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Family Reunion

By Frank Gruber

Port Townsend is a small town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, at the entrance to Puget Sound. A fine natural harbor, its founders intended it to become the great port for the Pacific Northwest.

Merchants built fine brick and stone buildings. The federal government built an impressive granite customs house on the bluff overlooking the harbor. The county built a brick courthouse. Even the German government built a beautiful consulate in high Victorian style.

But the railroad stopped at Seattle, and Port Townsend never grew up. The old buildings remain, however. Hippies and crafts people discovered them in the sixties, I'm told, and now, filled with boutiques and bookstores, restaurants and bed and breakfasts, they serve the great trade of our day -- tourism.

Santa Monica began with a similar misconception, that the railroad would come and make Santa Monica bay a great port. Go to Port Townsend if you want to know what Santa Monica might look like today if a large body of water separated Santa Monica from Los Angeles.

Or, go to Port Townsend just to have fun. I spent five charming days there last week when the extended clan of Grubers met there for a reunion. Thank the ambiance, perhaps, but it turned out to be our most complete gathering in 37 years. About 70 descendants of my grandparents and in laws attended.

Although I am in close contact with a few of my cousins, I hardly know many of them and their children and I rarely see my uncles and aunts. The Grubers have scattered over the country and beyond: my sister lives in Italy and one cousin just took a job in London. We have all manner of jobs and lifestyles. Most no longer have the name Gruber.

But we share certain traits. Communing with so many people who not only look like me, but who are also just as opinionated, I got a reminder of who I am. I suppose there are shy and retiring families and that they have quiet reunions, but that's not us.

I was also reminded that "who I am" owes a lot to "who they were." When looking at my family and its history, I don't know if I can separate my predilections from my sociological destiny.

My father's parents, Frank and Rebecca Gruber, were immigrants from Rumania who settled in Akron, Ohio. Like many immigrants before and since, they opened a little store. Frank had started to sell life insurance, too, when, in 1930, just as the Great Depression was getting serious, he was killed by a drunk driver as he stepped off a curb, leaving Rebecca to raise their seven children alone. At the time, my father, the third child, was nine.

Rebecca invested her life insurance proceeds in an apartment building, but she lost it all as the Depression deepened. She lost the store, too. The bank went under and she lost her $80 savings account. She made ends meet, with a lot of help from her neighbors.

With that history, how could I not rate the needs of the working poor, of immigrants, higher than those of, say, hotel owners?

My father's older sister and brother took jobs to support the family, instead of going to college, but my father's public school teachers encouraged him to pursue an academic education. He won a college scholarship and his mother made sure he took advantage of it. That changed his life and, since he met my mother at college, enabled mine.

With that history, naturally I believe in not only the opportunity for every kid to go to college, but also the expectation that even immigrant and poor children are entitled to and can handle an academic education.

My father and his siblings, male and female, served in World War II. They came back and took advantage of the G.I. Bill. They found good jobs and started businesses. They bought homes the government helped them buy. They prospered, and their many children went to college and they prospered, too, to a level beyond what Frank and Rebecca could have contemplated when they got off the boat.

With that history, I don't believe the role of government at all levels in creating jobs and building housing is some abstract concept that doesn't affect real people. Economic development is not something for people who have all they need to look down their noses at. If traffic congestion is a problem, don't blame development, don't exile young families to the desert sprawl: build a transit system.

My grandmother ultimately moved to Los Angeles and notwithstanding that she had lost one nest egg in an apartment building, she and her second husband invested their savings in a six unit apartment in the Fairfax district. They lived in one unit, and the other five apartments and social security provided for their retirement.

With that history, perhaps, I learned not to take for granted capitalism and capitalists, and to appreciate specifically the importance of investing in cities, because there are risks involved in doing so, and people can put their money elsewhere.

Sometimes I worry that I have an inconsistent set of beliefs. I like government regulation and investment, and I like unions and minimum wages, but I also like developers and entrepreneurs and I am skeptical about a lot that government does -- especially when it is at its most well intentioned, like it was with urban renewal. Perhaps my ideas are consistent only with my own history.

The Grubers have always had reunions. Thrown together as a kid with my cousins might be where I absorbed the idea that people like other people, even strangers, and like to hang out in crowds, filling parks and beaches and piers, because what could be stranger but more like real life than spending time with people you never see for years, and don't really know, but with whom you share an affinity?

Walk along a crowded street. Imagine it's a reunion, and that you are related to all the other people. After all, you are.

You have your own past, and no doubt your own beliefs based on it. Or perhaps you have managed to transcend your past, like my cousin who lives "off the grid" in Arizona. The past should not be destiny. Even I can't relate every idea I have to some problem that confronted my grandmother.

But I can't get too far away from her, either. At Gruber reunions we play a penny ante card game called Shipwreck, in which the dealer deals himself two hands. He (or she) gets to look at one, and then chooses whether to take it or the "widow." When I deal, I generally stick with the cards I pick up first.

That's who I am.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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