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BEVERLY BECKHAM

Grandfather's model of courage

The grandfather is the hero in this story, a humble, hard-working man who dedicated his life to his family, who had no dreams except theirs.

"We didn't know," his grandchildren said. They'd heard the tales of his hardships -- didn't all grandparents walk to school uphill both ways? -- but they hadn't listened. One week ago, at his funeral, they listened and wept.

Vincenzo Tagliarini was 13 in 1926 and living in Sicily, the oldest of four when his father died. He became a man overnight. He quit school and took over the family farm. He grew vegetables and olives, not just to eat but to sell. When his sister fell off a horse and died, he helped bury her, then returned to the fields to work.

He was nearly 30 when the Italian government called him to serve in World War II. He didn't talk much about the war, saying only that he was glad when the Americans arrived. In 1945 he married Grazia Cusmano, a girl from his town, and built a house and opened a shop on the first floor.

She tended the store while he worked the farm. He was supporting his mother and youngest brother as well as his wife; but he worked hard and he worked smart, and life, though never easy, was good.

A daughter was born, Anna, whom he named after his sister. Then five years later came another daughter, Concetta.

And it's here the story should end: They all lived happily ever after.

And they did, but not in Sicily and not on the farm.

Maybe it's because Vincenzo had to quit school when he was a boy; or maybe it's because he saw that people with an education worked for what they had, but they worked with their minds, not their bodies, and they always had more. "Education is the most important thing," he told his daughters.

Across the ocean, his wife's oldest sister, Angelina, wrote long letters home about her life and the opportunities she and her husband had in America. "Come live with us," she said. They had no children. They had extra rooms. And they had so much love to give.

Angelina is a hero of this story, too, because though it took courage for a 43-year-old man who didn't speak English to pack up his family and sell his possessions and kiss his mother goodbye and set off for a new life with only $500 in his pocket, it took courage, too, for Angelina to open her heart and her home. Her nieces were 5 and 9. Their parents owned only what they could carry. It was a risk, inviting them to come to America and live with them. What if it didn't work out?

Vincenzo and his family set sail on the Christopher Columbus on Dec. 12, 1955, and arrived in Manhattan on Dec. 20. Angelina had made matching pajamas for the girls and bought them new dolls and set a table full of their favorite food and decorated a Christmas tree. In all the black and white pictures that commemorate this day, everyone is smiling.

The families lived together for two years. Vincenzo worked for Con Edison all day, and at night he fixed machines. His wife worked as a seamstress. He learned that real estate was the place to make money and that an apartment house could be bought without a down payment. So he purchased a six-family house in Brooklyn, moved his family in, and lived there rent free.

And all the time, every day, he reminded his daughters to study hard and take advantage of learning because no one could take that away from them. And he pushed his son, Joseph, born in America. Angelina was his godmother. She made his christening dress. And in every picture of that day, she is holding him and smiling.

After a while, Vincenzo bought a second apartment house, and a third, and his daughters grew up and were accepted to college and he paid for their education. Both became pharmacists. His son graduated from Yale and he became a dentist.

Vincenzo never took a vacation, so he never went back to Sicily. But he sent his wife and children. He had four apartment houses by then and maintained them himself, so he couldn't leave. He worked nonstop for as long as he could, and only when he was in his 80s, and couldn't work anymore, did he finally agree to sell them.

His daughter, Anna, who lives in Canton, has told her children these stories. But they were just words until they heard them again last week, from the pulpit and later around a kitchen table. Now they are history, their history, and they are proud.

This is the life of which his children heard last week at their father's funeral. Anna listened to it all and wept, not just tears of sadness, but tears of respect and appreciation for all that had come before, and for all that had not been known.

Hard-working people like Vincenzo Tagliarini don't make headlines. They live quiet, unheralded lives. But they leave behind something far more lasting than fame and fortune -- they leave to their children and grandchildren a model of courage and duty, and the memory of a life well lived.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at bbeckham@globe.com.

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