Life Lessons I Learned From My Grandfather

Sometimes you do not get what you want in life, but in the end, what you get is better than what you desired.

Life Lessons From Grandfather 1Photo: Courtesy Michelle Gagliano
Michelle’s grandfather Alfredo Valentino enjoying his favourite hobby—gardening.

The Secret of My Grandfather’s Success

Many people in the workforce have a goal or a dream, but they do not know how to fulfill it, which can lead to them feeling hopeless. Everyone wants to reach their definition of success—but is one’s sense of achievement in the workplace really the key to happiness? I found a whole new perspective in the form of my grandfather’s “success” story.

My grandfather Alfredo Valentino has been through a lot in his life. He was born in a small town in Abruzzo, Italy, to a middle-class family who did work on the farm and had a little shop.

He would wake up at four in the morning every day to work on the farm. Although he was a great student in school, he only went up to Grade 3 because he was required to help with the family farm. He barely had any time to play or go out with friends, like any typical young boy would love to do. Instead he always had to work hard in order to contribute to the family business.

Life Lessons Grandfather B W 3Photo: Courtesy Michelle Gagliano
A portrait of Alfredo, photographed in February 1949.

A New Start in Canada

In 1951, when he was 24, he heard they were looking for people to move to Canada. So he went to apply at the town hall (without his father’s approval) and got accepted. He could not stand his total lack of freedom any longer.

“If it weren’t for my father always making me work, I would not have come to Canada,” my grandfather says.

His parents did not give him any money for this journey. So he used his own hard-earned savings—the small amount was all he had—to travel to Canada. In total, it took 11 days on a ship to reach Halifax and then 36 hours on a train to arrive at the Brampton, Ontario, farm destination. Back in the 1950s, almost everything was farmland and every young man on the ship was assigned to a different city to work; everyone was spread apart from one another. There was no way to communicate to the others he knew from the ship, except by sending letters. So, my grandfather was alone in a new country, far away from home, not knowing anyone and not speaking English or French. Despite these obstacles, his ultimate goal was to start a new life in order to escape the never-ending working life he faced in Italy.

At the farm in Brampton, the owner quickly saw what a hard-working young lad my grandfather was. So, instead of paying him the expected wage of 45 cents an hour, he paid him 75 cents an hour. Although the couple who owned the farm were very nice to him and treated him like family, he was not satisfied. He dreamt of being more successful, of better career advancements.

One day, he got an offer to work in the construction industry. That was a huge opportunity for a newly immigrated young farmer eager to move up in the world. Determined to start on his new vocation, he tried to sneak out of the house that night. But the stairs in the house made so much noise that the owners caught him red-handed before he could leave. He was afraid that they would be angry with him and send him back to Italy. Instead, they were understanding and asked him to at least finish his one-year contract with them before seeking other employment.

Life Lessons From Grandfather B W 2Photo: Courtesy Michelle Gagliano
Alfredo (second from left), with friend and business partner Ignat Kaneff to the right of him.

Building a Future

A few months after arriving in Canada, my grandfather did some work for Ignat Kaneff; they became friends and started a construction business together. One of their early success stories was the construction of Mississauga’s first high-rise building, which consisted of 262 apartments. They completed many other projects together and were constantly busy.

My grandfather prospered through hard work and the way he used his natural skills to his advantage. That’s how he became successful in Canada. Around 1967, however, he become overwhelmed with stress, sleepless nights and anxiety from the business. He also had two young daughters (my mother and my aunt) to take care of, as my grandmother was in the hospital at the time. The combined stress and anxiety unfortunately drove him into a major depression. During a medical checkup, his doctor asked him, “What do you want, your money or your health?”

“Both!” my grandfather replied. But he knew what was best for him and asked to be bought out of the business. He then began a smaller business of his own, which resulted in less stress and more time with family. Had he chosen not to quit his former job, he might have been a billionaire today. But family and health are more important than wealth.

Sometimes you do not get what you want in life—be it top employee status, highest pay or prestigious awards—but in the end, what you get is better than what you desired. Of course, it is still important to work hard, and people should strive to reach their goals. But what is the most important is to not allow work to take over your life—or take your life away.

My grandfather will turn 95 in October; even at this ripe old age, he is still strong, well and high-spirited. Looking at his story as a life example, he teaches us to work hard, but at the same time not to forget to have fun, enjoy life and have a good sense of humour about it all. Work is important, sure, but there is much more to life than just that. Overall, this is the ultimate key to happiness.

Next, find out what one recent immigrant wishes he’d known before moving to Canada.

Originally Published in Our Canada