BALTIMORE — About noon on that Saturday in May, Sarah Holzman threw open the front door to her home to greet more than a dozen relatives and friends. It was the first gathering since before the pandemic began, and she had not seen some faces in more than a year. Inside her home were the fixings for a massive, all-in-one party, from Easter eggs and birthday cupcakes to Thanksgiving pies and Christmas presents.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘Next year, next Christmas, next 4th of July.’ We were like: ‘No, we have to have this one back,’” said Holzman. “We’re not just going to do it later.”
After months of unprecedented isolation, with socially distanced, outdoors events and Zoom calls, the COVID-19 vaccines have ushered in a time of reunions. Some people like Holzman are hosting large parties. Others are having more quiet, intimate visits, sitting on the front porch, or tucking their grandchildren into bed for the first time in a year.
“We have a lot to make up for,” said Holzman, a therapist who began making plans after the adults in her family were fully vaccinated. There was so much celebratory paraphernalia in their home that when her son walked in from college a few days before the event, she said he blurted out, “This looks like Party City threw up in here.”
Holzman and her husband Rich welcomed a crew of guests including their adult children, her parents, her brothers and their children. They marked the dozen birthdays that had been missed because of COVID-19 with cupcakes, each decorated with a personalized age candle. Chairs were set up to honor the two college graduates, complete with the grandmother, Holzman’s mother, as the keynote speaker.
A lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers symbolized July 4th. An egg hunt and dinner with ham, asparagus and mashed potatoes recalled the lost Easter. The Holzmans’ neighbors showed up in Halloween costumes with trick or treat candies. They sang Christmas carols and exchanged gifts. For the New Year, the children counted down and blew noisemakers. The adults poured chilled bubbly beverages and sang “New York, New York.”
“It was so great to see each other’s faces in real life,” said Holzman, 48. “Hugging felt even better.”
Bishop Donté L. Hickman, Sr., pastor of the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, is seeing many pictures of his joyful parishioners splashed across Instagram and Facebook. They’re getting together for parties and going on trips. At the same time, he said some of the older members of his congregation — although they are vaccinated — are still either not able to get back out to see people, or are afraid to.
“Some younger people are more uninhibited and are not averse to risk taking,” said Hickman, 50, whose church also has locations in Howard and Harford counties. “An older population is still waiting for it to be safe enough. They just don’t know what to believe and to think.”
He’s trying to balance both. For now, each night at 6 p.m., he’s supporting as many as 80 people, some of whom he feels are depressed or too isolated, through a prayer conference call.
For one Baltimore family, their more than a year wait to see a beloved mother and grandmother finally ended on a Thursday night in late May. Rebecca Echols’ mother drove 13 hours from Florida to see Echols, her husband, and their two children.
They had last been together in March 2020, for a spring break at Disney World. Since then, Echols said the family tried to stay in touch with virtual calls with their “Mimi” at least three times a week, and by posting photos to a shared album of six-year-old son Anderson and two-year-old daughter Arden.
When her mother, Debbie Bell, 65, climbed out of the car that evening, Echols’ children ran to her, with Arden in her fairy wings. They collapsed in a long hug.
“It felt like hope and relief,” said Echols, 37, an assistant professor of voice and vocal pedagogy at Morgan State University. “It has been such a long time.”
Dr. Neda F. Gould, clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said this time of transition and reunions can be a lot to take in.
“For many people, there is that excitement and sense of joy, but there is also a sense of sadness and grief,” Gould said. “We see family members, and they’ve aged and they look different. It’s a lot to process.”
Gould encouraged people to take a pause.
“Don’t feel like you should feel a particular way,” Gould added. “This has been a challenging year, and shifting to this new ‘normal,’ we are going to feel a lot of different things, and it just takes some time.”
Tevis Simon, 42, is a peer-to-peer mentor at the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and owns Walk by Faith, a consulting business that provides mental health and substance abuse services. Even as she is excited to see family and friends, she doesn’t think society should go back to what’s known as “normal.”
The West Baltimore woman believes this is a time to change — in the workplace and in our relationships — and add in more empathy, resilience and care for each other, and ourselves.
And while official numbers show more than half of the state’s population has received a second dose of the vaccine, there are still people who haven’t gotten a shot. That casts some uncertainty over these reunions.
“People are thinking in their heads: Is this OK? Do I shake this person’s hand? Do I ask every single person, ‘Are you vaccinated?’” said Hopkins’ Gould.
Simon found herself trying to shake off those thoughts as she saw her beloved niece for the first time a few weeks ago, even though both were vaccinated.
“I gave her a big old hug, we looked at each other, and it was just good to not feel like, ‘If I get too close, could I have it, and give it to her, and then she gives it to her kids?’”
They celebrated with a long awaited lesson, where her niece taught her how to make lemon tarts. Standing side-by-side in the kitchen, Simon found herself marveling at their physical closeness.
“You know, we can do this, we can cook together, we can get our hands dirty together,” Simon said. “It just felt good to be with family — and I can’t deny the lemon tarts turned out amazing.”
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner