To her six grandchildren, Judith Viorst is known as Grandma Judy or Juju, while her husband, Milton, is called Papa. But, she says, “If only one of us is present, the grand- kids always want to know where the other one is—I think they see us as some kind of collective glob.”
To the world at large, Viorst is known as the author of eight collections of verse and five books including the best-selling Necessary Losses (1986), which explores how our lives are shaped by the various losses we experience. Her children’s books include the popular Alexander stories (inspired by the trials and tribulations of her son, Alexander), most notably Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Two of the Alexander books have been turned into musicals, for which Viorst wrote the lyrics. And she’s also found time to earn a graduate degree from the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute.
Viorst and her husband, a political writer, live in Washington D.C… They have three married sons and serve as collective glob to six grandchildren: Miranda, Brandeis, Olivia, Nathaniel, Benjamin, and Isaac, ranging in age from 4 to 10. And—oh yes—another grandkid is on the way. Grandparenting helps you to experience the world in fresh ways, says Viorst. “Things you take for granted are greeted by grandchildren with amazement and delight, and you see your surroundings through their eyes.
I’m constantly surprised at the things they notice and the connections they sometimes make. For instance, my granddaughter Olivia will point out that the blue in her pigtail bow is the same color as the polka dots in another girl’s dress.
“I spend the most time with Olivia, because the family lives close. She’s 5 and has a very strong character. I find her endlessly funny. I often buy two jigsaw puzzles, and we’ll sit on the floor and do them together. I give it my absolute best, but she always kills me—I’m still doing the border, and she’s already finished. I once told her that I did a lot of reading when I was growing up, and she sighed heavily and said, ‘Juju, if you hadn’t spent so much time reading as a kid you could have been practicing jigsaw puzzles.’”
The whole Viost clan gathers three times a year—Thanksgiving, Passover, and once in the summer. “Everybody likes being together, and the kids have a real sense of ‘cousinhood,’“ she says. “When you’re younger, you could never imagine the things that make you blissful when you’re older—watching your kids care for their nephews and nieces, for instance, throwing them up in the air, taking them in the corner to have a heart-to-heart— that’s not the kind of thing we called happiness when we were 21. And there are so many sweet little moments—like Brandy and Nathaniel standing and watching a video and not realizing they’re holding hands. Or Miranda playing her role as the fashion queen of America and being looked at with adoration by Olivia.
“Also, grandparents don’t have an agenda in the same way parents do—the grandkids are not the fulfillment of our youthful dreams. You can lean back and simply enjoy them.” Some 20 years ago, Viorst made this same point in Necessary Losses, writing then from the perspective of a parent: “Parenthood can also serve a reconciling function by giving our parents better parts to play, by freeing them to be…more loving, indulgent, tender, patient, generous, you name it, than they had ever been as mother and father. No longer concerned with instilling moral values, no longer in charge of discipline and rules, no longer dedicated to building character, they become their best selves.”
Viorst is clear on the boundaries of her role as grandmother. “If you disagree with the way the parents are handling or disciplining their children,” she says, “there’s just one basic rule: shut up! And, as the kids grow up, you’ll find that even without your great words of wisdom it’s amazing that they turn out so well.
“Milton and I do try to set a good example, of course. We’re big believers in good manners, for instance, and we try to instill that in the grandkids, even though they may not always get the message exactly right. When Olivia was young she asked me to put her on a chair so she could look through the window at our outdoor pool. After hoisting her up, I asked “And what do you say, Olivia,” and she replied, ‘hello, pool.’
“Our three sons have all become fabulous fathers. They’re total equal partners with their wives, in part because of the example set by their dad. Milton is a sports- man and areal jock, but he was in the kitchen every morning making a great breakfast.
The boys grew up distrusting all the clichés about maleness. We never had a conversation exactly, but the message was: It’s all right to put on an apron and tenderly hold your son.
“There’s one thing that makes me sad about grand parenting. These are perilous times, and, when my granddaughter sings It’s a Wonderful World with Louie Armstrong, I get kind of tearful. I just pray that these precious children will grow up in a safe world.”
Viorst has repeatedly drawn on her family as an inspiration for her writing, and her books of verse have documented personal milestones. “It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty,” “How Did I Get to Be Forty,” “Forever Fifty, Suddenly Sixty” and “Other Shocks of Later Life,” and now “I’m Too Young to Be Seventy.” Presumably, these celebrations of key turning points—of births and birthdays, of new roles and relationships—will continue for a long time to come.
Originally Published on GRAND Magazine in July-August 2006 Issue