Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Winnipeg, koldres and really, really cold weather

I've just come back from a few days in Winnipeg where I visited my 93 year old mother. She still lives in the house I grew up in where she has lived for over 50 years. She says there are memories in every corner.

This picture is of my maternal grandparents. The picture was in a frame that was broken so I brought it home to restore, digitize and then put into a nice frame to send back to my Mom. I'm not the greatest please excuse the flash over my grandfather.

It was very, very cold in Winnipeg and I slept in the 'attic.' This house is a storey and a half. The second floor has slanted ceilings and my sister and I had our bedrooms up there. When this half storey was built I am sure they never heard of insulation!! In the summer it is sweltering and in the winter it is frigid. This time it was frigid.

But I slept under the koldre.

One of my cousins, Judy Gerstel, is a columnist for the Toronto Star. Her mother died a few years ago and this is part of the column she wrote about that trip to Winnipeg

"When I went to Winnipeg for my mother's funeral not long ago, I stayed with my aunt. She's the widow of my mother's youngest brother and the only one of that generation in the family still alive.

My aunt lives in a little house near where I grew up. She moved in when it was new in 1951. She still has some things that I remember from childhood: a china tea pot shaped like a fat lady, rounded bedroom furniture, photos on the wall of old people in the old country and of babies who will soon be grandparents.

Among the things that have not changed is the lack of heat in the upstairs bedrooms.
The upstairs is really a large attic. It was left unfinished but later made into bedrooms for my cousins when my aunt's parents came to live with them.

The renovation was not done right, my aunt says. The heat never came through. The insulation, if any, is ineffective. When my cousins woke up in winter they "flew down" to thaw in the kitchen.

But I was there for my mother's funeral, not for luxury. Besides, my aunt's company was better than all the amenities at a Four Seasons. (Her upstairs is a Two Seasons: torrid or frigid.)

Still, she worried about my being uncomfortable (read: flash frozen and frostbitten). And so she hauled out the armamentaria. First, a hot water bottle filled from the electric kettle. Then flannel sheets. Next, the four-point Hudson's Bay blanket.

The coup de grace was the koldre.
What, you may ask, is a koldre? Well, I don't know exactly. But it's a word my aunt uses that was used by her mother and her grandmother.

There are a couple of theories. First, that it is the Ukrainian word for "cover." And secondly, that is a Yiddish word for "blanket." To my e-mail query, Philip "Fishl" Kutner who maintains a Yiddish website ( replied, "As a kid, we used the term for a feather down quilt."

All these explanations are plausible since the origin of my aunt's koldre (indeed of my aunt) was a village in what was then Roumania on the banks of the Dnister river across from Odessa.

But my aunt's koldre is not just a cover or a blanket or even a quilt. My aunt's koldre is sui generis, a creature unto itself.

First of all, it weighs a ton - all feathers.
Whoever coined the phrase "light as a feather" never slept under my aunt's koldre. It is heavy as lead. It forbids movement. You may sleep on your side under down duvets, you may twist and turn under fleece, but under my aunt's koldre you sleep paralysed on your back, pinned to the mattress.

The koldre also traps body heat so that the temperature of the space around the body is much higher than the climate encountered by any body part foolish enough to stray a few centimetres. To move a foot slightly to the left is to go from Miami Beach to Iqualit. And so, not only the possibility of movement is obliterated but even the desire for it.

All this - heat, pressure, density - concerns the body. More important is what my aunt's koldre does for the soul.
The koldre began, as these things do, with poultry. In 1910, when my aunt's parents were to be married, her relatives went to the butcher and plucked feathers ("flicked chickens") which they were entitled to keep. These feathers filled bed pillows for the bride and groom.

When the couple came to Manitoba, they brought the pillows. After all, what else did they have to bring? asks my aunt.
When their daughter married in 1940, the pillows were dismantled. The feathers were used to stuff a koldre for the newlyweds.

Though my aunt took the koldre to be cleaned and refurbished from time to time, she stored it away after awhile. It was old-fashioned.

But when my cousins returned as adults to visit from Regina and Montreal and to stay in their old cold bedrooms, the koldre was hauled out. Sleeping under it was a compensation, and then a reason, for returning to Winnipeg in winter.

Now my aunt wonders how the koldre will be divided after she is gone - whether it will travel between Regina and Montreal.

In the meantime, the koldre was a gift to me for a few nights. It enveloped me and kept me warm. It felt like family and home. And it imposed surrender - to stillness, to peace, to sleep. "

For a few nights I slept under the koldre.

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