On a Wednesday afternoon as I found myself missing my people—my family is, like many, spread out in different states, I had a genius idea: an all-family virtual happy hour. I sent a Google calendar invite, come as you are (jammies acceptable), and looked forward to Friday night when we could all have a laugh together.
Of course, as my personal lightbulb was flickering to life, so were those of many others; over the course of the next few days, I would be invited to a FaceTime catch-up among friends and see others post screenshots of similar such gatherings across Instagram and Facebook. The collective consciousness, which always amazes me, had decided we would hang out with our loved ones one way or another, social distancing and shelter-in-place be damned.
My family is the sort that sends group texts daily. We have a group for the girls (my mom, my two sisters, and myself); one for my own immediate family; and one for the whole big family that includes my brothers- and mother-in-law. There are even subsets of these groups, but I won't go into that. During this time of crisis with its battering news cycle, these text threads now blow up all day long; my family is in constant communication. But no amount of emojis can replace IRL hang time.
Zoom is an increasingly popular platform these days as everything from high school classes to group pilates go online, but my family settled on using Google Hangouts since my teenage stepson thought it would be the easiest for his Boomer grandparents to get the hang of. That didn't prevent tardiness as my mother-in-law discovered her antique desktop computer is not equipped with a webcam, and my own parents, while able to connect, couldn't seem to work out the audio...but then, what family gathering of ours has ever begun on time.
My husband Jake and I dressed for the occasion, he in a clear plastic garment bag with a hole cut for drinking, I in a face mask adorned with red lipsticked lips and purple rubber dish gloves that came to me in a COVID-19 care package from my mom; we were prepared with martinis and a charcuterie board picked up for takeout from our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
My sisters were wearing varying degrees of makeup and the hodgepodge of loungewear and streetwear more typical of a college kid who just rolled out of bed but halfway got it together before running out to class; our mother was dressed with blown-out hair and full makeup as she always is, a classic midwestern woman who's lived in Dallas for many years; she cuddled into my dad, our family's ever-stabilizing presence. I couldn't tell you how my mother-in-law looked because, on the couch with her iPhone in a lightless living room, we saw only the top of her head. My stepson, a high school sophomore who is sheltering with his own mom, looked about as he usually does: in the jersey and hat of Arizona sports teams, noise canceling headphones, and a smirk that said check out these old folks who can't work the remote.
The picture was fuzzy and the sound delayed, and with a box on the screen for every person or couple connected (six in total), it was tough to see everyone at once, and even tougher to adapt to talking in turns—in my family, it's usually impossible for anyone to get a word in edgewise. In typical fashion, the husbands say little, sitting back with their cocktails as the women hog the floor.
Talk we did, once we got past our technological difficulties and the awkwardness of a digital gathering ("Is there a topic of conversation I should prepare for?" my mom had asked earlier in the day, nervous about being on camera and knowing that eventually I'd get around to writing about it; "If I don't shower, will they be able to tell if I smell?" my dad had quipped). We talked about pretty much everything except for the viral elephant in the room.
My brother-in-law who works as a creative director at Apple is already stir-crazy; he and my sister, who were set to buy their first home, in Pleasanton, are now backing out; they are both distracted by their kids, who have fevers and pop in and out of the frame. My other sister (who is also my business partner) is wearing a boot to stay off a stress fracture she scored while hiking in Wyoming or somewhere last summer ; she and her husband are trying to sell their beloved Sprinter van so they can stash some cash in the bank. The kid, as I call my stepson, isn't so into online school, and he's bummed his baseball season is cancelled. The Boomers are all "fine" though I wonder how they must feel being cast in the high-risk group.
It was agreed upon that most of us are drinking too much and eating too much junk food, and that the family dogs, all of whom joined the call, were enjoying having us all home during shelter in place.
For 90 minutes or so we go on like this, drinking and most of us talking at once, eating pie or gluten-free brownies from the pan. The kid and the parents sign off first, leaving my sisters and me and our husbands to ourselves to keep drinking and start dropping F-bombs, just as we would at any real family event. We are taken into kitchens and watch each other prepare meals, and show off our apocalypse freezers stuffed with whatever frozen vegetables we could find. For at least another hour, we chit chat and linger, wishing we still smoked cigarettes and had a common stoop where we could sit and share one, just one, together right now.
Our virtual family happy hour went on for three hours in total, finding me mixing my nightly magnesium in a glass of water as we said our see-you-laters to the one sister and husband who remained. It was a far cry from the nights we've spent together drinking too much into the wee hours on San Francisco rooftop patios or around campfires in the Sierra or in the lobby bars of hotels or on the patios of Airbnbs—yes, we are that kind of family. The ride or die kind of family. The kind that may eventually go cuckoo wondering when we can all be together, eating, drinking, and dancing together again. The kind that, should we all find ourselves broke and broken down at the end of this apocalypse, would all shack up in a single house and be grateful for having each other.
While we can't know now who among us might get sick or whose job or business might fall through or whether, by some miracle, we might squeak through this relatively unscathed, breaking down, I mean really losing our shit, will never be an option in my family. Each of us is a life raft for the other...even if we can only inflate it through FaceTime.