Every other Thanksgiving, the doors of my house open to more than twenty relatives and family friends: lounging at the extended dining room table, perching on chairs and folding tables and commenting on the delicious cream puffs. For one brief night, the house swells with the music of conversation and the aroma of hot chocolate. By the evening, the games come out, and we settle comfortably near the fireplace and catch up on a year of news.
Not only is it our off year, but it’s 2020. It’s no secret that family gatherings are hardly viable. As the holidays approach, we’ll have to settle for celebrations like we do school: isolated and through our screens. As awkward as virtual family gatherings can be, it’s important to value time with relatives; it’s all we’ll get during the pandemic.
My extended family began regular Zoom calls at the start of shelter-in-place. Every other week at 5:45 p.m. on Sunday, my three-headed family Zooms in from the living room to interface with three generations of relatives from all of the way across town, state and country.
As an introvert, I can testify that virtual family reunions are incredibly awkward.
It begins with the stilted greetings and progresses to interrogation-style updates on people’s past few weeks. The cousins pass the spotlight like a hot potato: some freely elaborating, others saying as little as possible. I spend half of the meetings dreading my turn and the other half listening as the conversation swerves from job applications to my aunt’s paralyzed pet bird to how to brew the best liquor. It’s patchy at best.
Some of my cousins are in college; some are past college. Some of them are older than me by five years; some surpass me by fifteen. Some attended the same school as me, but more had their childhoods before I came into existence. Under normal circumstances, I’d only see them once a year for a single glowing evening of laughter and light—and even then, I might only exchange a few words with them. Yet somehow, despite the pandemic, I’m seeing them more than I typically would.
We’re a motley crew, and only a handful of people carry the conversation. Still, without these family Zooms every weekend, I wouldn’t have known that one relative got engaged, another won a songwriting contest and another asked a girl on a date for the first time. While virtual gatherings can’t hold a candle to the crackling fireplace of a Thanksgiving evening, they’re the best we can do (and, for the record, they’re far more amusing). Given our circumstances, I’ll settle with that.