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Jim and Mom (in the late ’60s?)

He wasn’t supposed to live to retirement age. He has no job from which to retire. He’s never held one. Never went to school. Never spoken a sentence of English.

They said not to expect him to live much past early childhood. If he hit the toddler years, he would never toddle.  If he did make it to the school-age years, there would be no kindergarten for him.

He would never set out on his own. Or make any plans. Or dream about the future.

His doctor said that he had no future.

And, today, my oldest brother, Jim, turned sixty-five years old.  And, I’ll be, but he has enjoyed a good, rich life.

I wrote about Jim, two years ago, so I won’t go over the details as to why his prognosis was so dim. You may read the first piece here:

Picking up where I left off in the first writing, not only would Jim make it out of infancy, he grew strong. With no ability to walk, he didn’t grow tall as he surely otherwise would have, but lifelong physical therapy would build firm muscles. Indeed, he became so strong, it made him a handful.

Some Christmases, we brought him home from the group home in nearby North Muskegon where he was finally placed in the late ’70s after twenty-some years in institutional places. Jim was able to use a toilet but, since he could not make his way on his own, two of us had to walk him. Was that ever a challenge!

He. Was. Strong. And since he was not able to control himself, to successfully make it with this muscular man from the living room, through the hall, and into the bathroom, we were happy to finally set him onto the stool without having bashed in a wall or pulling the bathroom door off its hinges.

Having worked up a sweat, I should have been pleased about calories burned ahead of the feast Mom was soon to set before us.

Oh, Mom! How Jim loved Mom! Sure, he would smile at we siblings as we greeted and hugged him, and made a bit of small talk, but when Mom appeared Jim beamed! And when Mom died all too young, Dad received the evidence of Jim’s joy.

Jim’s voice would be expressed in his smiles and much more. Lacking the ability to form words never kept him from communicating what pleased or angered or bothered him. At his place, if the living room TV were turned from his show, he whooped about it. When his favorite meals were set before him, you knew it just as surely as from any person. And when he didn’t want to do something, he could be the very picture of obstinate.

After Jim, only several months old, was so adversely affected in the wake of being wrongly medicated for his whooping cough and encephalitis, he suffered terrible seizures. After these finally no longer struck him, I do not recall his experiencing any serious health issues. In his fifties, he fractured a leg. It required surgery and the placement of a pin. This was the first and only time I ever wondered if his health might be deteriorating, with his death in sight.

He came through that admirably. We were able to have him with us for a short time at Dad’s funeral in 2010. That was the first time all of us siblings were together in I don’t know how long. Because I had moved away it surely had been more than twenty years.

Jim fronts his siblings, from left: Mark (youngest), me (fourth), Sue (third), Dave (fifth), and Tom (second)

I am ashamed to say that I have not seen him since my transition. I need to do this. I long to be with him at least one more time before either of us finishes our earthly pilgrimage. More than wanting to be with him, to hug and kiss him, I long to share our common hope, that the terrible, physical suffering of our lives will be healed by our Lord Jesus Christ in the resurrection.

As with all of us kids, Jim was baptized in infancy—indeed, before he got sick and when he appeared to have a typical future. Because of his situation, he was not able to receive instruction in the faith and be confirmed or communed. Who knows if he’s ever formed a prayer. How can such a person be saved?

Truly, Jim is the very picture of the direction of salvation and who does the work.

  • John 1:12-13: “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
  • Ephesians 2:1, 4-5, 8-9: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins . . . But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. . . . For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
  • Titus 3:5-7: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

There it is. As we receive physical life from our parents solely by their work as a gift, so we receive eternal life from our Father solely by Christ’s work as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 15, we are promised new bodies when we are resurrected from the dead. No longer will we be able to be injured, or grow ill or weary, or die. Isaiah 35:6 tells us, “Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.”

On that day, Jim will leap like a deer and shout for joy, dancing a jig of praise to Christ and glorifying Him for the eternal gift which he will enjoy in Paradise with his Lord Jesus and with all the saints.

Including me.

With Job (19:25-27), my ongoing refrain is “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”

A blessed 65 years to you, dear brother Jim. An eternity of joy awaits.

Meet the Eilers farm

All photos  of the farm are courtesy of Mark Dean, taken in May, 2016.  Thank you, Mark!

The Eilers farm rests upon as beautiful a plot of land as one will find in the world.

The Eilers farm is the home of my father’s youth, where he learned the hard-work ethic by which he took care of his family and handed down that ethic to his children.

The Eilers farm is the house and barn and outbuildings and land where Louis and Ethel brought eight children into the world—John (Dad), Francis, Betty, Barb, Pat, Marilyn, Margaret, and Russell.

The Eilers farm is the location where family gatherings of every stripe—from Christmas parties to hunting days—created and cemented some of the best memories of my life.

When we were young, the trees did not obscure the house.  It’s behind that stand of evergreens.

“There’s the farm!” This was the ecstatic cry of my branch of the Eilers’ tree every time we made the left turn from 48th Avenue onto Wilke Road, which, when it crested, turned into Clay Road and, as the woods to the north cleared, once more was revealed to us the familiar white farmhouse.

“There’s the farm!” There was never a time when traveling the twelve miles north and west from Montague was not an occasion for delight.

Mark must have trekked up the field opposite the road for this shot, so he could capture everything.  The house is way bigger than it appears here!

About two miles east of Lake Michigan’s shore, the house sits majestically as the land rises from the road the forty yards toward it, the lush-green lawn a most welcoming of mats. As we would make the turn into the long driveway, we counted on at least one of Uncle Francis’s exotic peacocks to be wandering near enough that we had to stop to avoid hitting it. (Why did he have those things? We never fried up a long leg or sat before a bowl of peacock puree. Could it have been simply because they were so majestic and beautiful?)

Having parked the car, with the house to the east and barn and buildings to the west, the opening of doors brought the farm-air aroma that belongs specifically to this place. Truly, specifically to this place. I have been on a lot of farms—indeed, for a summer, I worked on the Stevens farm, which borders the Eilers farm to the west, among the dairy cows, in the hay mow, driving tractor on the fields, providing me intimate knowledge of farm fragrances—and never have I whiffed the same scent as emanated from the Eilers farm.

Its combination of silage and sewage was sniffingly sublime.

I am getting ahead of myself. The farm’s unique smell combination of Charolais beef cattle manure and crops grown in soil which reminds one why the township was named “Claybanks” did not predominate in the early years of my life. In those days, it was the icky-sweet smell of oil being pumped that filled the air.

After World War II, Claybanks had been explored for its oil deposits. On my grandparents’ two-hundred-plus acres, which is fairly evenly divided between arable land and deciduous and pine forest, the detection of the gooey black stuff resulted in a handful of wells. We kids marveled at their pumping and, because we grew up watching The Beverly Hillbillies, thought our family was getting rich.

At our Eilers family reunion this past July, I gathered my aunts for the purpose of learning the history of the farm, including answers to my oil questions. “Did Grandpa and Grandma make a lot of money?”

“No,” came Aunt Betty’s reply. “Dad sold the rights to the oil, so they didn’t continue to make money off it.”

“Were they able to build the current house from the oil money? The former house was in pretty sad shape, right?” Aunt Barb chimed in. “Yes. The new house was built when I was in high school, maybe 1950.”

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Despite their inability to answer my questions, I adore my aunts (from left) Margaret, Pat, Barb, and Betty, seen here in good spirits at our family reunion last July.

This would be the most success I had in questioning my aunts. Wanting to write about the farm, I had prepped for this day when I would have present my father’s four living siblings. My questions, I thought, were not fancy; the typical ones on which to build other questions.

I asked:
• How did Grandpa and Grandma meet?
• Where did they both grow up?
• If neither grew up on this farm, how did they come to buy it?

To each of my questions, I received a shaking of the head, perhaps a giggle, and always a “If Francis were here, he’d know.”

Uncle Francis died in 2003. He had been both the inheritor of the farm and the family historian. He was the only one of the siblings not to marry at a young age—he wed at 35—so, I assume, that’s why he took over. He followed his father’s lead. Grandpa worked at Continental Motors in Muskegon, while also tending to the farm, while Francis worked at Dupont Chemical in Montague, while also managing the land and beef cattle and, I suppose, pursuing those pesky peacocks.

He enjoyed studying the Eilers ancestry, and took most of his knowledge with him to the grave, so we miss him both for the lovely guy he was and for the wealth of information he possessed.

My aunts’ having frustrated my efforts for the days which preceded my life, I conclude this piece with three specific memories of my father and the farm.

You can take the boy off the farm, but he’ll never get all of the soil out from under his fingernails. Dad kept a large garden in our back yard, yet, at various times, he also had plots of vegetables a few doors down at my brother’s in-laws, and at his brother Russell’s farm, and at the Eilers Farm.

Dad and I did a lot of gardening together. “Do you want to go out to the farm tonight and hoe beans with me?” would always find me in the passenger seat of his pickup, gleefully making the twelve mile drive north and west and, you guessed it, when we cleared the hill, we worked to beat each other at calling out, “There’s the farm!” and then laughing like a couple of kids who were skipping school to head to their favorite fishing hole.

Park Lake.  I think this is looking west to east.

Speaking of fishing, Park Lake extends along the northeast edge of the farm and, at times, it was a hotbed for fishing success. Dad, savvy from extensive angling experience, knew the hottest of hot-spots. It was at a bit of land that jutted into the lake. It also was a favorite haunt for the local geese which, um, caused us to do the goose-step around their droppings. Dad naturally dubbed the spot “Goose Poop Point.”  (Say it out loud.  It’s fun to say.)

Finally, the woods saw plenty of deer hunting action. I will not bore you with the loads of stories that only are fascinating when told around a campfire, consumed with plenty of adult beverages. Instead, I will grow sentimental with this, my eyes welling up at the conjuring of the picture of my father in the woods of his homeland.

Beginning in 1981, we set up deer camp northeast of Montague, in a bit of the Manistee National Forest that’s called Hell’s Half Acre. We continued to hunt at the farm, but only after our opening week at camp.

Dad camped as long as he was physically able, then would only drive out to hunt for the day. More and more, he did what would be the most natural thing in the world for the farm boy to do.

He would drive to the farm and sit in the woods all by himself.

If I were him, that’s where I would have been. All alone with a mind crowded with the best of memories. No one to pester him as he watched for deer and scanned his mind for distant days past when he was the oldest of eight, the leader of the pack.

The daily chores, which formed young John’s work ethic and which earned from his children the saying about his stamina for work: “Just peckin’ away.” The love of animals, which he kept alive as in the laying hens he had for years at our house. The planting and weeding and harvesting, which he continued until the final summer of his life. The family meals at the jam-packed table of ten, which he headed up at our house with our crowded table of seven.

There was the walk to the west of the farm, to the township school. And in the same direction but a longer trek to Stony Lake and the nearest store, from where he once bought a bag of sugar but, during the walk home, did not note either its small hole or how light it was by the time he arrived at the farm. A shorter jaunt to the east ended at the Catholic church, where young John once sang his way to a Christmas talent show victory and five pounds of chocolates. And road trips in the headlight-less auto meant one or two kids would be sitting on the hood, lanterns lighting the way.

Now that I have lived in three states and six towns, in places where it was flapjackingly flat (Port Hope, Michigan) to spots with spectacular bluffs which gave way to ear-poppingly steep hills and deep valleys, which so tightly surrounded the town that I experienced claustrophobia (Guttenberg, Iowa), my experiences have taught me that I most enjoy and esteem the soft rolling hills of Claybanks, Township and the Eilers farm.

Oh, the rolling landscape!  Not too flat.  Not too hilly.  Just right.

I might never live on that hallowed land, but I will take many holy memories to the end of my days.

Leaving the farm, heading north.

First family reunion

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Dad’s four living siblings, from left: Margaret, Pat, Barb, and Betty

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!