By Jason Zweig | Dec. 4, 2016 1:07 pm ET
Image credit: Irving J. Zweig (right), in 1961, with sons Stefan (left) and Jason (center)
My father, Irving Zweig, was a farmer, a teacher, a war hero, a historian and political scientist, a newspaper editor and publisher, a semi-pro baseball player, and a connoisseur of art and antiques. He could recite hundreds of poems by heart and did the crossword puzzle every day (in pen, of course); he also built stone walls by hand, split firewood for fun, and even in his early 60s could toss 50-pound bales up to the top of a hay wagon as if they were made of styrofoam.
My dad grew up on a farm in rural New York State in a house without electricity or indoor running water; in the winters, he and his three siblings would wake up under blankets encrusted with frost; some years, money was so scarce that they wrapped string around their shoes to keep them from falling apart.
As a teenager, my dad spent hours on the edge of the nearest train yard breaking the wild horses my grandfather had bought out west from the Sioux and shipped back to Albany by rail.
In his days as a crusading newspaperman, he was nearly murdered by the henchmen of a corrupt union boss. Today, museums up and down the East Coast are filled with superlative art and antiques that he and my mom had discovered.
Patience didn’t come naturally to him, but in his later years one of my dad’s favorite pastimes was training himself to stand stock-still long enough to get chickadees to eat sunflowers from the palm of his outstretched hand.
He was the greatest, strongest, wisest man I have ever known. When he died all too soon, in 1981, I thought of the concluding line from The Iliad by Homer: “And so the Trojans buried Hector, breaker of horses.”
I could write a library full of books about my dad, but for now I just want to post something that he wrote about his father, Sam, who died in 1957, before I was born, and whom I never met. Sam, a peasant farmer from the village of Rowa-Ruska in what is now Ukraine, was illiterate but fanatically driven to succeed. He arrived in the U.S. around 1908, worked in a sweatshop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and saved enough to buy a farm near Albany. By all accounts, including my dad’s, there wasn’t much of the milk of human kindness in Sam. But he drove his family even harder than he drove himself, and he made them who they became; the roots are the toughest part of any tree.
Here’s the editorial that my dad wrote about his father in 1957 in The Wellsville Press, the weekly newspaper he then ran in southern Ohio. When he relocated later to Connecticut, he continued to republish it annually on Father’s Day.
To read this PDF of the original, you might have to enlarge it a couple of times: dad. So I’ve also transcribed the full text below. I hope you enjoy it.
In Memory of My Father
By Irving J. Zweig
The Thompsonville Press (Conn.), June 14, 1962
A man dies. His body, like the dead leaves of a tree, falls to the ground. And soon it is absorbed in the soil enriched forevermore.
But what of the man as spirit and vital force? Where is he? Why has he gone? Why, even, has he come if only to battle life in a contest he cannot win?
Or can he win?
On a farm in the village of Nassau, N.Y., sits a house where my father lived and made his answer to life. Two mammoth colonial elms brood oppressively over its tin roof, casting dark shadows or weeping in the rain.
The trees know. They are of nature made and mourn for a kindred spirit.
For such was my father. Of nature made and nourished. And like them — as kind and as cruel as nature. But a man. A man, I say, a man as nature carved him.
Father was not a kind man as kind men are known by accepted standards. He never stooped to give. Like the soil in the fields, his bounty was given only to those who cultivated it. And because his giving was so selective, the fruits were often as beautiful and as bountiful as nature’s own. Only after he died did people fully understand the essence of his “charity” and they came in overwhelming numbers to say, “I’m where I am today because he helped me.”
I tell you this because he was known far and wide as a man without charity, a man who would give to no organized cause, a miser who could not stand the sound of an electric pump because he counted its thumps in terms of thumps per penny.
Yet this newspaper is in part the product of those saved thumps. Father could be as lavish with a thousand dollars or five thousand dollars as the average man is with electrical thumps. But there had to be a cause and a man behind that cause. It couldn’t simply be “charity,” even to his own children.
Most of us are products of our home life, our education, our church and our friends. But father was orphaned at the age of nine, never had any education whatsoever, never attended church, and his friends, though many, came and went with his changing moods and violent disposition.
Any psychologist can tell you that such a man could not bring up a “normal” family. And maybe the psychologist would be right. But father did not want to bring up a “normal” family. Father had nothing but contempt for the normal. If there were any man alive with the courage to tell him that he was a “common man,” he would have spit in his eye and thrown him off his property.
You see, father was not a “common man” although his parents were peasants, his trade was farming and selling horses, his education non-existent. He was a man unique — different from all other men, past present and future. He didn’t want to be lumped together for security’s sake or for whatever it is that makes men want to be collectivized in name or fact.
No, father was not a “normal” man nor a “common” man. He did not want to bring up a normal family. He wanted us to be better than normal — not only in our studies and our chosen vocations, but loftier in our ideals, better morally, better educated, more ambitious, more active.
He drove us physically, mentally, spiritually almost from the minute we were born until the day he died.
How can you explain a man who was not above lying and cheating in his daily work, yet to whom a lie on the part of his children was an abomination? An illiterate farmer who sent all of his children to college — three at the same time. A man of such terrible temper that the walls of his living room were always stained with the coffee that he threw against them in his blinding rages. Yet a man who was able to raise God-fearing children, all of whom (with the exception of this writer) are eminently successful in their chosen professions — and if we may say so, of good moral character. Tell us, oh you psychologists, why and how?
Most men remember their boyhood with pleasure and regret — with a yearning to return to its idyllic, carefree days. But although our memories of youth are green with pleasurable interludes, “Life with Father” was hard and bitter. Not only did early poverty preclude the toys and playthings that most boys had in those days, but father would not permit us to use them when we did. If we wanted exercise, he always had an abundance of work that kept us well exercised. There were stables to be cleaned, there was corn to be hoed, wood to be chopped, cows to be milked or vicious western horses to be broken, and, of course, at night there were books to be read — the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, Thackeray, Dickens, Scott — all the great literature of the past.
Father did not worry about our becoming juvenile delinquents because we had no time to learn delinquency. Nor would we have dared. And it never occurred to him that youth was a time to be enjoyed. He felt, rightly or wrongly, that if we grew up to be good and successful men, we would enjoy life the more for our early hardships.
Most of all, father was a capitalist. He was a capitalist when we lived on five dollars a week or less and when he labored in the brine and steam of a tanning sweatshop. he was a capitalist without ever knowing the meaning of the term when he was relatively wealthy. He knew absolutely nothing about the meaning of free enterprise except its practice. He asked nothing of any man nor any government but opportunity and freedom. He found opportunity and freedom in the United States, and that’s why he loved the United States. Love it he did, and if we learned nothing else from him it was love of country.
My father wouldn’t want me to get emotional over him and thereby praise him falsely. But even if I did, it would not tell his story. And right or wrong, good man or bad man, he was proud of his life and would want it recorded as he lived it. This I have tried to do. And even though the tears blind me as this is written, not one word have I inscribed except as it might have been set down by anyone else who knew him.
Finally, let this be said. His body lies in the ground and his soul in the keeping of God. But he will not soon die. He lived life so fully that he penetrated into the natural scheme of things and the people he knew. That’s why the elms around his home cast a more mournful shadow now…why all who knew him are still of him — forever.
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