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From CHAPTER ONE: They're Here!
We are normally a household of two -- one husband, one wife -- with our children and grandchildren spread near and far in homes of their own. This summer, however, we're sharing our house for ninety (that's ninety) days minimum with our youngest son, Alexander, and his wife, Marla, along with their Olivia (five), Isaac (almost two), and Toby (four months). I am trying to think of this time as a magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only for strengthening family ties and intimately getting to know the grandchildren but for furthering my personal growth while also achieving marital enrichment. I've already resolved to let go of my perhaps excessive commitment to neatness and schedules, and to live in the moment instead of planning ahead, though I'm well aware that
many accommodations and even some major transformations may be required. Am I up to the task? Will this really be good for my family, my marriage, and me? And how do I stop my grandchildren from eating on any piece of furniture covered in velvet? I'm about to find out.
I have to admit that Alexander and I had a testy moment before they moved in, which they're doing -- I ought to point out -- because they're renovating their house, which is, like ours, in Washington, D.C. I had a small suggestion about their renovation plans but I wanted to make my suggestion tactfully. "I know that you and Marla are incredibly competent people," I began, "and quite clear on what you want to do with your house. So feel free to stop me right now if you think I'm being at all intrusive, because I don't want to be the slightest bit intrusive, but I've got a little suggestion that I honestly believe --" Alexander felt free to stop me right now.
"Mom," he said, "those preliminaries of yours? They're SO much more annoying than your advice. So please, just skip them and get to the advice."
I'll have some subsequent testy moments to mention. But right now I'd like to describe our living arrangements.
Ours is a big Victorian house, with a wraparound porch and a balcony overhead. There's a living room, dining room, library, kitchen, and bath on the first floor, and a bedroom, two bathrooms, and two offices (both Milton and I write at home) on the second floor. Our third floor -- composed of three bedrooms, one bathroom, one tiny treadmill room, and a central sitting room -- is where our three sons grew up and where they sleep when they and their wives and kids come to visit and where the Alexander Five are now living. Over the years we've equipped that third floor with a vast array of child-oriented amenities for the benefit of various visiting grandchildren: toys and games and puzzles, drawing paper and crayons, and large and small stuffed animals and balls, as well as diapers and baby wipes, three different types of car seats, a crib, a stroller, a bouncy seat, a booster seat, a rocking duck, and a potty for those with an interest in toilet training.
What aren't there, what have never been there, and what never will be there are play dough, painting supplies, and containers of glue, on the grounds that no matter how washable such materials claim to be, I don't intend to check out those claims in my house. There are limits to any woman's potential for further personal growth and these, I'm prepared to concede, are some of mine.
Now I've said that the Alexander Five are living on the third floor, but of course they're living in our entire house, though I did have a few secret fantasies about putting up a gate -- like a baby gate, except to restrain the whole family. But my mother long ago taught me that when you're going to give you ought to give with both hands and I'm hoping to try, within reason, to follow that rule. So here are the grandchildren, dribbling their drinks in our hallway, playing with mice (the computer kind) in our offices, trying on my jewelry in our bedroom, pushing the TV buttons in our library, and tossing the pillows off our couch in our living room, while their mother and father are trying simultaneously to subdue them and deal with the crises coming over their BlackBerries.
Not that I mean to sound critical of Alexander and Marla's parenting style, which, on a scale from one to ten, is fifteen. They are perfect -- well, they are practically perfect -- parents, my only reservation being that maybe they do not worry as much as they should. But although our different anxiety levels have made for many an animated discussion, this is, in the larger scheme of things, a quibble. For they meltingly love their kids, delight in their kids, understand their kids, but set limits, teach them manners, discourage whining, lavishing on them kisses and hugs and extravaganzas of praise along with, when needed, a "no" and a "stop that right now." There are certainly times when, sleep-deprived, stressed, and faced with three children screaming simultaneously, Alexander or Marla will say, "If they weren't so adorable, I'd kill them." But remembering, as I well do, my former Desperate Mother days, my "do that one more time and I'll break your kneecaps," I remain full of admiration for the way the two of them balance demanding careers and devoted parenting.
Copyright © 2007 by Judith Viorst