Michele Grgas Thomas The Triplicate

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?"

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 mournandshy;ed 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


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.

Reach Michele Thomas, The Daily Triplicate's publisher, at

mthomas@triplicate.com, 464-2141, or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.