Featured photo: Shaheen Towles and her husband Nick had a virtual wedding because of the pandemic. (courtesy photo)

Cookouts and family reunions are to summer as hot chocolate and gift exchanges are to Christmas. My mother’s side of the family has been gathering regularly to celebrate our familial bonds for the better part of a century. Every August for as long as I could remember, we would trek to my grandmother’s birthplace in eastern North Carolina for food and fellowship with hundreds of family members. “Down home,” was what Grandma called it.

For 62 years, we celebrated with the smell of roasted pig and fried catfish wafting over community centers, churches or parks (fried chicken, potato salad and various pound cakes always make the rounds too), the cacophony of voices of family members being heard over music playing in the background.

This year, due to COVID, we moved our festivities online via Zoom, ushering in a new era of our family tradition.

My family celebrated its 63rd annual reunion in mid-August. Determined not to let the tradition go by the wayside, we used computers, laptops, mobile phones and socially distanced gatherings in Norfolk, Va., Greensboro, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Powellsville, NC, where relatives reveled in catching up, breaking bread and group prayer. Family members from 10 states made an appearance.

This year’s family reunion took place online. (courtesy photo)

We shared stories about our lineage, jokes, recipes and praises for being able to see one another again after a year’s long absence.

The weekend fun included a roll call of everyone joining in the Zoom celebration, a group prayer and a COVID-19 information update provided by my aunt, who is an MD, followed by the annual banquet, where relatives ate their meals at the same time on Zoom.

My family isn’t the only one who had to make plans to gather online in lieu of an in-person celebration.

Shaheen Towles and her husband Nick had to do an about-face and change their 2020 nuptial plans to accommodate COVID-19. After a whirlwind engagement in August 2019, the pair planned to wed at Milton Rhodes Center in Winston-Salem on Easter weekend when COVID-19 trumped their plans.

“We had 175 RSVPs from all across the country and India,” says Shaheen. “We had to make a decision.”

A planned Friday night family gathering where the two families would meet for the first time at 6th And Vine in Winston-Salem (where the couple met) turned into a Zoom gathering where 65 family members “met” for the first time on Zoom.

Shaheen says, “I wanted people who cared and loved me to be present. But we felt that love in a different way.”

The morning of their wedding, they walked to Cobblestone Farmers Market, had coffee, got ready and drove to Raleigh to have a small ceremony in her parent’s backyard.

“My dad had wedding music playing on his cell phone,” she says. “We drove home, got takeout from Nawab and were asleep by 10.”

Shaheen Towles and her husband Nick celebrated with family members virtually for their wedding because of the pandemic. (courtesy photo)

John Yeagley and Frank Vagnone of Winston-Salem had no immediate plans to get married when COVID hit, but the pandemic intensified their desire to join together in matrimony.

“We’ve seen ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ We know what could potentially happen,” says Vagnone, in reference to the novel turned Hulu series where a totalitarian society and environmental disasters take over the United States.

“Nothing about our wedding was traditional except having a cake. The cake was pretty much the centerpiece of everything,” says Vagnone, who is president of Old Salem Museums and Gardens.

“Since like many organizations, Old Salem has been undergoing so many challenges, I think we wanted to be very mindful of any sort of public celebration during this particular time period.”

John Yeagley and Frank Vagnone of Winston-Salem got married so they could rely on each other legally if something were to happen to either of them during the pandemic. (courtesy photo)

Before the mid-March shutdowns, the couple were connecting with many friends and museum colleagues both nationally and all over the world via Google Hangout, Skype, FaceTime and Zoom. They were able to check in and see how other countries were handling the pandemic at particular moments in time.

“We just preferred to keep it very quiet and simple,” Yeagley says. “There were six of us, including my mom and aunt, physically-distanced and everyone wearing masks.”

The couple got married in a short ceremony in June on Yeagley’s mom’s birthday at her home in Ocean View, Del. A friend made them three sets of masks and matching napkins with the remaining fabric. They used silver bracelets they got in Bali instead of wedding rings. Afterwards they all had coconut-chocolate cake.

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