He was the most easy-going man I ever knew. Russell Eilers. The third of my Dad’s siblings to die way before you could say they reached a good age.
My father, the oldest of the kids, with Uncle Russ the youngest, was easygoing, never rattled, could take in anything. But to Uncle Russ’s hound dog demeanor Dad was, well, a hound dog on caffeine.
Pondering each of Louis and Ethel’s eight children, five girls and three boys—John, Francis, Betty, Barb, Pat, Marilyn, Margaret, Russ (I suspect that I have the middle four out of order)—the feature of all of them was their laid-back nature, their friendly spirit, their non-judgmental attitude, their good sense of humor. What a bunch! They sure took after Grandma Eilers, whom I knew to be the same way. If they took after their father, I never learned. Grandpa died before I got to know him.
Not to say that the Eilers siblings were clone-like. Their distinctions were marvelous . . . are marvelous. I am torn as to whether to use the present or past tense. Aunt Marilyn went first, to cancer, in her 50s. Or was it Uncle Francis, his heart betraying him? Then Dad, to an infection after he broke his hip, the only one to reach his 80s. Now, Uncle Russ, to I don’t yet know what.
Half gone. Half here. Halfway to my cousins and I being the oldest living generation.
My first memory of Uncle Russ is when the last of my siblings was born. I was not quite five. We kids spent a couple of nights at The Farm—it deserves the capital letters for how we revered the place—which is in Claybanks Township, about twenty minutes northwest of Montague. Every trip was met with the same exclamation from our carload. As we rounded the curve, descended the hill, and it came into view, we all called out, “There’s the farm!”
Doggone, but I believe The Farm is the earliest memory of my life, from when my brother was born. I see myself in the house and Uncle Russ is arriving home from school. He would have been in high school. He was perhaps twelve years older than me. I recall him being playful with us. I remember being in awe of him. It seemed weird that he was my dad’s brother.
Realizations are coming to me that I never before pondered. Dad was thirty years older than me. That means he was about eighteen years older than his youngest sibling. Dad entered the army before he finished his senior year of high school. He likely was far from home when Uncle Russ was born. I wish Dad were here to ask about these things.
I wish Dad were here. And Mom. Rats, this reminiscing always makes me long for my family. I feel like a youngster right now. I see myself sitting in the living room of The Farm in the days after Grandma moved into a trailer and Uncle Francis lived there. Picture the mob in that big, splendid house: Grandma, her mess of kids and their spouses, and as many as twenty-plus grandchildren. Now, listen: The riotous chatter and laughter. Finally, soak it in: The smiles—what a smiling family!—and the good-time feeling which never failed when we were gathered.
Those were many Christmas celebrations. Those were the best of days.
When Uncle Russ married Aunt Paula, wow, was I shocked. It was the same with my mom’s youngest sibling, and the only one still living on her side, Uncle Bob, when he got married. I didn’t think those two would ever get married.
In many ways, Aunt Paula was the antithesis of Uncle Russ. She is a small woman with a large personality. At first, I was intimidated by her. I grew to see the beauty of the woman she is. I adore her. I’d love to happen upon her in the grocery store just one more time: “Gregor! Good to see you!”
Uncle Russ gladly took the quiet chair and followed Aunt Paula’s lead. I always suspected he was her yes man. “Yes, ma’m,” if he were smart. He must have been. She didn’t smother him in his sleep as she likely pondered many a time.
He had a lot of rascal in him.
My comment about the Eilers being a smiling family? Uncle Russ’s smile betrayed a youngster who remained alive and well inside him.
They bought a farm east of Rothbury, northeast of Montague. Any occasion that took us out there—say a big family birthday party—was met with joy.
Though Dad was so much older than Uncle Russ, I never noticed an age difference. Their generation gap was closed by what was a deep and abiding kinship. They both were farm boys at heart, and that never waned, though both worked for years for the county road commission.
The farm boys continued long-held traditions. They were cotton-pickin’ chicken pluckers. I actually saw a chicken run around with her head cut off. Then, I reveled in her thighs and legs and the gravy she produced for my mashed potatoes.
Uncle Russ had land, and Dad had an itch for more garden than our backyard allowed. For several years, he had a garden alongside Uncle Russ’s. (And he had stuff growing at The Farm. And he had even more at my brother’s in-laws’, who lived only a few doors from the family house he built, where he lived till he died.) Dad hauled me with him many a time to hoe, or water, or harvest.
Russ and Paula were blessed with Tim and Ruschel. Thankfully, they took everything they learned from Dad and put it into the “don’t do that!” category, then took after their mother. Tim and Ruschel are dandy people, whom I don’t get to see enough.
Worry not, labeling Uncle Russ a rascal does not mean I am saying he was not a good guy. He was a great guy! It’s just that mischief was always in his eyes, with playfulness emerging from his lips. My sister, Sue, reminded me yesterday how he always had two beers in his pocket, ready to share one with a friend. As folks shared memories on Facebook, everything rang true: Russ was friendly, never had an unkind word about anyone, the proverbial shirt was yours right off his back, simply a person you wanted to know.
All of the Eilers siblings fit that mold. What an eight-pack they were, and the four still are.
Here is the conversation we had when I was getting ready to go to seminary:
“So, you’re gonna become a preacher.”
“Well . . . be a good one.”
I see myself standing before him. In their yard. A bright, sunny day. A family get-together. Revelry all around.
But I am quite sure I never saw Uncle Russ stand up straight. He had a world-class slouch. That he is standing as tall as he did for the picture, above, only could have been from a cattle prod used by one of my aunts. Maybe his slouch was from the weight of those two beers he always had in his pocket.
I’ll take one of those beers, Uncle Russ. I raise it to you. I’m thankful to have known you.