Someone said to me recently, "You must have had an unusual mother." True enough.
Margaret Killam was born in 1909 in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. Her father was a country doctor, and she grew up as a socially shy but physically brave tomboy. Unlike her academically brilliant sister, Kae, she was not a natural student. Her father refused to send her to university because she was "frivolous," so she taught school, saved the money for her own fees, and won a college scholarship, just to show she could.
In 1935, she married Carl Atwood, who'd fallen in love with the sight of her sliding down a banister. They spent their honeymoon canoeing down the Saint John River in New Brunswick, then headed for northern Quebec, where my father ran an insect research station. They lived in tents, then in a cabin built by my father, where my mother raised two small children without benefit of electricity or running water. The winter months were spent in Ottawa, but my mother preferred the bush. She hated hats, tea parties, and housework - in the woods she "just swept the dirt out the door" - and loved swimming in the cold northern lakes and working in the vegetable garden where they grew much of their food. When we ran short, my mother would go down to the end of the dock and throw in a line for pickerel.
In 1945, my parents moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.; my father established the insect lab there. We spent the warmer months in yet another cabin on the shore of Lake Superior. Our mother set up a mammoth berry-preserving operation, and we were set to picking blueberries at a cent a cup. She did not believe in waste or overspending. Our father was frequently away on insect-collecting trips, and one of my Lake Superior memories is of my mother waving a broom and yelling "Scat!" to chase away a hungry bear that had just trashed our food cache.
After moving to Toronto, where my father taught zoology at the University of Toronto, my parents acquired a third child, after which they took up Scottish country dancing. This wasn't enough for my mother: She added ice dancing to her list of sports, and kept it up until she was 75. When she was 84, she casually informed me that it was time for her to stop climbing up on the roof to get the leaves out of the eavestroughs. "You've been doing what?" I said. She gave me the same stubborn but pleased look she had when, forbidden to shovel snow, she'd have the driveway cleared before you could get there.
My mother loved to read aloud: All three of her children got the benefit. She was a hilarious storyteller and an alarming mimic, although, unlike her sister Joyce Barkhouse, the children's author, she had no interest in writing. She composed only one poem in her life: It was about flying, the kind with wings, a feat she never accomplished.
She was a believer in doing what you thought was right, seeing things through, buttoning your lip when advisable, and enjoying life as much as possible. She was a permissive mother in many ways - mud pies, frogs in jars, and messy paint held no terrors for her - but she discouraged complaining: Even in her last few years, when she was blind and bedridden, she never did it herself.
Shortly before she died, my Aunt Joyce reminded her - in one of her faithful weekly letters - of how she used to handle the blizzards "back home" in Nova Scotia. "Let's go out and fight the storm!" my mother would say. That's one image her many friends will retain of her: M.D.K.A., striding headfirst into the wind, for the joy that was in it.
Margaret Atwood is the daughter of "M.D.K.A."