Families and friends are coming together after long separations as vaccinations rise; ‘My God, we’re back’

Hugs are back. And handshakes. And tables for 10.

After a year-and-a-half of isolating Covid lockdowns, Americans are emerging from seclusion into the joy and comfort of others.

For many, that means family. Adults are heading back to childhood homes to the arms of Mom and Dad. Families are hosting reunions and making up for missed Sunday dinners. The kids are taller, the moments sweeter.

For others, it’s the routine pleasures of lunch with the gang from the office or the coffee shop or the corner bar. The guy from the next cubicle over is grayer, but his stories somehow seem funnier now.

Celebration, secular and religious, is the order of the day. To sway in a sweaty crowd to the rhythm of music at a festival. To raise hands in prayer in the communal spirit of worship, and to hold them out to neighbors and friends.

It is America’s Reunion Summer, and here is how it is starting.

Nicole Chase, who is 22 and a recent college graduate, lives in Sacramento, Calif., about two hours away from the Sonoma County home of her mother, Barbara Chase. Nicole is an only child and the pair are particularly close. “We’ve always gotten along even when I was a teenager,” Nicole said. “We got in fights, of course, but there was never a time when my mom wasn’t my favorite person.”

The pandemic put up a barrier. It halted their routine get-togethers and canceled their many plans, such as a mother-daughter trip to New York City to celebrate Nicole’s graduation from the University of California Davis last year. Top of mind was protecting Barbara’s husband—Nicole’s stepfather—who has a compromised immune system.

By May, Nicole had not seen her mother in-person since August and was counting down the days until they were all vaccinated. On Mother’s Day weekend, they felt safe to visit. “I was just really excited to hug her again,” Nicole said. “I was thinking about all the stuff we were going to get to do.”

When they first embraced, Barbara felt a flood of joy. “I have missed you so much,” she told Nicole. “You’re not leaving my side. You’re going to stay for a couple months, right?”

Barbara thought Nicole had gotten taller. Nicole joked that maybe her mom was shrinking. Neither wanted to let go. “We just couldn’t get enough,” Barbara said.

Nicole said she had missed her mother’s cooking. “I finally got to eat some home-cooked food that wasn’t boxed mac and cheese.”

Nicole said the best part of the weekend was just being in her mom’s presence. “Being around her just feels like home and secure and the one place where I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Maximos Hatziiliades was up early on May 2, slowly roasting a 45-pound lamb on a spit in his driveway in Belmont, Mass., for a party that sunny afternoon.

It was Orthodox Easter, a special time for his large clan, whose patriarchs immigrated from Greece in the mid-1970s. Family members run various Greek culinary businesses in the Boston area, including the Greek International Food Market and Farm Grill & Rotisserie. But this year was more special than most.

Several generations—cousins, siblings and grandchildren—finally felt comfortable gathering after a year of missed milestones. Now, a sense of excitement permeated the air along with the aroma of traditional Greek food. Relatives, most finally vaccinated, were joyfully embracing, while also noting what had been lost: one young girl didn’t remember her cousins.

Mr. Hatziiliades’s son, Paul, who lives in Greece, was home for the first time in more than a year. The father and son have a cherished tradition of cooking the Easter lamb together and arguing over whether it’s done or not.

“It was a very liberating feeling,” Maximos Hatziiliades said of the party. “We were hostage to the coronavirus and all of the sudden we became free, and we got to see our family and friends all around.”

Maria Hatziiliades welcomed her grandchildren to her home. She had spent almost a week preparing food. “I want everything to be perfect,” she said.

There wasn’t a moment in which relatives weren’t catching up or laughing. “If you don’t have get-togethers, how can you be happy?” Savvas Iliades said. “Family is happiness.”

“It was a beautiful thing to be with family but also such a relief to feel something normal,” said Alex Illiades, right, with his uncle Maximos Hatziiliades. “It felt great not having conversations about Covid. It’s been such an exhausting year of just talking about the same thing with everyone.”

Alexia Hatziiliades and her parents, Maria and Maximos Hatziilades talk with family and friends in Greece. Alexia said the day felt like “hope was coming. Everybody’s like, `We can live again.’”

Maria Hatziiliades pinches the cheek of her granddaughter Maria Hatziiliades.. The children had an Easter egg hunt and made crafts.

Randolph Purnell, Jr., a retired locomotive engineer, had a plan for the people he wanted to see after he became fully vaccinated. At the top of the list: his favorite bartender, Elias Zavala, at Maria’s Mexican Restaurant in Chicago.

“He’s one of the friendliest bartenders around,” said Mr. Purnell. “I just missed the atmosphere more than anything.”

Mr. Purnell, who is 66, has been stopping by Maria’s for more than a decade, sitting at the bar to trade stories with Mr. Zavala and other regulars. Mr. Zavala and Mr. Purnell share an interest in cycling. They also talk about the Chicago Bears, work, life, and whatever comes up.

Mr. Zavala encouraged Mr. Purnell to finally retire a few years ago, after 41 years with the railroads. “Randolph, what are you doing?” Mr. Zavala recalled saying. “Want to be the richest man in the cemetery? Enjoy your life, man.”

Mr. Purnell, who is married with two grandchildren, felt he was at high risk from a severe case of Covid-19 and stayed home over the last year. Too much sitting still for his taste. “I thought about throwing that easy chair out of the window,” he joked.

Mr. Zavala said regulars were coming back to the bar, and many were wondering when Mr. Purnell would return. Finally, that day came. “Randolph, where you have been, man!” Mr. Zavala said he yelled out. “We’ve missed you around here!”

Mr. Zavala said he felt relief knowing that Mr. Purnell was OK. “He’s the kind of guy I would miss very much.”

“It’s good to be a regular someplace,” Mr. Purnell said.

The staff of the Rogers Park Business Alliance in north Chicago left their cubicles more than a year ago to work from home.

The 10-person crew that used to eat lunch together got used to seeing colleagues only over regular video calls. They tried virtual morale boosts, such as lunchtime pep rallies where they would cheer: “Two, four, six, eight. Who do we appreciate? Rogers Park Business Alliance!”

Though they were busy, helping small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic, the lack of face time was odd. “I used to see them more than my husband,” said Executive Director Sandi Price.

So knowing the staff was vaccinated, Ms. Price called an in-person team meeting at a restaurant on Wednesday.

Colleagues revived old inside jokes. One staffer, known for ordering things off menus she didn’t intend to, didn’t disappoint. She thought she ordered a petite filet but it turned out to be an entire fish with the head and tail on it. Another, Sheree Moratto listened with awe as her colleagues described the fabulous trips they now plan to take. “Dude, this is my first lunch out in a year-and-a-half,” she said.

Curt Roeschley, meanwhile, has been doing pottery as a hobby and brought everyone handmade mugs. He was also meeting most of the staff in person for the first time, because he was hired during the pandemic. “It was strange,” said Mr. Roeschley. “Kind of similar to when you see celebrities in movies and then you actually see them in person. It’s like, ‘OK, these are real people.’ ’’

“It was great,” Ms. Price said. “Everybody was talking over everyone which you can’t do on Zoom because everybody mutes. It was back to the way it used to be.”

Sandi Price and co-worker Ana Bermudez hug.

It was before the 10 a.m. service at the City of Hope International Church and Senior Pastor Terrell Fletcher wasn’t sure what to expect.

“Boy, I hope people come,” he said, preparing in his office at the San Diego church.

The City of Hope International Church in San Diego closed its doors and went to online services in March 2020.

On Sunday, May 9, the church worshiped together in the sanctuary for the first time in more than a year.

The pastor knew most congregants were vaccinated and he saw that the larger community was turning a corner against the virus. City of Hope had polled members to see if they felt comfortable returning—while making clear it was still fine to watch online.

Ashá Jones said the re-connection felt great after spending most of the pandemic alone. She had moved to San Diego from Chicago for work and school and didn’t have relatives in the area. She had found City of Hope more than two years ago and it had filled that void.

“The church is your family,” she said. “So to be separated from your family for such a long period of time and then be back in the same space…” she said, smiling as she looked around.

Being back inside their sacred space together sparked a new energy among the congregation.

The pandemic had never dimmed the spirit of the church, which continued its community work, including providing food to the needy. The church also hosted a Covid-19 vaccine clinic in its parking lot. Pastor Fletcher, a former running back with the San Diego Chargers football team, spoke out publicly about the importance of getting vaccinated.

Kavalya Fletcher and her husband, the pastor, greeted churchgoers. “How good it is for us to be in fellowship!” Mr. Fletcher told his flock, suggesting they each find two or three people and “welcome them, tell them that you missed them.”

Few people in her circle of friends and family were hit harder by the pandemic than Karen Nascembeni, the popular general manager of the North Shore Music Theatre outside of Boston.

Covid-19 walloped Massachusetts early on, killing Ms. Nascembeni’s 58-year-old husband, Steven Richard, on March 24, 2020. It also took Mr. Richard’s father. And Ms. Nascembeni herself became gravely ill and spent 31 days in a medically induced coma.

As she recovered, theater friends from New York and around the country supported her—remotely. She felt their love but by this spring still hadn’t seen some of her best friends. Once they all got vaccinated, plans were put in motion for a reunion in New York.

Haley Swindal, who was playing “Matron `Mama’ Morton” in the musical “Chicago,” on Broadway when theaters closed last March, began organizing a surprise party honoring Ms. Nascembeni.

“Everyone I’ve called is so emotional about seeing her again,” Ms. Swindal said, tearing up before the reunion. “There is such a community of people who love her so much.”

When Ms. Nascembeni traveled to New York on Monday, May 24, she felt excited to be back in the city—which itself was starting to come alive again—and to meet up with friends (though she didn’t know the extent of Ms. Swindal’s plans.)

Ms. Nascembeni says she is not moving on from her loss but “moving through it.”

“You have to push through it, you have to face it so you can survive, especially when you had a love as great as mine and Steven’s,” she said. “He would never want me to stop living.”

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