A few weeks ago I threw a hybrid baby showe, part virtual and part in-person . My partner Steve’s adult son and his wife have a 4-year-old little girl and are expecting their second child so we threw them a baby shower. So basically, I am a 37-year-old grandma. I balked, denied, ignored that this term could be applied to me. That is NOT how I wanted to be described. When the 4-year-old was born I thought, “She has two other grandmothers. I don’t need that title!” As she has gotten older, I find myself wanting to claim it. Grandmas get to spoil kids with no consequences and give them back. We get to introduce them to new things, go on adventures, see their eyes light up, and feel their unconditional love. My grandmother was my favorite person in the entire world growing up. Why wouldn’t I want that? I first realized all the potential this title holds a couple years ago. I have been a babysitter since I was twelve and, while living in NYC, continued to babysit for extra cash well into my 30’s. Taking care of Steve’s granddaughter is a bit different. First, I don't get paid. Second, typically I am the one spending money: like the time I treated us to a McDonald’s breakfast so we could play at the indoor playground. I was sipping my coffee, craning my head, watching her as she wiggled through pipes and climbed up slides. I was hovering and encouraging as she had the time of her life. She reached the top and yelled, “Can I have an ice cream?” It was before 10am and any sensible babysitter or parent would have said no. But I am the grandma so I get to say yes. I got her that ice cream cone. As we sat there at the tables by the playground, her happily slurping and me quietly sipping, I endured some real dirty looks from the other moms around me especially when their kids started begging for ice cream. But guess what? Ha! I am the grandma. Baby number two is due any day now. The due date is April 20th and we decided to throw the baby shower towards the end of the pregnancy as we wanted the weather to be warmer for an outdoor hybrid baby shower. Due to COVID, we knew that we would only be inviting family that lived in the area. The mom-to-be’s mother lives in Arizona, there are great grandparents in California, other relatives and friends in Las Vegas, Colorado and Texas. So regardless of pandemic times or “regular” times a hybrid event was a wonderful way to include everyone who loves this growing family. It had been so long since I’d thrown an in-person party or event that I was giddy with the fun of decorating. The theme was a spinoff of “Is Your Mama a Llama?” Because this was a Jack and Jill baby shower, I made sure to include the Papa too. We dressed up the backyard with llamas and cacti. I found the cutest llama print paper plates on Amazon. The colors were hot pink and multiple shades of green. Amazon would’ve been pricey if I’d done the whole shebang from there, so I went to the Dollar Tree. Great deals there on paper plates, utensils, tablecloths etc. I designed digital invitations to match and mailed out cards to the older generation with the zoom link listed. I decided early on that I wouldn’t do any games because I wanted this to feel more like a backyard bbq more than a traditional baby shower. We had two piñatas: one for kids and one for adults. Looking back, I think I should have done one game with our physical attendees and virtual ones to get things started. We jumped in with intros and showed the virtual attendees the decorations. We lucked out with an amazingly sunny day. Our virtual baby shower guests got to watch their presents being opened. I had them send the gifts to my house and we wrapped them for the party. I have hosted in-person parties and virtual events before but this was my first time doing both simultaneously. I thought I would have it all handled. This is what I think worked: everyone was able to attend no matter where they lived. They got to engage with the expecting parents and share in the celebration. It was nice creating a festive space that all could enjoy. As the host, I found it difficult being in charge of both the physical and virtual baby shower. I should have delegated and planned to have a virtual host. We used my cell phone to show our virtual guests the party but that meant I couldn’t take pictures with my phone. Next time, I would designate someone to take photos, someone to hold the virtual party phone for the entire party view and I would set up a laptop to the side of the gift opening so the parents could engage with virtual guests. After the gift opening, virtual guests got to watch a precious four-year-old whack the heck out of a llama piñata. She got the whole thing to herself as there weren't any other kids. But guess what? I am the grandma. She deserves all that candy. Then the adults made fools out of ourselves for gourmet chocolate, little bottles of alcohol, and scratch-offs. The entire event was successful and fun because we all got to come together and celebrate this new life that is going to enter our lives.
This past year has been hard but especially difficult during the holidays. The traditions that have been lifelong for some of us have had to change. As Easter approaches, I think of the celebrations I had when I was little. I grew up in a religious/spiritual household. Christianity was part of the makeup of my family, and Easter is a foundation of our beliefs. Christ rising from the dead, conquering our sins, is a cause of celebration in the Christian faith. When I was little, this meant new Easter dresses (me and my sisters usually had matching ones), Sunday morning church service, then coming home to an Easter egg hunt. After that, we would have a family dinner with ham, green bean casserole, dirty rice, and deviled eggs (fresh from the egg hunt—we don’t waste in my family). Year after year, the tradition remained the same and, at sixteen, my mom still demanded we hunt Easter eggs. She wanted to keep everything frozen in time, but, sadly, three teenage girls didn’t have the same excitement for an Easter egg hunt. One year, I brought home two friends from college who weren’t able to go home for the holidays. They joined us for church (and luckily by this time I no longer had to wear matching dresses with my sisters), and after we got home my mom was ready for us to hunt eggs. For the past few years, she had endured our groaning and moaning of “Why do we have to? We are too old for this! We aren’t kids anymore.” This year, she had upped her game and gotten creative. In each plastic egg there was a dollar, and in one lucky egg a ten-dollar bill. Money was always tight growing up, so this extravagance was exciting, and we wanted that money. What had been a silly task to endure had suddenly become as competitive as the Olympics. My sisters and I turned to look at my two friends, orphaned at the holidays. And we saw only interlopers that had entered our domain and were trying to get what was ours. We turned on them. The Southern welcome, the Christian charity was no longer there. It was a cutthroat battle of who will get the most money. Had they endured teen years of humoring our mother and humiliating ourselves for bad candy because she didn’t have grandkids, yet, to watch hunt eggs? Did they suffer in ruffles and fluffy skirts when they were little for the Easter picture? We decided they couldn’t hunt eggs with us. I am embarrassed to admit this now, but at the time my middle sister made a convincing argument. They were designated to be the bunny and could only hide the eggs. The celebration of Jesus’s love for us was not seen that day in our actions, as we lined up at the backdoor stairs like runners at a race waiting for the sound of the starter pistol. Our feet were dancing off the step, and our bodies were ready to lunge so we could be first off and get all the eggs. My mom yelled, “On your mark, get set, go!” And my two sisters raced off stuffing eggs in their Easter baskets that they have had since they were babies. I meandered; I was trying, but I was never the Sporty Spice like my sisters. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted that money—I mean enough that I had backstabbed two of my best friends to get it. But the act of running, searching, sweating in the Texas heat got the best of me. I had each one of my friends along-side me pointing, urging, and cheering me on as my sisters ran circles around me, their baskets overflowing with goodies. I did not get the ten-dollar egg, and sadly the only eggs I got were the unwanted hard-boiled ones. But I did get a glimpse of what great friends I had, and surprisingly they are still my friends. It makes me think how all the time families are adapting: loss of a loved one, a new baby, someone moving, a significant other, getting older, and life’s list of changes goes on. We are constantly incorporating or blending new traditions with the old and sometimes not fully realizing the adjustments. I don’t think it was ever more apparent than this past year—the change in our lives and how they affected our traditions. It is something we have all been enduring, with everyone around us going through the exact same thing at the same time. We have shifted because we had to. Socrates captures it best, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” What dollar bill plastic eggs have you come up with this year? My family has grown. There are now 5 grandkids, significant others, and we have our own homes and families. What was once a time-honored tradition evaporated in part due to the fact we live all over. The past few years we decided to change that and now meet at the beach. A new tradition that is still focused on celebrating what Easter means and family being together. We don’t hunt for money anymore. I guess our greedy nature didn’t really highlight what the holiday is supposed to be about. However, right before COVID, we did do an adult Easter ‘egg’ hunt with pot scrubbers and bath bombs. I don’t know what screams boring old adults more than being excited about a pot scrubber. But elbows were thrown in trying to get them all. I guess some things don’t change because I didn’t get any! This year is bittersweet because, although we won’t be together ,I know my family is safe and we can celebrate via video call. Thankfully, for me, a Zoom call does not test my athleticism.
I love Passover. Growing up, it was a mix of exquisite joy and purposeful focus. I have the privilege of being from a big family. My uncles and cousins were a riot. They’d crack each other and their parents up all night, while taking turns making me couch cushion forts and reading dutifully from the Haggadah. My grandpa wrote parody songs that got adapted and built upon. Tradition became about stories, music, laughter, and the best meal of the year. (The memory of Aunt Jessie’s kosher-for-Pesach chocolate chip cookies still somehow surpasses any other dessert.) There was a clear, repeatable structure. It ended with a harmonized, percussive birkat hamazon. So it goes. Over time, the family grew. It was a challenge to accommodate us all under one roof. Out of necessity, the houses split and cousins held separate Seders. My parents—and some years just my dad—used to take me from the Lieberman’s Seder to the Schultz’s, whose Seder would inevitably run longer, skipping fewer beats in the Haggadah than we did. My dad always understood, respected, and sometimes celebrated—even when he was tired and in part would probably have preferred to go straight home—that family was everything to me, and that Passover somehow served as a representation of that. The Lieberman Seders have become more and more elaborate, as we march to the beat of our own Seder plate. In my mother’s tradition, for a while we were dressing the youngest of the household up as Eliyahu, complete with oversized robe and cotton ball beard. Toy animals have made their way to every table and spread out as center pieces, with little jumping frogs for everyone to pop up on cue. My grandfather’s songwriting tradition has been taken up by more family members, including my wildly talented younger cousin, Rachel, who adapts pop and musical theatre songs to fit Passover themes. When we started rotating households each year and our Seders became potlucks, we began the tradition of singing “Potluck Seder” to the tune of Dayenu, complete with groan-with-delight puns and intricate rhymes. Somehow we always find ourselves belting new lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody or tooting Baby Shark into the Shofar (wrong holiday, I know – and yet!) while the whole family dances along. But of course, it’s more of a challenge to gather today. So, like all family reunions and events, we come together remotely. Thinking back over the years, it actually isn’t all that different from what we’ve had to do as my generation grows up. Not entirely, at least. I left Florida for college 20 years ago and, though I’ve tried to return for as many Seders as I possibly can—which has meant more than a couple of red-eye flights—sometimes work gets in the way. Most of my generation of 1st cousins have been rotating in and out of college for the past decade or so. So, in truth, for years we’ve been including FaceTimed family members at a distance at our Seder table for drop-in singalongs and to join in the Four Questions. I will admit, back in 2020, some of my family members were reluctant. But with a little time-juggling, tech-testing, and some extra patience and care given to be sure the grandparents could connect, we managed to gather everyone together for a truly special, memorable Seder. Uncle Gary expertly made his mother’s brisket recipe along with some fam-faves for side dishes, and dropped off re-heatable Seder meal care packages to family members throughout South Florida. (Not quite a potluck, but close!) Up in NY, my boyfriend and I cooked along from afar. We then met online, with our plates full and our computers ready for a Zoomluck Seder! Online family gatherings can potentially be a little tricky, especially with a large and boisterous group like ours. So we leaned into the inherent structure of a Seder and did what we do best, and what we’ve always done: Thoughtfully led by my Uncle David, we took turns telling the Passover story. We poured our attention and love into our grandparents. We sang, we laughed, we danced, and we ate. I mean, absolutely: As a person who wound up working in theatre, I’m sure I love Passover because it’s interactive dinner theatre with purpose. I also love that it’s full of silliness and music. I love the recipes passed down by our grandparents and great grandparents. I love its ever shifting and expanding family traditions. I think most of all, I’ve grown to appreciate more and more that it’s a space to reflect, to unpack feelings about grief and life events, in which we’re encouraged to ask why things are the way they are—and now, in adulthood, how we can hold ourselves accountable to our communities. There’s a lot to reflect on this year. I don’t even know where to begin. I know we’re all feeling some semblance of that. That’s ok. There’s a page to start on and there’s family. What that looks like continues to change, but the structure and traditions remain. Dayenu.
March 11th was for me the last day of “normality” before everything shut down. I was lucky to catch a matinee performance of a show with fellow ToGather Today co-founder Melody Erfani, and then headed to an evening rehearsal for a theatre project called Carla’s Quince that I’d been creating with an ensemble since 2018 with the goal of mobilizing Latinx voters to the polls. It was a strange rehearsal with a sense of doom hanging over us. The news cycled in about the alarming spread of COVID-19 in NYC, and the festival we were about to present the piece in told us that after our group’s performances the following week, the rest of the festival would be cancelled. The next day, we were told that in fact the festival was cancelled starting immediately and we would not be able to perform. That same day, all the other theatres started cancelling their performances. As the weeks dragged on, it became clear that things would not be quickly returning to business as usual. For Carla’s Quince, which had been specifically created to be performed live in the runup to the November election, we had to make a decision about whether to carry on as if things might be normalized by fall, or pivot it to an online Zoom experience. We opted for the latter. This was not an easy task, but one that our ensemble took on joyfully and that led us to surprising discoveries about the piece, connecting with audiences, and how to use Zoom features in surprising ways. Pre-pandemic, Carla’s Quince was an immersive theatrical experience in which the audience became guests at Carla’s Quinceañera. A Quince, in many Latinx cultures, is a young woman’s coming-of-age celebration when she turns 15. In our theatrical version, audiences were taken on a journey that started off as a traditional Quince party but soon went off-the-rails as characters had to deal with different real-life issues in the moment. We had designed it so that at times the audience members were spectators watching a scripted moment, at other times they were up on their feet following different characters around the space in small groups, at other times they were invited to participate in small and large group discussions, and in other moments we were just hoping they would have fun getting to know each other with the live music, group dinner, and an invitation to join the dance party. In pivoting this to Zoom, we had to make careful choices to preserve the spirit of the piece while eliminating some things that no longer made sense (like the shared meal and live music). Some elements we knew we had to find a way to keep included the audience members going on different journeys in small groups throughout the piece, the dance party, and the small and large group discussions around voting and our hopes and dreams for our communities. We also wanted to keep the warm, joyful, and intimate nature of it even within a larger party environment. Through a lot of rehearsal experimentation, group creativity, and late nights, we managed to not only re-envision this experience on Zoom, but actually solve a lot of the challenges we had come up against when the show was going to be done live. Audiences attended the show from all over the United States and abroad, and we received feedback that it was many folks’ favorite Zoom pandemic experience. They said it was joyful, heartwarming, and inspiring. We also had a lot of audience members let us know that they had never seen Zoom used in all the ways we had used it! We made full use of features such as: breakout rooms, spotlighting, sound and screen sharing, the whiteboard function, hiding non-video participants, and polls. We also took care to design and light each actor’s home space to make sure they could be clearly seen by the audience and were immersed in a party feel. Although we had to let go of certain elements, we succeeded in our goal of creating a joyful space for community gathering. The key was to lean in to the elements that were available to us and use them to their full (and sometimes unexpected) potential. By being creative and intentional about the type of space we wanted to create and the kind of experience we wanted the audience to have, we were able to transform what we previously could have only conceived of as an in-person experience into an arguably more successful virtual one. In this time when so many of us are apart from our loved ones and feeling the strain of physical distancing, we cannot underestimate the importance of creating opportunities for meaningful connection in virtual spaces.
For me, love is wine. Wine is love. Wine is here to love you every day of the year, but on Valentine’s Day and at other special moments in your life, there is nothing more exciting and delicious than getting adventurous with some special wine. Whether it is a pandemic or geography that may distance us, virtual wine celebrations are a creative and super fun option to honor an occasion. ToGather Today can always put together a professional virtual wine tasting and education session for any occasion, (Bachelorette? Birthday? We made it to Tuesday?) we are also happy to share a few tips and tricks for a DIY virtual tasting at home.
In this video, ToGather Today's team members, Melody Erfani and Lana Russell, talk about hosting and facilitating virtual events. Lana shares what drew her to virtual events and the importance of having someone to help with emotionally charged situations.
Here are 5 ways to infuse your holidays with your time-honored traditions but 2020 style (as in, Zoom meeting-style not dumpster fire-style). This year’s festivities will be different for a lot of people. In order to stay safe, many have to maintain physical distance from those they love. Traditions are a big part of the holidays and family. Here are some ideas that people’s family traditions in ways that allow them to be shared across long distances.