The Life Of An American Farmer
This week, I had the privilege to use my writing and speaking skills in an unexpected way — to honor the life and legacy of my beloved Uncle Clem, who died Monday from a heart attack while walking along a dirt road leading to his home.
When my mom asked me to give a eulogy at his funeral, I was humbled — and apprehensive — all at the same time. Would I be able to find the words that would do his life justice? Am I worthy and capable of such a feat? Would I be able to control my emotions without breaking down mid way through my message?
Instead of letting these anxieties paralyze me, I did what I normally try to do in these situations. I gave it to God.
And as always, He came through.
Not only did God give me the words, but He gave me the strength to harness my emotions and deliver a speech that I hope made my uncle proud.
So today, I’d like to share with you my eulogy for my dear Uncle Clem, for his was a remarkable life that can serve as an inspiration to us all. I also hope that by sharing his story, you will gain a deeper insight into the life of the American small farmer, a dying breed that at one time made the heart of our great nation beat strong.
Eulogy For Clement Zapalac
When I was a little girl, one of my favorite places in the world was my grandparents’ farm in Frydek (Texas). Simply put, it was a magical place for me. Being a city girl, there was always an adventure to be had or something new to experience on the farm. Many a happy memory I had here … and when I look back at those memories now, I realize that most of them had everything to do with my Uncle Clem.
When we would drive down from Dallas, my mom’s station wagon would barely come to a stop on the gravel before I’d be out the door and bounding across the farm to find my Uncle Clem. From the time I was about four years old, I would follow him around the farm like a puppy, moving from one adventure to the next, making sure to insert myself in everything he did.
If he needed to plow a field, I would beg to ride in the tractor. If he needed to feed the cows, I was there glued to his side. And if he needed to go to town, I was the first to jump in his car to go along for the ride.
Never once did he make me feel that he didn’t have time for me. Never once did he tell me to go play somewhere else. Never once did he infer that I got in his way.
But he could have. He could have told me all those things, but he had too much patience and kindness in his heart to disappoint a little girl so eager to be with him. And I know better now … for the amount of work he had as a farmer is an extreme I will never know in my own life.
A Labor of Love
From the time he was a young boy, Clem Zapalac faithfully worked by his father’s side on the family farm, a legacy that sustained many and touched only a few.
His was a labor of love that would come to consume his life. For 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, he would wake at dawn to feed the chickens, guineas, pigs and livestock, and then out to the fields to work the land for hours on end, under the scorching sun in summer and against the icy wind in winter. Not until the sun set was his day ever done.
His skin grew leathery, his hands rough and his body tired, but he pressed on doing the only work our family knew for generations.
While his friends and siblings went their separate ways, he stayed behind to care for his mama and daddy — my grandparents, Ignac and Stephania. For that’s how things were done in the old country of Czechoslovakia — children were born and bred to work the farm until their parents’ dying days, at which time the family birthright would pass to their hands.
So this is indeed what this gentle man did, overlooking other possible livelihoods to spend his life as a good son in the Czech tradition — and carry on the legacy brought by my great great grandparents Lezak in the mid 1800s, when they immigrated from Czechoslovakia to start a new life in Texas.
I asked him a couple years ago how he ever managed to get his work done when I would come to town. With his signature smile that always seemed to light up his face, he told me it wasn’t easy. And with kindness brimming from his piercing blue eyes — a trait also shared by my grandfather — he went on to say that he always looked forward to my visit, even though it meant that his work would fall behind.
I think for my brother Mark and I, Uncle Clem served as a father figure that was much needed in our lives. So it was fitting that he was also Godfather to us both.
I’ve always told my brother that he was the lucky one. Because he was a lot older, he got to spend ENTIRE summers on the farm with Uncle Clem. But I know for a fact that Uncle Clem made Mark work a lot harder in those fields!
Their time together, though, wasn’t all hard labor. They did a lot of fun stuff too, like fishing and barbequing and just horsing around. They also tackled a lot of special projects together, like the time they refurbished an old motorbike, complete with a new engine and paint job.
But most importantly was the bond between Clem and my brother. Without a doubt, Clem loved Mark as if he was his own son. And I know my brother loved Clem as if he were his father.
My Uncle Clem was a man of many talents. God blessed him with an engineering mind and keen intelligence, gifts that he often put to good use when helping family and friends. In fact, at one time, Clem had quite the reputation for repairing broken down cars, a skill that he picked up all on his own.
A Modern-Day St. Francis
But perhaps Clem’s most endearing quality was his unrelenting compassion for all living things. Many of us agree that Clem was like a modern-day St. Francis, taking in a number of animals over the years that he cared for and loved deeply.
Although Clem didn’t have children of his own, he would have made an amazing father. He was a man of character and a man of integrity; a man of devotion and a man of considerable feeling.
For indeed, Clem Zapalac’s life had a rich and lasting purpose that I believe we’ve only just begun to understand.
If anything, we must look to his life as an example of how to live our own. Although he didn’t have wealth, he was rich in generosity and forgiveness; in compassion and understanding; in faith and humility.
In closing, I would like to recite the Beatitudes, which were given to us by Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount. I believe my uncle lived his life by many of these virtues — a life we can all look to for inspiration.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
And now it is time to say goodbye and let Clem go. But before we do, I want to share the parting message my uncle and I always told each other every time we spoke on the phone or saw each other in person. We would simply say, “Sbohem,” which in Czech means, “To be with God.”
Sbohem, Uncle Clem. You are and always will be in my heart forever.