November 2007

Judith Viorst

All in the family
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What happens when a family of five is unleashed on two unsuspecting grandparents? (No, this is not the premise of the latest reality TV show.) If one of those grandparents happens to be best-selling author and columnist Judith Viorst, the answer is that chaos and hilarity ensue. When we caught up with Viorst, who first immortalized her youngest son in the children’s classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, she had just returned from a week in Maine with her middle son, Nick, and his family. She sounds rested and relaxed, not what you’d expect from someone who has recently conducted her own experiment in multigenerational living. Alexander, his wife and their three young children (ages five, two and four months) needed a place to live while remodeling their house, and the grandparents Viorst graciously offered to accommodate them.

Viorst and her husband of 47 years, Milton, also a noted writer and columnist, welcomed "the Alexander Five," as she lovingly refers to them, into their home with open arms (or, at least, with one arm open and the other deflecting the tidal wave of equipment and miscellany that came in their wake). She knew at the outset that there would be trying moments among the joyful ones and approached the whole undertaking as, she says wryly, "a personal growth experience."

"Anybody who comes in your house with a bunch of little kids is going to change the routine," says Viorst from her rambling three-story house in Washington, D.C., Alexander’s childhood home. For the organized author, embracing the chaos required some effort, as she recounts in her new book, Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days. When "the Five" would leave for the day, and order was briefly restored, she had the chance to reflect on her priorities—and get them straight. How important was it to keep her beloved velvet furniture in pristine condition? OK, well, that was pretty important, but the rest, she realized, fell under the rubric of "letting it go."

"My husband and I were very aware that this moment would not come again, that we had this very precious opportunity with these five quite wonderful people and why muck it up with too much fussing over crumbs or diapers or general mess? You know, I said to myself, get over it! It’ll be back the way you want it soon enough. And the fact was that we really missed them when they left." Sure she enjoyed returning to her less hectic life, but admits that now it’s "too damn peaceful!"

When asked what other challenges she met with along this journey of self-discovery, Viorst says restraining herself from offering too much unsolicited advice was one of the biggest. As she once expressed in her poem, "They may be middle-aged but they’re still my children," Viorst believes in the "state of permanent parenthood." In other words, once a mother, always a mother. "When my kids come to visit for Thanksgiving, you know we’re talking about people in their 40s, and I still want to say, don’t take the car tonight, it’s too icy," she says self-mockingly. "I have the keep-your-mouth-shut conversation with myself, and sometimes I listen and sometimes I don’t."

Also difficult was making sure her son and his wife were adequately stressed out about potential hazards their children might encounter during their stay, whether they be choking, falling or otherwise. She laughs, "The running joke is that I’m always trying to introduce them to new things to worry about. They’re insufficiently anxious."

It should come as no surprise to fans of the quick-witted Viorst that she’s a firm believer in the importance of laughter. "Fortunately everybody is saved from irritation by the fact that we all have senses of humor and are able to laugh about a lot of stuff. I mean, I don’t know how anybody is a member of a family or raises children without being able to laugh," she says.

The young Alexander, however, was not all smiles when he first learned of his eponymous book those many years ago. Viorst read it to him in manuscript form when he was four, and he was furious. "Why you giving me that bad day?" he exclaimed to his mother. "How come Nick doesn’t have a bad day? How come Anthony doesn’t have a bad day? Why you giving me this bad day?" Viorst recalls telling him, "Honey, it isn’t published yet, and we can change the name to Stanley or Walter, but then your name wouldn’t be in great big letters on the front of the book." After a long silence, he responded, "Keep it Alexander."

In one of life’s wonderful continuities, Viorst now loves reading the book to Alexander’s daughter Olivia. "She’s a dream," Viorst says of her undeniably precocious granddaughter. At present, Viorst is steadily working on another children’s book. Though she’s not prepared to say what it’s about, she does allow that it is very much inspired by Olivia, and dedicated to her. In the meantime, readers will be able to enjoy the fall 2008 release of Viorst’s next offering, Nobody Here But Me, a children’s book about a little boy who can’t get anyone’s attention.

As she did with the first book that bears his name, Viorst conferred with Alexander prior to the publication of Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days and made a deal with him and his wife that she wouldn’t release it without their approval. Fortunately for readers, Alexander once again answered in the affirmative, and the result is, as Viorst so aptly and tenderly describes it, "a love song to the family."

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