HER FOUR CHILDREN STILL TALK about the night Mommy Went Savage. Jacquelyn Mitchard, a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, had lost her husband of 13 years, Dan Allegretti, to colon cancer six months earlier. Left to deal with child-rearing, tight deadlines and the family bills, she had a full-scale screaming fit one night in December 1993, sending her misbehaving brood scurrying to their rooms.
Later that night she called her kids to the kitchen for peace talks. "Dan was the glamor parent, and they were left with the homework sergeant," recalls Mitchard, now 43. "I said, 'Look, you had a good daddy, and I can't be him, but we're going to have adventures and laughs.' " Mitchard lay awake afterward thinking, " 'Great, how am I going to do that?' I had the lead for the second half of my life; now I had to make up the rest of the story."
She has done so with such gusto that her life will soon be the subject of a TV movie that could be called Mommy Goes National. Last week, Mitchard's weekly column, "The Rest of Us," which dispenses witty advice on coping with everyday chaos, was syndicated to more than 200 newspapers, evidence that Mitchard may well be the heir apparent to the doyenne of domestic affairs, Erma Bombeck, who died five months ago of complications from a kidney transplant.
What's more, Mitchard's first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, the haunting story of a child's disappearance, arrived to stellar reviews in June. Michelle Pfeiffer optioned the movie rights for $300,000, and Oprah
Winfrey has chosen it as the first novel in a new segment on her talk show—a monthly book club, starting this week, in which she will chat with the author of a novel she loved. Says Mitchard of the three years since her husband's death: "Dan was gone, and I could have made my life a shrine to misery. But I had to show the children that even if you're wounded, you can't live small."
Mitchard is living even larger since last December, when she adopted a baby girl, Francie, adding more noise to the cacophony in her lavender split-level house in Madison, Wis., home to sons Martin, 7, Dan, 10, and Robert, 13, and daughter Jocelyn, 21 (a student at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater), plus two pet ferrets. "My father and brother thought I was deranged, trying to substitute another love for the one I had lost," she says. "In fact, it was very healing for our family."
Recovery from loss is a theme that echoes through Mitchard's work and life. The oldest of two children born to Chicagoans Bob Mitchard, a plumber, and Mary, a homemaker, she graduated from Rockford College with an English degree and was working as a waitress when her mother died of brain cancer in 1975. Five years later, Mitchard married Dan Allegretti, a newspaper editor at the Madison Capital Times. "He was the constant in my adult life," she says. "My editor, my buddy, the father of my children." Mitchard wrote two nonfiction books, kicked off her column in 1982 and covered news events with her husband.
After Allegretti died at 44, Mitchard found extra freelance work, like writing warning labels for paint sprayers, to make ends meet. Down to $86 in her checking account, she knew she would soon have to find a high-paying job, but first she wanted to follow a dream and write a novel. "I thought that writing Deep End would be my last hurrah to creativity," she says. "It turned out to be the making of me."
She got the ball rolling in October 1994, during a three-week fellowship at an artists' colony in Lake Forest, Ill., where she kept her notes stuffed in a Tupperware container. Back home she pressed on. "Some chapters I wrote with one child running a truck over my head and another playing on the floor," she says. But on the strength of 70 pages, Viking gave her a $500,000, two-book contract.
The success of Deep End has enabled Mitchard, who gets help from three part-time nannies (two of whom double as editorial assistants), to build herself a private bathroom and whisk her family to Italy for two weeks this summer. She writes her column at home and keeps sane by sticking to a rigid daily plan. "Everything is scheduled," she explains. "Fifteen minutes has become a substantial period of time. If I brush my hair once, if I read to my children, then that's a good day."
Soon, Mitchard's weekly columns may start focusing on a whole new area of constant chaos. She's even in love—maybe—with a poet she met at the artists' colony. "I think I could be," Mitchard says, quickly adding that her late husband would approve. After all, she notes, "he wanted me to have the whole enchilada."
BONNIE BELL in Madison
- Bonnie Bell.