It was more a pilgrimage than a vacation. I’d received the invitation to my aunt’s 85th birthday party on a particularly foggy day when the work on my desk was piled high and I asked myself, “why not?”
My Uncle Nick and Aunt Winnie Maricich at her 85th birthday party at Ante’s Croatian restaurant earlier this month. The couple will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary in December. The Daily Triplicate/Michele Thomas
I surrendered to the tug at my heart to “go home” and see family and friends and be a part of my aunt’s celebration.
I boarded Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to Los Angeles in Salem, Ore., after spending a few days with my granddaughter. Most people I tell about my trip shake their heads at the thought of such a long train ride. But the back country of Oregon and California is scenery that soothes my soul. From golden haystacks in Albany to endless strawberry fields outside Salinas, I was entertained and awed by what happens behind the scenes, beyond the highways, blurred from the portholes of planes.
My ultimate destination was San Pedro, where my mother, her three sisters and I were all born. My accommodations were luxurious: my very own condo adjacent to the Donald Trump National Golf Course overlooking the ocean, compliments of a girlfriend who recently inherited the condo from her aunt, whom I had known well.
I was situated near everyone I hoped to visit and the car that came with the condo would get me there.
I spent one afternoon with four of my Grgas cousins. It was intended to be lunch at my cousin Mark’s house (he and I were baptized together), but we kept talking until Mark’s wife served dinner and it was dark.
After processing the day’s conversations, I realized my cousins had taken care of the family after I left for college. As I moved from San Francisco to Honolulu to Grants Pass, my cousins stayed put, assuming responsibility for the elders. They included the men on hunting trips, drove widows to medical appointments, hosted barbecues and mourned at their funerals. I hadn’t been there.
The next morning I woke up early and drove to Green Hills Memorial Park. My dad had bought two spots in the mausoleum there when it was built in the early ’50s. I remember him talking about the fabulous view which didn’t make any sense to me then.
I ran my fingers over the name plates mounted on marble, not just my parents’ names, but the parents of my cousins and many other Croatian relatives resting nearby. I looked out across the green rolling hills to San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles below. That was where they had arrived on the West Coast and fished, worked hard and made a living. Now I understood why my father chose this spot: the view, of course, was not for him and Mom, it was a gift to me and anyone else who came to visit.
My Aunt Winnie’s 85th birthday party was the grand finale event before I boarded the train for home. There were 40 of us there, including my aunt’s two great-grandchildren whom I had never met. Almost all of her nieces and nephews were there, but I won the award for traveling the farthest.
I sat with Aunt Minnie’s three daughters and one of my Aunt Margaret’s sons and their spouses. Except for a few wrinkles and gray hair, it could have been Christmas dinner 50 years ago! We passed the mostaccoli, sauerkraut and crusty bread. We talked about our grandmother’s house, the swing set in my old back yard, the cookies Aunt Margaret used to make.
The cousins are bound together by blood and memories—our mothers were sisters—and nothing will ever change that. We spent just a few hours together, but vowed to have a cousins-only reunion “soon.” Time will tell.
I spent the better part of a week re-acquainting myself with family and friends I grew up with. I spent two days—a good amount of time for reflection—riding a train and thinking about what is important. I have returned with a better sense of who I am and who I want to be.