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Celebrating During the Pandemic

Experiencing Joy Even During The National Grief

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On our 2019 beach trip, my granddaughter drew this sea turtle.
On our 2019 beach trip, my granddaughter drew this sea turtle.

One year ago today, after several days of driving from dark and snowy Vermont, we were just hours away from our sixth annual, two-week Christmas at the beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This was a big splurge. I saved all year to pay the beach house rental fee. The island we like to visit has been getting more and more expensive, but the high quality family time we enjoyed together made it all worthwhile.

Christmas at the beach with our granddaughter in a non-pandemic year.

This year, thanks to our intergenerational living situation, we will still be together, but far from the beach. It was 9 degrees below zero when I got up this morning. I plan to take a walk after it warms up, but it will be a far cry from bare toes in soft sand.

Not that spending the holidays in Vermont isn’t also enchanting — normally. It is certainly lovely outside, with shiny diamonds gleaming in the snow. But the caroling party, the Hannukah party, the Yankee Gift Exchange, the annual service at the Old West Church, various open houses … all canceled. Happily, some of these celebrations will be online, but, of course, that’s hardly the same.

I am not complaining. I know we are fortunate. Our barn-turned-house provides plenty of inside space, room for two Christmas trees this year. Outside, we have some small but serviceable sledding hills. We have heat, food, each other, cookies, colored lights, and presents under the tree. I know life is a real struggle for millions of Americans right now;I am deeply appreciative of my family’s blessings.  

What I am doing is pondering the nature of celebrating in a pandemic. Recently I started watching Nicole Wallace’s broadcast on MSNBC. Each night, she airs “Lives Well Lived,” a brief segment lifting up some of those who died from Covid-19. Last night’s segment told of eight retired nuns in the same religious order in Milwaukee. They all died in the same week. One night, Nicole told us about a baker in Brooklyn who used to put out free bread to feed the hungry during the pandemic, until he, too, was claimed by Covid. Another night it was a five year-old girl. Then there was a pregnant woman in her early 30s; the baby made it, but she didn’t.

These individual stories bring the pain alive in a way expert warnings and high daily death tolls, don’t. The stories make me cry. These brief segments are a gift: they allow me to honor and feel some of the overwhelming national grief. But, as the pandemic goes on and on and on, so too do our everyday lives. It seems intuitively obvious to me that celebrating the good in our lives is just as important as grieving the sorrows. We need to seize our celebrations when we can, to keep the sadness in balance. I think we can hold both joy and grief and simultaneously. So, yes, cry. And also, celebrate — safely, of course. And perhaps with some consideration of the massive personal challenges all around us.

That’s my belief. But I wanted to know what science has to say on the topic. On the Psychology Today website I found a column by Polly Campbell entitled, “Why You Should Celebrate Everything” She says that “moments of celebration make us pause and be mindful, and that boosts our well-being. … when we stop to savor the good stuff, we buffer ourselves against the bad and build resilience—and even mini-celebrations can plump up the positive emotions which make it easier to manage the daily challenges that cause major stress.

Which brings me to my big celebration a couple of weeks ago: Bob’s and my 50th wedding anniversary.

The first wedding I ever attended was my own, on a dreary November day in 1970. I don’t think many of the guests were in a celebratory mood. The reception in my mother’s living room was subdued, with lemonade and cake — but no alcohol. After all, neither the bride nor the groom was of legal drinking age. The bride, a senior in high school, was also three months pregnant.

Our wedding day, November 28, 1970

I was wildly in love, but I didn’t have any confidence the marriage would last. Both my mother and grandmother had gotten divorced. I suspected I would, too. It didn’t help that Bobby’s job was being a paper boy. I also knew the odds did not favor teenage newlyweds with a baby on the way. I didn’t have a job at all; I’d recently been fired from my job in the kitchen of a family-oriented restaurant, because, the manager told me a few years later, I was pregnant.

Bob, though, always believed our marriage was of the “till death do you part” variety and, amazingly, we’ve made it 50 years, so far. There are many reasons we have thrived, not least of which is the financial and emotional support we continued to receive from both sides of the family. But, especially given our starting point, I thought our 50th anniversary was well worth celebrating. We’re not just still married – we’re happy to be life partners.

50 years later, on our anniversary.

Our anniversary was November 28th. That day was also 51 years after our first kiss, and two weeks after the Governor of Vermont issued tighter Covid restrictions, banning any size social gathering, indoors or out. How then could we celebrate — a question many have asked all year, for weddings, graduations, birthdays, even the end of life.

Generally we don’t bother celebrating our anniversary. It’s just another year gone by. Plus the timing is never good, since it usually falls just days after Thanksgiving, and not long before Christmas. But early in 2020, I decided this year would be different. Fifty was too noteworthy to ignore. Neither Bob nor I were interested in anything grand. What mattered more was inclusivity. So the early plan was to invite everyone far and wide to an open house.

Obviously, the pandemic nixed that idea. Instead, we got a firepit for the front yard and put up a tarp with colored lights. We envisioned friends stopping by, one or two at a time, masked, and enjoying each other’s company outside by a bonfire. The Governor’s order against even outside gatherings killed that idea, too. So we dropped back to a Zoom gathering, along with an invitation for friends to drive by and honk-and-wave as we sat alone by the firepit. Since we both believed going inside a restaurant for dinner was not safe enough, Covid-wise, and neither of us wanted to cook, we had microwaved TV dinners by the dwindling fire as darkness fell and it got pretty darned chilly.

And it was all wonderful!! The Zoom format allowed us to celebrarte with friends and loved ones from all over, both geographically and in terms of time and their roles in our lives. From the neighbor across the street to a classmate from fifth grade, we got to feel the love of a lifespan — so much so, I almost missed the honk-and-wave because I didn’t want to end the Zoom experience. Outdoors it was just as sweet. And TV dinners, in the right frame of mind and with a little red wine, are just fine.

This probably sounds corny, but the entire celebration was heartfelt and therefore magic. Honoring this day allowed Bob and me to pause, and consider our lives and love together in a way we rarely do, and that made us both happy. Sharing the occasion with family and friends far and wide was a way of sharing the joy. I think we made our “guests” happy, too – much more so than at our actual wedding! I was positively blissful by the end of the day.

So here we all are, in a time of celebrations that on the outside may not live up to anyone’s hopes or expectations. But on the inside … ah, my friends, may you celebrate till your hearts are full.

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