The third Sunday of July, at noon, at Claybanks Township Memorial Park, is the date for the annual Eilers reunion. As I compose this on Monday, July 18, yesterday was my first reunion since I left Montague to go to seminary in 1992.
Because I worked Sundays and never lived closer than four-and-a-half hours, reunions were out. Most other family events also were impossible to attend, like weddings and funerals. Before my uncle’s funeral last February, there was my father’s funeral in 2010, and one of his sister’s funerals while I was in seminary, and that’s it.
That’s the sum total of my involvement with the extended family on my dad’s side (and only one funeral on my mom’s side) since the early ‘90s. And, before leaving for seminary, I, with my first wife and kids, had been a faithful attender of all family events.
Oh, and then there’s the little matter of my transitioning from Greg to Gina. Yeah, there’s always that with these “firsts.”
Having attended my uncle’s funeral five months ago helped a lot. Yet, the reunion would have its different aspects. For the funeral, I took a seat in the back corner and, after the service, was able to watch the room and wait for folks to come to me if they wanted to, and stay away if that were their preference. At the reunion, the area was wide open—coming and going from car to pavilion with food and such, no corner in which to sit and eye the attendees, mixing with folks while filling my plate. Yet, I was very hopeful for good things because of the funeral.
Upon arrival, I said to myself, “Take pictures!” I snapped a few at first, put away my phone, and forgot about it until someone gathered the Eilers aunts. Ugh.
There were forty or so in attendance. Each of my siblings were there—three brothers and my sisters, but not our oldest brother, Jim, who is not able. With some kids and grandchildren of our own, Dad’s chunk of the family—1/8th of the eight Eilers siblings—accounted for sixteen in attendance, or about forty percent. Julie and I drove the farthest of anyone in attendance, not counting my brother from Tennessee because they were in the area on vacation regardless. (That’s right: I just dissed my little brother. Some things never change.)
I had seen one brother at the funeral, but this was the first time to see the others. I am pleased to report that all three spoke with me. I won’t elaborate further. Overall, I can’t complain about how my brothers have handled my transitioning. I have come to believe this is just as hard on siblings, especially brothers of a brother, as it is on the transitioning one’s children. (My sister, Sue, has been, from day one, my second-greatest supporter after Julie.) I get it: I was one of the guys, and my brothers are definitely guys. Ultimately, we, as a family, are taking each step, and each step is a forward one. For me to ask for more would be greedy.
After the lovely greeting I received from each aunt at the funeral—my dad’s four remaining siblings and one sister-in-law—I anticipated nice conversations with them. Indeed, I spent as much time chatting with all five of them as with cousins and others. (I will have much more to say about my Eilers aunts in a piece I am writing about the family farm.)
There is something noteworthy to be said about the Eilers clan. They are roll-with-the–punches folks. On the scale of judgmental, fussy, put on airs and the like, they are way down on the end of accepting, easy-going, and humble. I especially found this in my Eilers aunts who have received me with such love and affection that, yeah, just as I typed that I choked up with tears. I am filled with joy.
I have said about my late parents that Mom would have hurt very deeply for me and then become a chief advocate, while Dad would not be sure what to do with it but would continue to treat me with the love and affection he had always shown. In other words, he would have said, “Well, okay. Let’s get back to work hoeing the garden,” and I would be so happy about that.
I believe that, in his sisters, my conviction about Dad is confirmed.
Having never been in this position before, I can’t know the answers to some of the things which I ponder. The particular one I have in mind is how I look and how folks look at me. For the reunion, I deliberately wore no makeup. I didn’t curl my hair. I wore clothes typical for a picnic: a summery top, jeans shorts, and sandals. I did have my finger- and toenails painted, and wore a bright necklace. And I always have my cool chick glasses on.
So, I look like the person my family has always known, while I look different. From the way everyone talked with me, looked at me, gave me eye contact, it felt like they saw me no differently. Certainly not odd. Absolutely not like they were uncomfortable. Just plain nice and familiar.
That’s the best thing I can say for my family, and that is a wonderful thing.
I will have no hesitation about any more Eilers events. When the first opportunity arises with my mom’s side, I will take the temperature of the family regarding my attendance but, based on the online interactions I have had with many of them, I see my presence happening just as on the Eilers’ side.
I am gratified.
When one undergoes transitioning, one throws into question every last aspect of life. Too many transgender people are not received well by family, or some are just plain mean—“I’ll never call you by your new name!”—and certainly are not made to feel welcome. While there clearly are a few people who are struggling with this thing which is so new and unusual to them—there was a lot of tripping over my name, and we just smiled and I told them not to worry—not one person deliberately said or did anything to be hurtful.
I am tremendously gratified.
I did have some fun moments, poking fun at the new me. As one who can find a smile or laugh almost anywhere, I am quick with the quip. Having not seen one cousin’s wife in twenty-five years, I said to here what was true, “You have not changed a bit,” quickly adding, “Just like me.” I always love the laugh these jokes produce.
Then there is the case of my only living uncle, married to the youngest of the living sisters. In the early ‘80s, I had been laid off from my job at the iron foundry in Montague. Uncle Jerry was a fruit farmer, and invited me to pick apples.
Yesterday, when I saw him across the pavilion, he spied me and smiled, so I knew he was going to be fine with me. Besides, he has an out-there personality, a guy with whom you are always going to have a fun conversation.
After dinner, we got together. I said, “Uncle Jerry, I learned something about me that pertains to you. A couple of years ago, I read a study about a virus that grows on apple trees, which pickers can acquire. The virus remains dormant for decades—as much as thirty years—before it goes into action. Here’s the thing. It causes a person to have terrible gender identity issues!”
He wasn’t buying it—a BSer always knows a BSer—but I kept going. I slapped his arm and concluded, “So, yeah, thanks a lot for that.”
Unmoved by my moving story, he simply said, “I’d like to read that report,” flashing me his large, familiar smile.
The marvelous food having been consumed and catching up accomplished, folks began packing up and heading out. Each departure concluded with a hug and a see-you-next-year.
Next year is already on my calendar. July 16, 2017. Claybanks Township Memorial Park. At high noon. See you then!