There’s a song lyric, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going ...”
In my case, that spark was an interview. A couple months back, my friend Trey Kay, who is the host and producer of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s podcast “Us & Them,” talked with me about traditions that have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I told about a family reunion that has been going on for 70+ years on the Sunday before Labor Day — but not this year.
Towards the end of our chat, Trey asked how I’d feel if we weren’t able to gather in 2021 either. Hearing my response as the show aired, I kept thinking how depressed I sounded as I pondered his question. Normally, I’m a pretty upbeat person and try to make laughter a daily habit. However, I knew the scenario he presented could be reality.
Right then, I decided to look toward things I COULD do, rather than focusing on what was missing from 2020. Enter Zoom.
For the past 12 years, my mom and her younger brother have traded off hosting the family’s Thanksgiving gathering. We’d already resigned ourselves to the fact that it wouldn’t be safe to attempt meeting in person.
Spark ignited, I sent messages to my uncles, aunts and cousins, asking if they’d take part in a virtual reunion instead. The response was an enthusiastic, “YES!”
At 2 p.m. on the fourth Thursday in November, 34 of us crouched around computers, iPads and iPhones in a Zoom room. In addition to the 12 or so of us in West Virginia, our crew joined from California, Texas, Florida, Maryland and Virginia. If it had been a “normal” year, it would have only been the folks in this state breaking bread (or, more appropriately, a wishbone) together, and we likely wouldn’t have reached out to the others, even by phone.
Buoyed by this success — and wanting to keep the fire going — I decided to attempt another Zoom reunion with my mom’s first cousins and their issue in December. This is a gathering that hadn’t happened since 1985, my great-grandmother’s last Christmas with us.
Back then, and in the years before, on Christmas Eve, we would all cram into the living room of my great-grandparents’ West Side home for fellowship, food, a reading of the second chapter of Luke, prayer, music and presents. Zoom would allow for everything but the food and presents, so it would be close enough.
The intervening years meant family members had adopted their own Dec. 24 traditions, or had other obligations, so we settled on meeting on the eve of Christmas Eve. My great-grandparents had five children who survived to adulthood, and each of those were represented by at least one of my mom’s first cousins. Again, we had 30-plus people in the Zoom room.
Wouldn’t you know it, but the first thing we talked about was all the food at those long-ago celebrations? Cousin Diann asked how many of us had marshmallow fluff in our refrigerators. Her brother Ray talked of recently making “Aunt Nina’s (my grandmother) opera cremes.” I couldn’t bring myself to admit to the group my kids had just walked in with Taco Bell drive-thru as we reminisced all the delicacies lovingly prepared for that special night.
My Uncle Keith started us off by reading Luke 2, making sure to announce that, just like Pappaw, he was reading from the King James version of the Bible. Round-robin prayers commenced after that, and then came the music. Cousin Carolyn played piano (slightly out of tune, just like Mammaw’s) while we sang carols. Even 7-year-old Reagan joined in with her solo version of “Hallelujah.”
We may not have been tearing through yards of wrapping paper while opening presents as we did long ago, but the time spent together was certainly a gift.
It was a wonderful, memorable evening that would not have happened if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic. Work with what you have. Focus on what you CAN do. Find that silver lining.
“It only takes a spark ... And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing.” Even when that glow has an electronic, and slightly blue, tint.