The Stained Glass Windmill

by Sara Pirkle Hughes


On the first day, the professor announced that the Arts and Crafts class I thought I’d signed up for was “The Art of Learning a Craft,” and the craft we would learn that semester was metalsmithing. Instead of spending the next fifteen weeks pinching miniature pots out of clay and glazing them with smiling sunshines, I would be wielding a blowtorch and melting down flatware, mismatched earrings, and the occasional unidentified lump of silver some lackadaisical student from the semester before had left behind. Our first assignment was to make a tool that we would use for the rest of the semester. Because I needed the art credit, and because it would be impossible to get into another studio art class, I settled onto a stool at a paint-splattered table and began trying to fashion some combination of a screwdriver and a spoon. When the professor asked how I intended to use my tool in future projects, I half-heartedly mimicked using it as a chisel on a hard block of wax. The way he cocked his head and pursed his lips showed his disappointment that I would be taking up space in his classroom until Christmas break. He was probably comparing me to my identical twin, the brilliant art major, and had a hard time believing I could be so clueless.

At the end of the first three-hour class, Professor Jameson asked for a volunteer to demonstrate proper blow torch technique. Trying to make up for my embarrassing tool attempt, I raised my hand. Jameson looked around the room for any other volunteer, but nobody else had a hand raised. He nodded at me, and I walked to the front of the classroom, determined to prove I could handle this class. He draped a heavy rubber apron around my neck and handed me a pair of safety goggles. Then he eyed my flip-flops.

“Normally, you should wear closed-toed shoes when you use a blow torch,” he said, motioning to his steel-toed work boots. “Long sleeves are also a good idea.”

I shrugged in my tank top. “Maybe I’m not dressed right to be your volunteer today.”

As a response, he put the blow torch in my hand and showed me how to ignite it. I aimed the flame at some chunks of bronze that he’d set aside, and once they were liquid, he poured them into a plaster cast. Then, using long metal tongs, he dipped the plaster cast into water, and the plaster dispersed, revealing a bronze dolphin the size of a thumb.

Throughout the semester, Professor Jameson tolerated my sophomoric attempts at creation.  I made a clunky silver ring for my boyfriend that was way too heavy to ever wear. I redesigned my screwdriver spoon. I tried to make a bronze dolphin figurine for my roommate who loved dolphins (but it wasn’t nearly as nice as the one Jameson made the first day), and around Thanksgiving, I threw it away. The only reason I wasn’t failing the class was because of the writing component. Each student had to write five summaries of news articles about art, and I made sure my reports were interesting, charming, and free of grammar errors. The A’s I earned for those papers balanced the C’s and D’s I made on my metalsmithing assignments.

The final project was a 10-by-12-inch stained glass window. Professor Jameson showed us how to scratch a line into colored glass with a blade, then tap the line with a small round hammer until the glass split along the line. He instructed us to design our windows on tracing paper first, then we could pick our pieces of glass. When I peered into the drawer of colored glass, I began envisioning a sunset, but I knew I needed something else in the design. A windmill seemed easy enough because it would be mostly straight lines, so I got a ruler and paper and began drawing. Over the next several classes, I chiseled two-inch shards of glass into shapes for my window, scraping the knife across the surfaces and tapping the lines until the glass split. I ignored the art majors who had finished their windows in two class periods and were now making delicate stained glass ornaments shaped like turtle doves and trumpets.

The scratch of the blade against each piece of glass was like a nail on a chalkboard, but I stuck with it, desperate to prove I could make something beautiful from the red, yellow, peach, and purple glass. Once all the pieces were cut, I had to trim metal edging to fit between them. The last step was to melt silver into the joints between the metal edges so that the window would stay together. There were two soldering irons for everyone to share, so I had to be sure my window was designed flawlessly (or as flawless as I could get it) when my turn came to meld the window. As I worked, I imagined gifting this windmill to my mother for Christmas. She wouldn’t know how many hours I’d spent on it, and she might even feel embarrassed for me at my crude attempt, but after years of seeing my twin sister excel at art, I wanted my mom to have something I made.

By the last class, Professor Jameson was as ready for Christmas break as the rest of us, but he told me as he handed back my stained glass window that it was the best thing I’d made all semester. I earned a B+ on it. Sure, it was uneven and the silver joints could have been smoother, but I was prouder of that glass windmill than any poem I’d ever written.

On Christmas morning, my mother reacted the way most mothers react when their children give them something “homemade” – she oohed and aahed over how lovely it was, and she hung the windmill in her kitchen window so that she would see it every morning while fixing breakfast. It hung there for years over her mother’s violet in a ceramic snail pot. Whenever I visited my parents, I would look at that windmill as I stirred pitchers of sweet tea with a long wooden spoon or helped prepare Thanksgiving dinner.

Ten years later, I was sitting in my living room with my husband on a stormy evening when I got a text from Jenny, my younger sister, who still lived with our parents: You will never believe what just happened. Even though they lived 100 miles away, the same terrible thunderstorm raged in their part of Georgia that night. The wind cried louder than my dogs. I thought we were going to have to sleep in the downstairs bathroom beneath the stairs. Jenny was known for being dramatic, but her words made me anxious. Had someone died? I held my phone, waiting for what was sure to be a follow-up text. Then a picture came through: a tree as thick as a water heater had crashed through the kitchen window at their house. Plates, broken cups, the refrigerator magnets, all puddled on the floor beneath the tree as rain poured through the gash in the roof. Salt and pepper shakers swirled with mud and leaves on the linoleum.

I called my mom’s phone, but there was no answer. Is everyone okay? I texted Jenny.  We’re fine. Nobody’s hurt. But the kitchen is ruined.

I was relieved my parents and Jenny weren’t in the room when lightning struck the white oak that fell through the kitchen. If they’d been standing there, they’d be dead. But the next image that flashed through my mind was the stained glass windmill smashed and scattered in the debris. I had hoped, despite its flaws and its opaque, amateur existence, that it would last until my children would one day see it. I wanted the children I didn’t have yet to know that I had tried once to create something beautiful out of glass and I had almost succeeded. I wanted them to know that my mother had loved it, not because it was perfect, but because my hands had cut each trapezoid of glass and joined the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle.

I wanted the evidence of my love and my mother’s love to hang in the kitchen window forever. I needed something concrete to point to and say, See? There’s the proof. That was before I understood how nature takes what it wants, before I truly knew what could be lost. Back then, I could never imagine the big griefs to come, how cancer would demand what I had no choice but to give. Before suffering slammed its heavy body into mine, shattering me into pieces. Before my mother arrived at my door, picked the shards from the floor, and began soldering me back together.


[Check out Sara’s back porch wisdom here]