Kids' Author Finds Herself 'Unexpectedly Eighty'

Octogenarian Judith Viorst is most famously the author of the children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Her new book, however, is for adults. Host Scott Simon talks with Viorst about Unexpectedly Eighty, the latest in a series that includes Suddenly Sixty and I'm Too Young to Be Seventy.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Judith Viorst has turned what she calls unexpectedly 80. We'll ask the poet herself to tell us how that feels by reading her poem "One Hallmark of Maturity Is Having the Capacity to Hold Two Opposing Ideas in Your Head at Once.

Ms. JUDITH VIORST (Author): Here goes.

My scalp is now showing. My moles keep on growing. My waistline and breasts have converged. My teeth resist brightening. I'm in decline. It's positively frightening. A new moon's arriving. Sinatra is jiving. My husband is holding my hand. The white wine is chilling. I'm still alive. It's positively thrilling.

SIMON: Judith Viorst joins us from our studios at NPR West. The bestselling poet and author of classic children's books has a new collection of poems centered on an experience we should all be blessed to have: turning 80. But the blessing may be accompanied by challenges.

Judy, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. VIORST: Delighted to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And one of your poems, you suggest that when you have dinner parties that include people of that blessed age, there's one topic of conversation that's guaranteed to fly.

Ms. VIORST: Guaranteed to fly, and that has to do with our health. Does anybody have the name of a good gastroenterologist? What do we think of probiotics? And there's always somebody reading the menu to their wife or husband because they forgot their glasses and they can't, of course, read the menu.

SIMON: What kind of grandmother are you?

Ms. VIORST: What kind of grandmother am I? I'm a three-dessert grandmother. I'm a let's just skip the bath tonight, honey, watch another video grandmother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VIORST: And I'm a don't tell your mom I let you do this, she'll kill me grandmother.

SIMON: Does turning 80 hold any revelations for life?

Ms. VIORST: Well, yes. Of course it does. I think that one of the things that gets so acute and so strengthened at this time is to love what you've got while you've got it. Don't let anything sneak past you. Don't say, well, oh, I'll take a picture and put it in my photograph album. I notice it now. I love it now. And I am grateful for it now.

SIMON: Do you have any more vivid thoughts about, you know, what happens when we're gone?

Ms. VIORST: Yes, I have a lot of thoughts about what happens when we're gone. And one of the things I decided - I actually wrote a poem called "After Giving the Matter a Great Deal Thought" - I decided that I don't want to live longer than my husband, but I don't want him living longer than me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VIORST: I don't want him married to some younger woman who's going to redo my kitchen and make my grandchildren crazy about her, and probably know a few sex tricks I never even heard of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VIORST: So I have notified Milton - I don't know whether he's this enthusiastic about it. But I've notified him that one way or another, without suicide and at a ripe old age - whatever that is - we are dying together. I haven't just figured out the details.

SIMON: I was very touched by the poem to your mother, Ruth June.

Ms. VIORST: It's actually - it's my favorite poem in the book, because I felt that it did real honor to my mother. And I wish she could have read it. And it's called "Ruth June."

My mother wouldn't stop smoking until the lanky red-haired doctor she adored told her, Ruth, its cigarettes or me. By which time she couldn't be rescued from her implacable heart disease genes, which accompanied her good legs and excellent cheekbones and killer tournament bridge player genes - none of which turned up in my DNA, though I did inherit her pleasure in books and her pleasure in women friends and her Persian lamb coat.

My mother was born in June and later, feeling a vacancy, chose her birth month for her middle name. Marry to marry, had kids because that's what was done. Liked crossword puzzles, liked lilac trees, liked baking in the sun and liked Bing Crosby. She listened well, laughed wonderfully well, kept everybody's secrets, was probably better at being a friend than a wife. And though I suspect she probably wasn't wildly in love with her life, in middle age she fell wildly in love with her grandchildren.

Ruth June, I remember Lottie and Dottie and Tillie and Yetta and Pearl, the women you called the girls and I called aunts, chattering on our screened-in porch, in our breakfast nook, in our sun parlor, over the phone. All of them outlived you, as I also by two decades have outlived you, though all of them were long gone before I finally figured out the questions I wanted to ask them about my mother.

SIMON: That's quite a poem.

Ms. VIORST: Well, it's full of a lot of truths about my mother and everyone one of those names - the Tillies and Lotties - they were all real names of my mother's girlfriends.

SIMON: When you become a mother and a grandmother, do you sometimes miss being the daughter?

Ms. VIORST: I miss being the daughter because I don't think there was anybody in the world who is better at enjoying your good news than my mother. My mother would have been so crazy about my grandchildren. She was a fabulous grandmother and she would have been absolutely crazed as a great-grandmother. I miss that part of her.

SIMON: Being unexpectedly 80, do you still look forward to things?

Ms. VIORST: I look forward to everything. Absolutely. The quote that I use in this book is from a very sweet song by Tony Bennett. The line is: lingering sunset, stay a little longer.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. VIORST: I want them to stay a lot longer. I want to see my grandchildren grow up. I still have the fantasy that I'm going to learn to speak French and play the piano. And I hope, you know, we're still works in progress and I still hope to improve myself, stop kicking stuck doors, stop blaming my husband, if I possibly can, when things go wrong, and stop taking a canceled airplane as a personal attack on my well-being.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VIORST: I've got things to work on. I want to be around for a lot of lingering sunsets.

SIMON: Judith Viorst. Her new book of poems, "Unexpectedly Eighty: And Other Adaptations."

Thanks so much.

Ms. VIORST: Thank you, Scott.

(Soundbite of song, "This is All I Ask")

Mr. TONY BENNETT (Singer): (Singing) Lingering sunsets, stay a little longer with the lonely sea...

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