Best experienced with audio
After more than a year of separation and isolation, Americans are reuniting.
We are hugging, laughing, dancing and crying.
We are mourning — the lost time, the lost people. And many of us are still feeling anxious.
But we are doing it together — over champagne and sonatas, in church sanctuaries and school corridors, at family dinners and surprise parties.
Here is a look at reunions that have taken place across the country as spring unfolded and vaccines became available, creating new possibilities for closeness and joy.
A congregation comes home again
Story by Kim Bellware and Brittany Shammas. Photos by Daniel Acker.
The Rev. Keith Thomas was anxious at 6 a.m. on Easter Sunday.
Thomas was about to hold his first in-person service in 56 weeks and wanted everything to be perfect. He arranged masks and hand sanitizer on a table, checked a registration sheet and straightened chairs in a makeshift sanctuary filled with box fans and air purifiers.
Mount Olive, known as “The Mountain,” is one of the oldest and largest Black churches in Champaign, Ill. Thomas had kept his congregation together over the past year by preaching online, though it had not felt the same. He cried thinking about a deacon who recently died of heart failure; his funeral could not be held at the church because of pandemic restrictions. A hospital chaplain, Thomas has seen the devastation of covid-19 up close.
The church’s sanctuary was severely damaged by a fire in 2019, compounding the congregation’s sense of loss. Rebuilding plans were put on hold because of the pandemic.
“If I don’t feel the sorrow and hurt and the ups and downs, then I can’t pastor correctly,” he said.
Vaccinated and eager for a sense of normalcy, Thomas pored over health guidelines on how to safely gather indoors, and he sweated the details of three back-to-back Easter services. What was previously a 25-person choir was now five vaccinated singers. Attendance was capped at 55 congregants, choir members and staffers per service. Masks were required.
“They don’t teach stage management at Moody Bible College,” he said, laughing.
By 7:30 a.m., churchgoers started to file through the front door. They joyfully patted shoulders and struggled over unmet handshakes before deciding on fist bumps and elbow taps.
As the foyer filled, a choir member holding tithe packets asked, “Should we remind them not to lick the envelopes?” A box for contact-free collection had been placed in the sanctuary, and Thomas said the church would accept Cash App.
The organist played a gospel rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” as worshipers took their seats. Thomas, dressed in a black and purple robe, told a parable of a man lost at sea who ignored three ships, confident his faith in God would save him, but drowned.
“In heaven, God told the man, ‘I sent you three ships!” Thomas said, tying the message to the importance of getting vaccinated and stating that getting a shot doesn’t demonstrate a lack of faith. “Sometimes God sends us the help we need.”
After, there was no lingering over brunch or coffee. Parishioners were soon shepherded outside so the sanctuary could be sprayed down and set up for the next service.
“The pandemic really took a toll,” said Marion Harrington, a 60-year-old church deacon. “But now we’re back home again.”
They endured pregnancies in isolation. Finally, their babies meet.
Story by William Wan.
Vera Guernsey and Cassie Thompson both found out they were pregnant just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread last year. For the two friends, navigating pregnancy during the pandemic was a harrowing, exhausting, lonely experience. There were no baby showers, only scary unknowns and warnings to stay as isolated as possible.
The two leaned heavily on each other. They called daily, texted constantly, sent silly memes to keep each others’ spirits up.
The women had been acquaintances since high school, and closer friends since Guernsey did the makeup for Thompson’s wedding. Four years ago, they both became moms, giving birth to daughters three months apart. During the pandemic, they became something more, almost sisters.
In late-night calls, Guernsey confided to Thompson her deepest fear: That she and her husband would fall severely ill, leaving no one to watch her first child and endangering the second still inside her.
Thompson vented frustrations about family and friends who insisted on visiting and her inability to get them to understand the risk that posed to her and her family.
“When you’re pregnant and in the middle of a pandemic, all you can do really is sit and think,” said Guernsey, 33. “It was such a relief just to know someone was going through the same thing you’re going through. Especially all the fears that go through your mind.”
Last year, racial justice protests, right-wing violence and anti-Asian attacks were especially frightening for Thompson, whose husband is Black and Asian, and Guernsey, who is Filipino, like her husband. “We talked each other through all of it,” said Thompson, 31. “Some days we’d be texting at the same time that we’re having a whole other conversation on Instagram.”
Although they lived just 20 minutes apart in the Bay Area, the friends saw each other only twice the whole year — brief drive-bys to drop off baby clothes and presents from a distance.
So it was all the sweeter when the women and their husbands were finally vaccinated and met at Guernsey’s house for wine and pizza. Their husbands hung out, their daughters played together, and Thompson and Guernsey finally had a chance to introduce their new babies to each other. Propped side by side on the couch, Guernsey’s son Benny grabbed Thompson’s son Kai and smiled.
“Once we got together, it was like no time had passed," Guernsey said. "It felt so light, like the beginning of a new chapter.”
Toasting luck, laughter and a game that became a ‘lifeline’
Story by Karin Brulliard. Video by Jonathan Baran and Allie Caren.
New flowers basked in pots outside Wendy Elliott’s Northern California house. The card table was set up in her sunny great room. Four champagne splits chilled in a bowl of ice on the kitchen counter, a bottle for each of the women who were about to gather for their first in-person mah-jongg game in 396 days.
The women, all in their 60s, weren’t out of practice. When the coronavirus shutdowns came shortly after their last get-together on March 12, 2020, they decided to try playing online. Stuck inside their homes across the South Bay, each rigged up two devices — one to play a computerized version of the game to which they all professed a level of addiction, and another to beam the Zoom meeting that would allow them to see each other and chat.
In pre-covid times, they played weekly. They were friends, but not close ones. Their connection was mah-jongg, an American version of the Chinese tile-based game that demands both skill and luck.
But pandemic isolation quickly changed that. Soon they were playing online nearly every day. Despite the physical distance, they found they were growing closer, even making plans to travel together someday.
“It was a godsend for me — something to look forward to every day,” Val Greenberg said. Terri Sachs described it as “two hours of feeling like life was sort of normal.” For Pat Thomas, the games were “really kind of a lifeline.”
To Elliott, they felt almost like a literal lifeline. Days after the group’s last in-person game, she learned she had breast cancer. Six rounds of chemotherapy, one surgery and 25 rounds of radiation followed — all of which she attended alone, because coronavirus-related safety protocols kept her husband and friends from coming along. Sometimes she played online with the group during her chemo sessions.
“It was like this oasis of normalcy in this year where so much of my life was involved in the whole cancer thing,” Elliott said. “I had this time when I could leave that, you know, and just be a normal person and play with my friends.”
The disease deepened the bond between Elliott and Thomas, who’d fought breast cancer years before. Then, in the fall, Greenberg found out she, too, had breast cancer. Soon Elliott was helping guide her through treatment.
Now, on this April morning, a cancer-free Elliott was readying everything for the group’s reunion — popcorn, a veggie tray, an enormous fruit salad, blueberry French toast casserole and a layer cake that read “Mahj On!” in piped icing. She was especially looking forward to the audible click mah-jongg tiles make as players shuffle them between games.
Sachs arrived first, with her golden Lab. Greenberg came next, carrying gift bags holding small Rubik’s cubes. Thomas, dressed in pink and red, arrived last.
“I’m so excited to be here! Oh, my goodness!” she said after she and Elliott shared a long, tight hug. “I was all ready to go, and I was like, is it time yet? Is it time yet? It’s not time to go yet!”
“I’m so glad you’re here!” Elliott said, dabbing at tears. “Now we can start drinking!”
The four friends sat at the card table, dealing the tiles. They raised champagne flutes that Elliott had recently purchased at Home Goods — a place she felt safe shopping again now that she was fully vaccinated.
“To in-person mahj,” Elliott said. “And to luck, and love, and laughter and life. L’chaim!”
“And, we have to add: To getting past covid,” Sachs said. “Completely.”
‘Are you kidding me?’
Story by Ariana Eunjung Cha.
Tanya Aguilar had the first-day-of-school nerves. It had been 391 days since Sherwood High School held in-person classes, and Aguilar was so excited to be back she had barely slept.
When the first students arrived at the Olney, Md., school on April 8, she and the other teachers screamed with joy, snapping socially distanced selfies on their phones.
“I feel invigorated,” said Aguilar, who teaches Spanish. “I think most teachers are performers. We get our energy from our audience when we are in front of our students.”
But there were so few students, she said, the day felt surreal: “like it was an episode right out of the Twilight Zone.”
Food reunites a family, but with a ‘missing seat at the table’
Story by Brittany Shammas. Photos by Salwan Georges.
Mo Baydoun arrived at his parents’ house about 40 minutes before sunset, walking inside to the smell of his mother’s cooking wafting through the air.
In the dining room, dishes heaped with Lebanese food covered almost every inch of a long table. After a lonely Ramadan a year earlier, Mo and his newly vaccinated relatives were finally together for iftar, the evening meal that breaks a day-long fast during the holy month.
Mo’s family — his parents, three siblings, a brother-in-law, a cousin, a niece and a nephew — milled around the home in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights, exchanging greetings and small talk. After the sun slipped beneath the horizon that April night, they gathered around the table, filling chairs pulled from rooms around the house.
For Mo, one of six children, it wasn’t a moment too soon. The pandemic had underscored something he already knew: the importance of family and moments spent sitting around the same table.
“Who are we without our family?” asked the 31-year-old, a member of the Dearborn Heights city council. “That’s our roots. And Ramadan really reminds us how important it is to be around family.”
The Baydouns, a big family in a line of big families, had always been close. Nazem and Hiam Baydoun, who immigrated from Lebanon in the 1970s, raised their kids to be tightknit. Now grown, they all live within a one-mile radius. Before covid, they had standing Sunday brunch plans. They often gathered with their extended family, which numbers around 150 in the metro Detroit area.
But 2020 put get-togethers on hold. Ramadan last year was devoid of most traditions, with time together limited to FaceTime calls.
“It was lots of me and my wife sitting together, breaking fast alone,” Mo said. “My mom would put a bowl of soup outside, a thing of fattoush outside.”
Coronavirus hit hard in Detroit, and the family was not unscathed. In January, Mo’s uncle and Nazem’s brother, Rafic Baydoun, died after a month battling covid-19 in the hospital.
The owner of Dearborn restaurant Rafic’s Falafel, he was “the most giving, most kindhearted man you would ever meet,” Mo said. He remembered his uncle filling Ramadan orders on the honor system, trusting that his customers would come through. It was just “the kind of man he was.”
When the Baydouns sat together for iftar on April 17, his loss wasn’t far from their minds. Although the night was imbued with the joy and relief of being reunited, it was still tinged with sadness.
“This Ramadan, yeah, you may be able to gather with some friends and family,” Mo said, “but there’s still going to be that missing seat at the table.”
‘Do I get to kiss you, too?’
Catching up on two years of missed card games and tea parties
Story by Allie Caren. Video by Laura Helseth and Allie Caren.
Laura Helseth last saw her family, including her 88-year-old Memaw, two years ago. On April 8 she boarded a flight from Orlando to Kansas City, Mo., where she was greeted by her parents and 5-year-old nephew. The boy held a sign reading, “Auntie Laura, We’ve waited a LOOONNNGGGGGG time.”
Helseth sneaked into her Memaw’s new apartment as a surprise and reconnected with her siblings. There were birthday donuts, tea parties, early-morning coffee chats and card games. After four days, Helseth was exhausted — but not ready for the visit to be over.
An engagement, a closed border and a relationship put to the test
Story by Brittany Shammas.
Kristen Hawley pulled up to the airport terminal, and Dwight Borden leaped into the passenger seat of her Toyota Scion. They threw their arms around each other and held on for so long, people in the cars behind them started honking. Neither of them cared.
“They can wait a second; they can drive around us,” Borden thought. “This is our minute.”
Friends for 22 years and engaged for three, the couple was reunited at the Huntsville, Ala., International Airport on April 1 after an agonizing 14 months apart. When the U.S.-Canada border closed in March of last year, Borden, a Canadian, was stuck on one side and Hawley, an American, on the other.
Now 38, the pair met on the Internet as 16-year-old Dungeons and Dragons devotees — Borden a shy yet confident sci-fi fan in Nova Scotia and Hawley an outspoken animal lover in Alabama. Thousands of online messages forged a close friendship, and as they visited each other over the years, their families began to wonder whether there could be more to the relationship.
When Hawley’s dad died in 2014 and Borden flew down the next day to comfort her, they realized their families were right.
“I think it’s one of those situations where we were in love for a long time but we didn’t know it,” she said.
The couple got engaged in 2018. While Borden was visiting in January 2020, they decided Hawley would immigrate to Canada. They figured they would finalize details in March, when he planned to return for another trip. Then the pandemic hit.
Even when the border restrictions were eased for close relationships, Hawley and Borden remained in their separate countries. They couldn’t miss work to quarantine, and they worried about spreading the virus.
After years of seeing each other a few times a month, their relationship was confined to Skype dates and text messages — so many that Borden had to upgrade his phone plan. When Borden’s grandmother had a health scare, Hawley panicked about not being there for him.
“At times it almost felt like, wow, is this relationship going to last?” Borden said. “Because the longer this keeps going, there’s going to be a part where our lives have diverged so rapidly.”
In the end, the pandemic only solidified their desire to be together. They put all their energy into figuring out the easiest way to safely reunite — for good.
They decided Borden would fly to Alabama and they would drive together to Canada, where they would quarantine for two weeks and Hawley would start the immigration process. They hired a lawyer and sought approval from the governments of Canada and New Brunswick, where Borden now lives, for Hawley to cross the border.
They didn’t dare become too hopeful. Even after getting the negative coronavirus test result he needed to board his flight, Borden texted Hawley: “I am almost crying. One hurdle down, one to go.” He still worried he might not be let into the United States.
It was only when she saw him striding toward her car that Hawley allowed herself to believe their time apart was over.
As they held one another, Borden said, it felt like the past 14 months melted away.
“It was like, finally,” he said.
“It was,” Hawley agreed. “It was that warm, comforting feeling in your chest of knowing things are going to be all right.”
‘Happy birthday, little boy!’
A surprise 60 years in the making
Story by William Wan.
Dan Sievers spent months plotting an epic reunion with his parents, who are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this month: He would fly from Baltimore to Big Bear, Calif., and surprise them.
Dan’s father begins every day with a walk. Sievers thought he would wait for his father to come outside and underplay the moment for comedic effect, maybe with an offhand comment like, “What’s for breakfast?” But Sievers made a big miscalculation.
He didn’t realize how early his dad, Dave Sievers, 83, takes his walks. When Dan and a friend pulled up to his parents’ home, his father was just returning from his stroll.
“Oh, my God,” Dave said with a laugh as they hugged in the driveway. “Does your mom know about this?”
Inside, Becky Sievers, barely awake and still in her bathrobe, was even more shocked.
Wrapping Dan in her arms, she started crying and squeaked out, “It’s so good to see you.”
“Missed you. Missed you. Missed you,” Dan told her. It was the first time he had seen his parents in two years.
“All that time and distance just kind of disappeared, and it just felt like finally I’m in the right spot again. I’m home,” Dan, 59, said later.
Dan knew his mom would be overjoyed — and maybe a little mad. Becky, who was born and raised in Mexico, loved cooking huge meals for such occasions — carne asada, enchiladas or, for a truly special occasion, tamales.
“Why didn’t you tell me? I didn’t have time to prepare,” Becky, 79, told him. She soon set about making him chorizo and eggs for breakfast.
Dave and Becky got an even bigger shock two days later, at an elaborate surprise anniversary party planned by Dan and his two siblings. They arranged for several of their parents’ groomsmen and bridesmaids to attend.
“What better way to celebrate them, their 60 years together and the end to this whole nightmare than a wedding party?” Dan said.
Dan’s sister told their parents she was going to have a friend take anniversary pictures — a ruse to get them dressed up. But when Dave and Becky pulled up to the house, about 40 family members and friends awaited them in the garage.
Becky was crying before she could open the car door — she had spotted her brother, who came from Arizona. A granddaughter flew in from Seattle, and another drove from hours away, her young son in tow.
“It was a total surprise,” Becky said. “It’s been so hard this past year. We live all the way up on a mountain, so there have been times when we’ve been just totally on our own. To see everyone suddenly there in front of us, it was so special, and I can’t believe our kids pulled this off without us having a clue.”
Years and distance separated two siblings. A pandemic brought them together.
Story by Karin Brulliard. Photos by Scott McIntyre.
The day started with bad news, delivered by text to Ingrid Gonzalez’s phone in Miami. The flight that was supposed to deliver her older brother, Carlos Estuardo, had been canceled.
Soon, a happier update arrived: The plane would merely be delayed by a couple of hours.
In the grand scheme of things, this setback was a blip. The siblings, who refer to each other as best friends, had not seen each other in 12 years.
In a way, the pandemic was making their reunion happen. Estuardo, 47, had lived in Mexico for all those years, and Gonzalez, 34, had lived in Miami for most of them. Their family lived on Long Island, where they grew up, and somehow a dozen years had slipped by without brother and sister crossing paths.
But a series of events had recently brought Estuardo back to the United States -- and now to Miami. First, he lost his job as an industrial designer when the company he worked for in Mexico, struggling amid the pandemic, pulled the plug on a project. Then Estuardo got and recovered from a mild case of covid-19. That gave him the antibodies that made him feel safe enough to travel to New York to help out his mother and grandmother, who had had a health scare late last year.
By mid-May, he and Gonzalez had both been vaccinated, and Estuardo had the time to fly to Miami. Gonzalez, who had been working throughout the pandemic from the apartment she shares with her dog and cat, was yearning for a visitor.
“I don’t have family here,” said Gonzalez, a grant writer for a nonprofit organization. “It’s been like a year and a half of isolation.”
Estuardo is the eldest of three children, and Gonzalez is the youngest. Growing up, she says, they had strong personalities and often butted heads, but they grew closer once she was a teenager. He says the siblings’ bond was tight early on, in part because they had to help their parents, immigrants from Guatemala, navigate their new English-dominated world.
“I’ve always thought of Ingrid as my little sister and daughter,” said Estuardo. “I always try to look after her.”
Over the past 12 years, they’ve kept in touch through regular video calls and, Gonzalez said, “ridiculous videos” traded over Facebook messages.
Now she was in the Miami airport, and there her big brother was, in the flesh — straw hat on his head, arm outstretched. Gonzalez ran to hug him.
They had changed over the years, of course. He had lost weight. She pointed out to him her few gray hairs.
That afternoon, Estuardo unpacked reminders of their history in New York — some of her childhood toys, sent down by their mom. They figured they’d take it easy that evening, maybe watch a movie.
“It’s nice to have somebody in my house,” Gonzalez said, smiling at her brother.
“Somebody that doesn’t bark or meow,” Estuardo teased.
Estuardo hoped his sister would assign him some projects, something to fix. They’d start by taking her car to be serviced the next day. Then the siblings would set about exploring the area — two adults, side by side.