Irene Grimm. She could make and bag seven school lunches faster than I can make one sandwich for myself.
"Make sure you write about her peacefulness," my wife told me as I sat down to my computer. And if there were a one-word description of my mother, peaceful might be it.
Irene Pilon, along with her twin brother William, were born in Minneapolis on October 30, 1929, the day after the stock market crashed. They were my grandparents' eighth and ninth children. When the twins were six, the family moved to Los Angeles. They all lived in a three-bedroom, one-bath house in Inglewood. But it's not cramped living conditions that Mom remembers. It's the sense of joy that pervaded the household.
My Grandpa Pilon died long before I was born, and Grandma died when I was ten. I never saw her, even in old age and frailty, when she didn't look joyful. But it wasn't the joy of the ignorant or the unaware. My mother's parents knew that life demands hard work and exacts a daily tithe of suffering from all of us. And they communicated that to all nine of their children. But they also taught them that life is full of consolations: the love of family and friends, the beauty of the earth, the delights of music and literature and, most of all, the Catholic faith that reconciles joy and suffering. It's exactly that approach to life that Mom brought to her family.
She met my father, Bill Grimm of North Hollywood, at a beach party in Santa Monica thrown by a common friend named Myrtle. It was 1944. Mom, a short, tanned brunette with brown eyes and high cheekbones, was only 14 years old. Dad, 17, was 6´2´´, blue-eyed, curly-haired, and stunned by Myrtle's pretty young friend from Inglewood. "But I thought she was there with another guy," he recalls. "I knew she wasn't when we all piled in a car to go down to Ocean Park to ride the roller coaster and your mother raced to make sure she got the seat next to me in the car."
"Absolutely untrue," Mom replies. "I was told to sit there."
Whichever version is true, both say they fell in love that day 61 years ago. They married three years later, on July 4, 1947. Ten months later, their first child, Jess, was born. Twenty-four years later, I, their 16th child, was born. (They had their 17th and last child two years later.) I was raised in a seven-bedroom house in Pasadena. But through their first 10 children, Mom and Dad lived in a three-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley. Dad's parents lived with them. I've never heard Mom complain about her annual pregnancy or the crowded living conditions. I believe she never felt she had anything to complain about. She had a husband who provided for and loved her, and she had her faith, and she had her mind, which she cultivated through reading. She never worried about how many kids she should have. "Their number was already known to God," she says.
By the time I came around, my dad was a battle-hardened veteran of parenting. My mother never hardened. She still seemed like a young mother when I was growing up both in demeanor and appearance. When women her age were gray and wrinkling, Mom still had long, dark hair and bright, youthful eyes.
She worked harder than anybody I've ever seen. She still does. Most mornings, she would come into the room I shared with three brothers before 8:00 and sing "Good Morning to You" while she picked up laundry for us. As we dozed, she cooked breakfast downstairs. I remember watching Mom cook up pancakes 20 at a time on two big griddles. She could broil three London broils; bake two dozen potatoes; steam a pound of green beans; prepare a green salad with sliced tomatoes, radish, and green onions; and have it all finished cooking and set on the table at the same time. She could make and bag seven school lunches faster than I can make one sandwich for myself. She pushed through six loads of laundry per day while cleaning a 6500-square-foot house. Yet the hard work never made her cross or unavailable to her children; quite the opposite. Through it all, she maintained complete self-possession, as well as cheerfulness and prayerfulness. Only now that I have six children and struggle to keep my patience every day do I understand just how remarkable she was and is. My wife puts it simply, "I feel very peaceful around your mother."