Laurel was vaccinated. Sam was not. They lived together, along with Laurel’s vaccinated husband and Sam’s unvaccinated boyfriend, in a tumbledown chalet above an artificial lake outside Charleston. It was a home with creaking floorboards, bulging photo albums and a fireplace that had burned through three decades of Thanksgiving nights and Christmas mornings. It was a home the Haughts had always cherished, and it was about to come apart.
“Y’all got to move out,” Laurel, then 57, told her daughter. But Sam, then 32, appealed to her father, who didn’t share his wife’s alarm about the risk of contracting the virus. The eviction was overruled. So Laurel decided there was only one thing left to do: She moved out herself.
She drove just eight miles away, finding refuge with another daughter, this one inoculated. But across that short distance was a rift that is dividing households across America.
With Thanksgiving approaching, infections high or on the rise in many parts of the country and the vaccines now widely available to children, family breaches over immunization status are reaching new levels of rancor and intensity.
Summer is over, and fall is ending — seasons when many gatherings could be held outdoors. Now American families must simultaneously confront the time of year when all respiratory viruses spread most easily and the challenge posed by loved ones who have rejected the best way to protect themselves — and others — from a respiratory virus that has claimed more than 750,000 lives in the United States.
No firm estimates exist for the number of American families riven by conflicting views of the vaccine. But the topic is clearly top of mind for many people — and for the nation’s foremost infectious-disease specialists. Chief White House medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci last month urged the tens of millions of adults who remain unvaccinated to get their shots to safely enjoy the upcoming holidays.
Laurel understood how stubborn people could be in the face of that advice. West Virginia was among the first states to make the vaccines available to its general population. Yet its 41 percent vaccination rate is now the country’s lowest. Vaccine resistance led to the state’s summer wave of hospitalizations and deaths from the delta variant. It also led to the fear and strife afflicting the Haught family.
As a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, Laurel had received her shots early. But as evidence mounted that the vaccines were less effective against mutated strains of the virus, she worried. She worried about the vaccinated members of her family — herself; her 56-year-old husband, Joel, a heavy drinker and smoker; her sister, Aline Lavigne, a stroke survivor whom Laurel helped to care for and dreaded infecting. And she worried about Sam, who is young but has an autoimmune disorder that could make her more vulnerable to the virus.
Her concern extended beyond Sam’s physical safety. Laurel couldn’t make sense of what she saw as her down-to-earth, bitingly funny daughter’s departure from reality. Why was it that neither Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies nor a mother’s pleading were enough to bring her around to the facts — that the vaccine for most people was safe, and might just save Sam’s life, or the life of someone she cared about?
“The Sam I know is the Sam that would be looking at how they’ve been studying and researching and trying to develop a vaccine, and she would know that she’s more at risk,” Laurel said. “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.”
The frustration had turned to anger, and the anger had spurred Laurel’s decision to flee from her own house in May, when it became clear that neither Sam nor her boyfriend planned to get the shot. Joel stayed behind.
Laurel knew that her escape was temporary: Come the fall, she would have to decide what to do about the family’s tradition of gathering at the lake for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
What she didn’t know was that an unexpected loss would force them back together much sooner than that.
Pirates and propaganda
The Haught house sits on Lake Chaweva, a 42-acre body of water that was dammed in the 1930s under the leadership of a visionary fountain-pen salesman. Its name, suggestive of a backwoods sleepaway camp, is an abbreviation and combination of the words “Charleston, West Virginia.” The lake is narrow, extending in the shape of a cupped hand whose fingertips brush the eastern edge of Interstate 64. When all else is quiet, the drone of passing automobiles can still be heard.
Neither especially bucolic nor remote, Lake Chaweva (pronounced shuh-wee-vuh) had nevertheless bred an intensely close-knit community on its shores by the time Laurel said her wedding vows there on a July day in 1989. At its center was her new husband, Joel Haught.
Joel had grown up at his family’s lake house, and loved it so much that he returned as an adult. A night security guard by profession, he served stints on the lake’s official governing board and was the neighborhood’s go-to handyman. But his real vocation was as captain of the self-styled Lake Chaweva Pirates’ Association, whose members’ primary duty was to float around having a good time.
Boosted by a range of intoxicants, the pirates festooned their docks with the Jolly Roger. They plied the lake in homemade, glacially slow pontoon boats, blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd and REO Speedwagon. Their kids roamed freely and happily from the baseball diamond at one end of Lake Chaweva to the Huskey’s Dairy Bar at the other.
Sam, one of seven children raised by Laurel and Joel, knew she would never leave. And so when she struck up a romance during a 2017 vacation in Florida with a man who shared her love of Rob Zombie movies, she invited him to her home for a visit.
Deyontae Richardson, 27, spent the early years of his life in Liverpool, England, and moved to the United States upon the death of his father, a Somali immigrant and (genuine) ex-pirate. But never had he found a place that felt more like home than the lake. Richardson, known to everybody as “D,” was often the only Black person in sight. But he never felt unwelcome. On the contrary, he sensed that he was at last surrounded by free spirits and free thinkers after his own heart.
“When it comes to how everybody perceives the world, I am about as open-minded as you can be,” he said.
Richardson was even willing to listen when Samuel Scott — a former tattoo artist and aspiring reggae musician who lives in a cabin near the Haughts — began talking about Sumerian tablets revealing that aliens genetically engineered the human race hundreds of thousands of years ago. It was Scott who eventually warned him against taking the coronavirus vaccines, citing videos from the conspiracy-mongering website Brighteon.
Only fragments of these discussions made their way to Sam, but she, too, began to worry about the vaccines. She trusted her mother, but didn’t trust the information that Laurel shared with her about how the injections worked. Sam was convinced pharmaceutical companies and the federal government were hiding something.
She had suffered since her teen years from an immune system disorder that gave her outbreaks of painful skin lesions, and knew that her body’s haywire self-defense system might put her at greater risk from covid-19. Still, she decided to wait.
“I’ve said stuff to D at night, freaking out, because I can’t afford to get sick. But I’m also afraid of getting that vaccine,” Sam said. “Do the mask mandates. I’m all for that. But don’t try to force the vaccines on people.”
When speaking to her mother, Sam usually abridged her concerns, simply saying that she worried the vaccine could affect her skin condition. Laurel was bewildered. She had always assumed that Sam and D would get their shots when they became eligible. Now she suspected, correctly, that there was more to their resistance than they were telling her.
Was Donald Trump to blame? Laurel, an ardent Democrat, loathed the former president. But she knew that Sam was uninterested in politics; in fact, her daughter had never voted. The more she thought about it, the more exasperated Laurel was by the inability of Sam and D to explain what she saw as a decision that endangered the entire family.
“F--- it,” she said to herself. “I’ll go stay with Lisa.’”
Lisa Underwood is Laurel’s younger daughter from her first marriage. Lisa, 39, had grown up on the lake, and now lived in Bancroft, about eight miles north along the Kanawha River. A nurse case manager for an insurance company, she was vaccinated, as were her children, Lexi and Beau. But her home was less of a refuge from familial vaccine tumult than Laurel had hoped.
Around the corner lived Acy and Katy Underwood, the parents of Lisa’s estranged husband. The couple, who declined to be interviewed, doted on Beau and Lexi with home-cooked hamburger dinners and outings to buy jeans. But since the 2020 election they had descended into a conspiratorial underworld — especially Mamaw Katy, an avid consumer of Facebook misinformation trying to convince her grandchildren that former first lady Michelle Obama is a man, or that the coronavirus vaccines are lethal.
Lisa tried to limit interactions with the unvaccinated grandparents, but in September was obligated to enter their house in a gown and N95 mask to help care for them when they developed covid-19. Laurel was livid about the situation, but relieved when Lisa did not contract the virus and the in-laws recovered.
By early October, Laurel began preparing to head to an outdoor music festival she and Joel had attended in North Carolina every fall before the pandemic.
Nothing about her family’s dispute over the vaccine was resolved. But Laurel, fortified by a booster shot, hoped to ignore it a little longer, seeking solace around a campfire in the hills with friends.
Four days before the festival she was in training for a new job at a hospice center when her phone began buzzing. But Laurel was in the middle of assessing her first patient, a covid case, and wasn’t able to pick up until after she had removed her PPE.
That’s when she learned that Joel, her husband of more than 30 years, was dead.
‘Pray you don’t get covid’
Joel’s body was discovered in a portable toilet at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, where he was setting up camp in advance of his wife’s arrival.
The medical examiner did not conduct an autopsy — which would have delayed the return of his remains to West Virginia — but said he probably died of a massive heart attack. But Jake Haught, Joel’s younger brother and next-door neighbor on Lake Chaweva, had his doubts.
Like his niece and her boyfriend, Jake had rejected the coronavirus vaccines. His Internet research had led him to conspiracy theories about “death shots” meant to thin the U.S. population to avoid Social Security expenses. Now he wondered whether one of those shots might have killed his brother.
He couldn’t be sure, but was worried enough to voice his suspicions to their father on the night of Joel’s death. The claim made its way to Laurel as she and Lisa were driving to North Carolina to arrange for Joel’s cremation, and she quickly sent an email to her in-laws.
“Joel did NOT die of his second shot,” she wrote. “Jake had no business assuming that. Joel was vaccinated in April.” She noted that her husband was a “long time drinker and smoker whom I could never get to go to a [doctor] in our 34 years together.”
“You will never hear that this shot is Killing people or that the object that hit the Pentagon was a missile,” Jake wrote back, referring to a separate conspiracy theory about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Keith Richards and Ozzy have drank, smoked and done drugs for decades — not dead.”
But Laurel had a bigger problem on her hands than her brother-in-law. Joel’s death meant that her self-imposed exile was over. She would have to return to the house on the lake to sort through her deceased husband’s possessions. Sam and D were still there.
Laurel’s most sustained interaction with the couple over the summer had not been face-to-face. When she moved out, she had surreptitiously ripped the Infowars sticker off her daughter’s car. Sam and D slapped on new Infowars stickers in its place, including one that read “THE MEDIA IS THE VIRUS.” But Laurel again secretly tampered with the bumper, adding stickers saying “Hillary is my homegirl” and “Biden Harris 2020.” Sam and D removed them, and the proxy war ended. The family had never spoken about it.
Avoidance remained the family strategy once Laurel returned to West Virginia with her husband’s ashes. She holed up in her bedroom, waiting for her unvaccinated housemates to depart for work, and then ventured out to organize things.
It was slow work, made more difficult by the deteriorating condition of the home itself. The heavily engineered landscape of Lake Chaweva was geologically unstable, and a collapsing ridge above the Haughts’ home was effectively severing the place in half. Long cracks were visible in the wooden stairs leading to Sam’s bedroom in the back.
Laurel preferred to spend time on the dock, which is where she was on a Thursday in late October, several days before Joel’s funeral. The service would be at the lake; in accordance with the wishes of the deceased, a portion of his ashes would be placed in a six-foot-long reproduction of a Viking ship with piratical accents that would be launched into the water and set ablaze.
Laurel sat on her late husband’s pontoon, The Joely Roger, smoking the last of his Natural American Spirit cigarettes. It was cloudy, and the trees around the lake were beginning to take on a copper tinge. A life-size toy skull stared at her from atop a piling.
Laurel thought anxiously about Sunday, when she would be in a large crowd for the first time since before the pandemic. She thought about the pro-Trump flags that her grandson, Beau, had reported seeing on the wall of Sam’s bedroom after he sneaked in for a glimpse of Monkey, her pet ferret. Laurel thought about her mix of feelings toward Joel — the grief, but also the anger. Her husband had chosen not to take better care of himself, and now he was gone. Who had the right to do that to a loved one?
“Mama-Dee!” A voice rang from the top of the staircase to the dock.
“Sammy,” Laurel called back.
Her daughter appeared with a half-full cup of Mountain Dew from Sheetz, her hair newly dyed dark blue. It was about 4 p.m., and she had just finished her shift at Goodwill. She sat down on the pontoon across from her mother and began vaping.
Laurel and Sam talked about how much Joel did for the lake, how Sam would sometimes see him picking up trash along the shore before dawn, as she was driving D to work. They talked about the need for everyone to pitch in on those kinds of chores now that Joel was gone. During a lull, Laurel watched her daughter over the burning tip of her cigarette.
“We’re talking more since your dad died,” she said. Now they talked about Laurel’s favorite recipe for catfish bait, and their mixed feelings about Joel’s funeral — how they were ready for it to be over, but also weren’t, because then he would really be gone. And eventually they started talking about the reason they had stopped talking: the vaccine.
“It was just too quick for them to come up with it,” Sam said.
“But it wasn’t quick,” Laurel said.
“My biggest thing is my skin …”
“That makes you more medically in need of it.”
“I’m gonna wait and see how it goes with the people who got the shot, and when I’m comfortable with it, I’ll talk to my dermatologist,” Sam told her mother.
“I’m just gonna pray you don’t get covid and die in the meantime,” Laurel said.
Raindrops were clattering over the pontoon’s tin roof. Sam excused herself to go pick up some dinner with D, who had just finished work at the Rural King farm supply store.
Part of Laurel wanted to drop all the restraint that she tried to bring to these conversations and scream at her daughter that she was being stupid, that after losing Joel she couldn’t bear to lose her, too. But as Sam walked up the road Laurel sat there saying nothing, smoking her dead husband’s cigarettes and watching the rain.
‘Weirdest group of people’
What earrings matched a pirate widow’s weeds? Laurel tried to decide as she stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom that Sunday, wearing a black-and-white, tie-dye skirt and crimson blouse. Atop her hair was a garland of fake wildflowers and blinking, multicolored lights.
Just before 6 p.m. her phone rang.
“Hey, mother,” Sam said on the other end of the line. “We’re all waitin’ on you.”
“I’m still early,” Laurel replied.
She left her house, with its clutter of open boxes and its crumbling foundation, and walked out of the hollow to the shore. About 100 people had showed up. Some clustered around a table with photos and mementos of Joel. Others were dropping handwritten notes into the cardboard ship that carried his ashes. When Joel’s signature stars-and-stripes shorts were hoisted up a flagpole, the mourners placed their hands over their hearts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
They were young and old, vaccinated and unvaccinated, a cross section of a country as profoundly unsure as Laurel was of how to bridge a divide that now ran through many families. There was Russ Harris, a 60-year-old Marine veteran who was vaccinated, and trying to figure out what to tell the unvaccinated relatives who usually came to his house for the holidays. There was Amy Thomas, 57, who had taken her 13-year-old grandson for his vaccine when she tired of waiting on the boy’s mother to do so. And there was Samuel Scott — taking a break from Brighteon videos that falsely asserted the coronavirus vaccine contained a parasitical and possibly self-aware organism — so that he could attend the service of his lifelong neighbor. Scott had descended from his ridgetop cabin in a white robe and red clerical vestment, and was now singing reggae songs through a PA system.
Thomas’s pontoon, the Drippy Hippie, wobbled as the vessel with Joel’s remains was brought onboard, followed by Laurel. Eye-watering fumes rose from the Viking pirate ship, which had been doused in kerosene.
“No smoking on this boat,” Laurel barked at Amy and her husband, Darrell, who was piloting the pontoon toward the middle of the lake.
As they eased Joel’s ship into the water a thought occurred to Laurel, whose funereal preparations had included generous amounts of hair spray.
“Amy, I’m afraid to light it,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m going to light my hair on fire.”
And so it was Thomas who set fire to the ship, which went up in flames as a cheer erupted on the beach: “Arrrghh.”
The sun had dropped out of the sky by the time the pontoon crept back to shore.
“How’d that look, guys?” Laurel asked.
“It couldn’t have gone any better,” said Sam, who stood beaming at the water’s edge.
Joel’s vaccine-despising brother, Jake — who had been blaring Celtic drum music from his car on the other side of the lake — stopped by to pay his respects. Laurel held her breath as she embraced him, then stepped back and said they needed to work some things out. The crowd quickly dwindled, and soon was down to about a dozen people warming themselves at a fire on the beach.
Laurel sat with Sam to her right, and Lisa to her left. D was there. So was his friend Russ Blanchard, who said he would rather go to jail than get the shot. Beth Middleton, a Lake Chaweva resident who had gotten herself and her children inoculated without informing her anti-vaccine husband, joined the circle. And Samuel Scott appeared, having ditched his white robe for a warm jacket. Laurel just laughed when he warned of a chip implanted in President Biden’s brain.
“This is the weirdest group of people here right now,” Sam said, looking around.
Laurel was content, surrounded by her children and staring into the fire. But she was also sad, because even now she was taking the measure of her losses: the loss of her husband, whose remains now lie at the bottom of the lake; the loss of understanding and trust among the members of the family that remained. She had not begun thinking about Thanksgiving, let alone Christmas, but she knew she would not remain in the house with Sam once Joel’s affairs were settled.
Yet she would sleep there tonight, and soon, because she was suddenly tired. Laurel stood up and stepped carefully into the darkness beyond the bonfire, returning toward her slowly collapsing home.
Story editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Mark Miller, copy editing by Karen Funfgeld, design by Twila Waddy.