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Publication: Globe and Mail, The add link
Issue: 2 January 2007
Web Link: link


Headstrong woman loved the outdoors and helped inspire her daughter and namesake, Canada's celebrated author and poet


January 2, 2007

A dietitian by training, strong-willed and independent by upbringing, the original Margaret Atwood raised her children on a diet of thrift, reading aloud and the freedom to explore their natural and intellectual surroundings. By the time she was a grandmother, economy was ingrained as a habit rather than a necessity, but the years had not blunted her sense of adventure.

"Quite some time after the event, I told both my parents that I had tried LSD," her younger daughter, Ruth Siferd, said recently. "Daddy pursed up his mouth and looked disapproving. Mum leaned forward and said, 'What was it like?' "

Staying with her grandmother when her parents (writers Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson) were away was "fantastic," recalled Jess Atwood Gibson, 30, now a graduate student in art history at Yale University. "My grandmother would allow me to feed her Venus flytrap endless small pieces of ground meat on toothpicks, and she would show me how to tickle its fronds, pretending to be a fly, and give me an account of its digestion."

Every morning before school, Mrs. Atwood would sit young Jess on a stool and wind her hair into long, fat curls around her finger with a white comb dipped in a glass of water. "For a seven-year-old, the best grandmother possible was one who could both explain plant digestion and curl hair into ringlets."

The Globe and Mail

Although Margaret Atwood has always resisted interpreting her own fiction for readers, she told literary biographer Rosemary Sullivan (The Red Shoes) that her muse was the mother figure. Mothers run the gamut in Ms. Atwood's work from holy terrors to benevolent nurturers, but the story that is probably most autobiographical is "Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother" from Bluebeard's Egg.

"I used to think that my mother, in her earlier days, led a life of sustained hilarity and hair-raising adventure," Ms. Atwood wrote. "Horses ran away with her, men offered to, she was continually falling out of trees. . . ." It is only later that Ms. Atwood realizes that "the stories were just the punctuation" in a life that had "long stretches of uneventful time."

Margaret Dorothy Killam Atwood was born in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. The eldest of five children of Harold Killam, a country doctor, and his wife Ora Louise Webster, she was socially shy but physically daring. A tomboy, she delighted in walking the barn ridgepole and riding her two cherished horses, Dick and Nell.

She was 17 and sliding down a banister at Normal School in Truro when Carl Atwood, a hard-working self-made man who had grown up in the backwoods of South Shore, N.S., spotted her and immediately fell in love -- or so he said.

As wily as she was headstrong, she got the better of her father after he refused to let her bob her hair in the 1920s. She waited until he had a dentist appointment and made her plea while the drill was whirling. He retorted that she could do anything she wanted as long as she left him alone, and so she went straight to the barber and had her waist-length tresses chopped.

Perhaps that's why her father declined to send her to university on the grounds that she was "frivolous." Instead she taught school, saved money and won a scholarship to Mount Allison University. She graduated in domestic science and became a dietitian and nutritionist.

After a long courtship with Carl Atwood -- money was scarce and she was having "too much fun," as she later told her children -- she finally married her beau in 1935. Besides having a PhD, he was an expert woodsman and the only one of her suitors that her father didn't dismiss as a "jackass." They spent their honeymoon canoeing down the St. John River in New Brunswick.

Then they headed for northern Quebec, where Prof. Atwood, an entomologist, had a small forest insect research station. Living first in a tent then a cabin, Mrs. Atwood raised her first two children, Harold and Margaret (Peggy), without the benefit of running water or electricity -- during prime insect season -- from spring until fall. Prof. Atwood pawned his fountain pen to pay the hospital bill when Peggy was born in November, 1939.

The family spent winters in Ottawa, but Mrs. Atwood much preferred the bush, where she could swim in the cold northern lakes -- "refreshing, refreshing," she invariably trilled as she strode purposefully into the frigid water. She also loved to grow vegetables, pick blueberries, fish, shoot grouse, sweep the dirt out the door in the morning and be done with housekeeping for the day. "My mother baked her way through the war years," Ms. Atwood remembered, "with no-butter, low-sugar recipes, and when we ran out of protein she'd open a can of Spam, mix up some Klim milk powder, or go down to the end of the dock and throw in a line for pickerel."

In 1945 the Atwoods moved to Sault Ste. Marie, where Prof. Atwood set up another insect lab. With this change of venue, the family spent the warmer months of the year at a cabin on the shore of Lake Superior.

Mrs. Atwood put her children to work picking berries at a cent a cup, which she preserved for eating in the colder months. Her daughter Peggy still remembers seeing her mother waving a broom and yelling "Scat" to chase away a bear that had trashed the food cache.

The family moved to Toronto in 1946, so that Prof. Atwood could begin teaching zoology at the University of Toronto. Their second daughter and third child, Ruth, was born five years later, in 1951. Mrs. Atwood was 42, but age wasn't the only factor that differentiated her from most of the other neighbourhood moms. She hated housework and was oblivious to the consumer boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

"She had absolutely zero interest in colours of furniture, curtains, or other 'girl' stuff -- Dad did all that," remembered her younger daughter, Ruth. "As long as things were cleanish and had no holes she was happy." She was attached to "things" for their sentimental value, but otherwise material goods were of little interest. "The Depression mentality of reduce-reuse-recycle came naturally to her and was very useful in the bush and on canoe trips."

Besides raising three children, to whom she read aloud voraciously, Mrs. Atwood was committed to Scottish country dancing and ice dancing, an activity she enjoyed until she was 75.

Her last years were mired in ill health, but even when she was blind and bedridden in a nursing home, she never complained. She didn't believe in whining.

Margaret Dorothy Killam Atwood was born June 8, 1909, in Kinsman's Corners, N.S. She died at home in Toronto this past Saturday. She was 97. Predeceased by her husband, the zoologist Carl Atwood, she leaves her three children, their families and her younger sister, Joyce Barkhouse. There will be a memorial service later in the month.