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
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
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
firstname.lastname@example.org, 464-2141, or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.