not spared.

We were dismissed. Our conference was over, cut short.

(In 1940, Hayden published poems that drew little attention. Yet by 1976 he was well respected enough to be Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the U.S. Poet Laureate. He died in 1980, age 66.)

Although I had little acquaintance with the works of that poet, I would forever always have that memory of him in Minneapolis. So that was that.

Until about ten years ago. In an introduction to literature program. There was a poem of his, about cold Sunday mornings, a poem about a son remembering his father.

My memories of a time–or times–came across to me in such a personal way, as I am certain other readers could recollect similar remembrances. Those memories of a love and actions are not always known nor understood by us when we are young-er. That is all.

“What did I know, what did I know…?” So I took out the dog. So I walked my brother to school. So I got groceries for the invalid woman down the street. So I shoveled the neighbor’s walk. So my dad made oatmeal for us on cold mornings. So my dad walked miles in the deep snow to get a bus or a train to get to work. And me?

“What did I know, what did I know // of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays” [1962]

“Those Winter Sundays” is a not-too-simplistic poem of age-brought discovery of what others do for us. But we don’t appreciate. However, this little “masterpiece” is about doing-in and remembering-about the cold. Those cold winter mornings.

©  James F. O’Neil 2014

* * *

Collected Poems: Robert Hayden. Ed. F. Glaysher. New York: Liveright, 1985; rpt. 1996.

Words in the Mourning Time: Poems by Robert Hayden. London: October House, 1970.

Robert Hayden American Poets Stamp



“So what can you tell us about your first Christmas as a married couple?  What was different or unusual that you can remember?  Any special memories of that day–or that season?”

“Let me try to recall.  Y’know that was fifty Christmases ago…  If I go back…”

christmas with jan and marilynChristmas Photo

“That picture is an early one with my sister and my cousin.  We were always together, like The Three Musketeers.”

“But your first Christmas of marriage.  Do you have a picture of that?”

“How about this one?  I was really cute in this one.”

jimmy's christmas

Jimmy’s Christmas Photo

“No.  That is not what I need for the article.  What else do you have?”

“Those old pictures from 1963 must have been with my Argus C3 and were slides.”

ARGUS C3 Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“That was a wonderful camera.  I think I got it as a Christmas present in 1957 or 1958.  I don’t have those slides anymore.  But I do have some black and white pictures of Garfield Boulevard if you want to see them.  No?  Well, sorry about 1963.  I know I took pictures.”

“Please.  I’d like you to tell me what you remember about 1963.”

“I remember one Christmas when I was in grade school.  It was so warm that we walked to Midnight Mass at Saint Justin Martyr.  I remember wearing a pink shirt and dark tie–or maybe it was the other way around.  Anyhow, no snow and warm.”  [1954: 45 degrees]

“Our Christmas in 1963 was a cold one [26 degrees].  In 1966 we were living in Minnesota.  But Chicago had worse weather–and people remember The Storm of 1967: lots of snow.” 

Chicago Snowstorm 1967 Sun Times

“My new wife and I lived in Arlington Heights in 1963.  We had a three-room apartment: living room, kitchen, and bedroom.  And bath, of course.  A nice new apartment building.  I remember that address: 222 North Salem.  I can remember most of my addresses where I lived.  Most.

“Anyhow, we had a small tree in the corner of the living room.  Our first tree, a “Charlie Brown Tree.”

charlie-brown-christmas-tree-jpg1 Charlie Brown Tree

“Everyone seems to have had a tree like that.  Probably that tree we relate to–and why Charles Schulz was so successful.  We all have those common memories.”

Charles Schulz from Wikipedia

“Anyhow.  My dad always had a surprise for us or for the family.  One year he gave my mom a watch, in a box of Fanny May chocolates. 

Fanny May Chocolates for Gifts

“He always put an envelope on the tree for each of us, with a little money inside.  One year–and it is memorable–I got an Underwood portable typewriter.  That was 1956.  I used it through high school and college.  I still have it; it still works.”

underwood typewriterPhoto of My Underwood Leader

“I can’t remember many presents or gifts under that Charlie Brown tree in 1963.  I do remember a black tie-tack and an umbrella.  And the homemade coffee table made by my new wife’s brother Dave.  Mosaic squares.  Lasted a long time.  A high school shop project, I think.  But the most special present was not to arrive for another eight months: our first son.”

“Well, thank you.  I must go now.  I appreciate your time and your memories.”

“Y’know, since ’63 we’ve had many trees and presents.  Oh, and a cold, nose-numbing, stay-inside-and-keep-warm Christmas: 1973.  In western Minnesota, -16 degrees, without the wind.  That was some Christmas!”

“And that’s about all…for now.”

© James F. O’Neil

 TREE 2013Christmas Tree in 2013

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