A Close Shave: Margaret Atwood’s Brush With Death

Margaret Atwood recounts a harrowing moment on a childhood road trip.

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A Close Shave: Margaret Atwood's Brush With Death

This is an account of the first time I almost died. There may have been other times, unknown to me or anyone else: I might have almost fallen out of the tree house we were building.

I might have nearly been swept away on a raft we were unwisely launching on Lake Superior. I might have just missed being smothered in a sand tunnel we were constructing. None of these things happened; this near-death event was of another kind entirely, though equally a matter of chance.

My family was in the car on a return trip from Nova Scotia, where we had gone to visit our many relatives. Because of gasoline rationing, it had been very difficult to visit these relatives during the war, so they now had to be visited on a yearly basis, especially since one of them-an important one, my maternal grandfather-had undergone something called a coronary. I had no clear picture of what this was, but it had something to do with his heart and meant he might die at any minute. I had no clear picture of dying either, except that it happened to tadpoles not properly tended to and caterpillars if you didn't put enough holes in their jar lids. Death was sad, and also smelly, but it wasn't anything that could conceivably happen to me. (The cousins who were shortly to die of diphtheria were still alive. Was this the last visit on which I saw them? There were more fatal childhood diseases at that time.) 

It was the summer of-I think-1948, so I was eight years old. Or it might have been 1947, and I was seven. It was soon after the war, in any case, and therefore the highways were empty.

By "highway," I don't mean what everyone now pictures: an eight-lane throughway, with few exits and no crossroads, along which trucks and cars hurtle at 110 kilometres an hour. I mean two lanes, an intersection at every county line and many level crossings for trains. Eighty kilometres an hour was considered fast.

Cars were different then. They were bigger, they were heavier, and they were not digitized. Our car was, I believe, a Studebaker. The seats were upholstered in a scratchy grey fabric with an odd smell that was worse in the heat, and this mattered because there was no air conditioning. The front seat extended all the way across-no bucket seats-and there were no seat belts. There were none in the back seat, either, and there were no car seats for children. No one thought anything of this.

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My father was driving. Fathers drove then: it was not usual for mothers to drive if fathers were in the car. My father was a man of many pro­jects and was usually in a hurry. His idea was to reach Nova Scotia, get the relative-visiting over with and drive back again as fast as possible, so he drove quickly and for long hours. My mother would aid this scheme by packing sandwiches, doling out Life Savers and massaging the back of my father's neck while he drove.

When it got dark, we might stop at a motel. (Motels were clumps of tiny cottages with Christmas-tree lights strung along their fronts.) But there were not many of these, so we would simply pull over to the side of the road. My father would cut some tent poles with his axe, and we would set up our heavy canvas tent in a likely spot-which meant any place flat and not in a swamp. We cooked on a campfire or a pump stove, and we peed in the bushes. Needless to say, you would not be allowed to do any of this now. Nor would you wish to, as you would likely get run over or arrested.

A note on my mother. My father was not untypical for that time: there were still a lot of men around who, having migrated from remote locations to towns or cities, had that combination of backwoods and urban skills. But women along the lines of my mother were less usual. She was a self-declared tomboy: scorner of ladies' hats and tea parties, rider of horses, speed skater and, in her youth, daredevil walker of barn ridgepoles. A year or so earlier, I had witnessed her chasing a bear away from our outdoor cooking area with a broom. She did not readily lose her cool. Point being: if she later said we almost died, then we almost did die. She was not prone to exaggeration.

Back to the day in question. We were driving west. It was late afternoon. Insects were squishing on the windshield. My brother and I were bouncing around in the back seat, unbelted, on the loose. There was no Internet, there were no iPads or Game Boys or other forms of in-car entertainment, and there was no car radio. So, after cows had been counted in passing fields, games of "I Spy" had ground to a halt and we'd run out of steam on the serial story we took turns narrating, we would fall back on the mischievous. We might even do something deliberately annoying, such as imitating bagpipes or singing songs we knew my father despised. Or-a new thing, since bananas had just reappeared, having been unobtainable during the war-causing chewed-up banana to extrude from our mouths while saying "toothpaste." Then there would be giggling and snorting, and when our father had had too much of this, he would say "Pipe down, kids."

In the midst of silliness, we are in death. 

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We were almost at the "Pipe down, kids" stage. The sunlight was golden. The car was descending a long, steep hill at its usual rapid pace. At the bottom of it, a tractor pulling a huge load of hay drew out of a side road and began to cross in front of us. The car brakes failed. My mother's hand, which was massaging the back of my father's neck, froze in its motion.

Did I realize what was happening? I don't think so. But I must have realized something, because whatever my brother and I were doing stopped short. There were no screams, no expletives. Silently the sun shone. Silently the hay wagon inched across the road. Silently the car descended the hill. Just before the moment of impact, our lane was cleared, and both we and the hay wagon continued on our way. 

My mother said afterwards that she thought her last moment had come. My father said, "That was a close shave." I feel obliged to note that "a close shave" is an expression that was used before the takeover of safety razors and electric shavers. It refers to the straight razor, lethal if the hand slipped, and means that the blade had come very close to the jugular.

How many times have I almost died since? Many; so have we all. But that was the first time of which I was aware. Did I feel grateful then to have been spared? No. I was too young for such complex feelings as gratitude. But I feel grateful now. My mother's general comment still applies: "We hang by a thread." The reference is to the sword of Damocles, and now that there is an Internet, there is no excuse for not looking it up.