An abiding memory of my father-in-law’s funeral will be our sons shoveling damp, clay soil until their grandfather’s grave was level with the surrounding grass.
The older one did not feel right leaving that task to someone outside the family. So, after other mourners had drifted away, he and his brother picked up the shovels. The day was hot, 90 degrees-plus, with few clouds in the sky and little breeze. The lone cemetery worker said that in more than 25 years he had seen only one other family finish filling a grave. His backhoe remained in the parking lot.
It was, our older son said afterward, a way to honor their grandfather.
The obituary I wrote for the family began with these words: “Years after he had retired and moved away from Rock Island, Martin H. ‘Marty’ Galex remained partial to his hometown community.” He was buried Aug. 26 in the Hebrew Cemetery in Rock Island, Illinois.
Such occasions beget poignant moments: Marty’s 11 grandchildren carrying his casket from the hearse; his eldest child, my wife Audrey, telling those children how much their grandfather loved them; the grandchildren sitting silently in the tent after the service.
There were also joyful scenes: the grandchildren piled onto couches at the hotel, chattering away as the closest of cousins; eating at Marty’s favorite restaurants (with barely a green vegetable in sight); and a tour of the mattress manufacturing business that Wilbur and Rose Galex built in Rock Island and that Marty, their only child, owned for many years.
Audrey, her two sisters and their brother understand how the success of that enterprise set them on their way. For the grandchildren, who range in age from 14- to 30-years-old, this was the factory they have heard about since childhood, though some may not yet appreciate its significance.
The funeral was a trip back in time for me. When I met the family, I was in my early 20s and in my first full-time job, reporting for a newspaper that served readers on the Illinois and Iowa sides of the Mississippi River. This is where I began my career and met my wife, and I retain an affection for this place and that time. Driving once familiar streets, I remembered stories that I wrote and thought of others I wish I had.
Four decades ago, the Jewish community in the Quad-Cities, as the area is known, numbered a couple of thousand. There was a Conservative congregation in Rock Island and a Reform congregation in Davenport, Iowa. Each now has fewer than 100 households. The week before the High Holy Days, both moved into a new home in Davenport, where they share a sanctuary, office space, and a rabbi.
Three generations of my wife’s family were active at the Tri-City Jewish Center in Rock Island. The “old,” circa 1936, red brick building with white columns now houses a church. The “new” building, which opened in 1981, has been sold and will be repurposed as a YMCA and public library.
The family last gathered at the Hebrew Cemetery on a chilly day in January 1998 for the funeral of Marty’s mother, Rose, who is buried a row in front of her husband. Elsewhere in the cemetery is the grave of an infant who lived only days, my wife’s other brother. Stones were placed on their markers.
Audrey and her siblings talked about how Rose (excuse me, “Sugie”) would have delighted in her great-grandchildren, several of whom she never knew. They laughed, knowing how Marty would have enjoyed the gathering, especially the meals. And they regretted that her condition prevented their mother Roberta (excuse me, “Bobbie”), Marty’s wife of 64 years, from being present.
In her eulogy Audrey said that her father’s life brought to mind a prism, in which what you see is dependent on which facet you examine. That surely applies to all of us. My father-in-law died during Elul, the month of introspection before the High Holy Days. His telephone calls and conversations in the days before he died were in keeping with that theme.
In better health, Marty was happiest when his children and grandchildren visited, when he would cook latkes or bake a chocolate cake. We will make his memory a blessing by gathering when we can, enjoying meals together, and sharing anew the history that connects generations of this family.