Culture is always in process. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people everywhere reshaped their everyday lives and special events. As the public health crisis continued through the first five months of 2021, Goucher College students documented the creativity they experienced in celebrations, meet-ups among friends and family, and rites of passage in their own lives. Here they shared their reflections with Folklife Magazine as part of a course co-taught by curators at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and faculty from Goucher’s Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability (MACS) program.
As part of an ongoing partnership between the Center and Goucher, this class annually explores issues surrounding how museums and festivals represent culture. Students learn and apply approaches to cultural representation used at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, such as the “cultural conversation,” a practice that engages deep dialogue between Festival visitors and cultural practitioners. The online Story Circles produced by the Festival as part of its response to the pandemic provided a model for students to create their own stories related to Folklife Magazine’s Chronicling Culture in Crisis series.
These personal accounts speak to how the students pivoted to adapt to the sudden distancing requirements of the pandemic, and how the world is adapting, improvising, and reinventing familiar cultural practices in surprising and creative ways. They wrote about how finding joy and meaning in our lives is now more precious than ever. As both participants and observers, the students reflected on the renewed significance of these traditions with an eye toward the ways in which they changed. In participant observation, a core ethnographic practice emphasized in the MACS program, researchers participate intensively in the cultural activity they study. They record their thoughts and feelings about the activity, conscious about how their own background shapes the perspectives described in their accounts. Participant observers are encouraged to use the first person in describing a cultural practice.
Below are excerpts from these students’ works. Cultural practices in the time of COVID reveal a wide variety of stories and experiences. Families celebrate the highly anticipated birth of child in a novel setting, a new baby is welcomed to a socially distanced world, the last months and loss of a grandmother is grieved, families and friends gather around meals remotely while still having a good time with welcomed togetherness.
Khamar Hopkins: The Mobile Baby Shower
For Khamar Hopkins and his family, baby showers are always a big event—typically bringing together more than forty family members and friends. Not wanting the pandemic to get in the way of these celebrations, the family pivoted and reinvented this tradition by holding a drive-by baby shower with front-lawn activities for the first child of Khamar’s brother Torri and sister-in-law Tameka. Khamar’s mother organized everything because she was “just so delighted to have a new grandchild. Especially since it’s a girl.”
Khamar reported that his mother “did all the cooking, decorating, led all of the baby shower games, and even picked a Care Bears theme because she knew that Tameka loved this cartoon while growing up.” Khamar recalled, “The first thing that caught my eye upon arriving at my brother’s house was the large yard structure that read ‘Baby Girl’ that our mom constructed. She made everyone their own Care Bear T-shirts. Everyone’s was a different color and had a nickname hot glued onto it with mini soft foam letters. My shirt was indigo with ‘UNCLE MAR BEAR’ written on it.
We placed a chair in the driveway with balloons tied to it for Tameka to sit on. A Bluetooth speaker played music, and everyone took something from a box of giftbags. Everyone wore masks, and no one made any physical contact. No one found this particularly strange because they were used to safety precautions everywhere else—at the store, school, and work. Torri and Tameka used hand sanitizer every time they touched a gift from one of their friends. My mother’s home cooking and games made it feel like a normal baby shower.”
Khamar later explained, “Only Torri and Tameka’s mother were permitted to be at the hospital with her when she gave birth. I asked Tameka how she felt about this during the shower. She said, ‘I only wanted to bring a few people with me to the hospital anyway, so this actually works for me.’ We didn’t know when we’d be able to see the baby in person yet, but we all hoped it would be soon. At the time I felt that I couldn’t wait to see my future niece and have big family gatherings again.”
Carolyn Carr: Giving a Pandemic Welcome to the World
Seeing the ultrasounds taken during a high-risk pregnancy in the midst of the pandemic, Carolyn Carr and her husband David “couldn’t wait to have our first baby boy.” Her report illustrates how the pandemic forced adjustments all along the way through an especially challenging delivery room experience and for a baby born into a socially distanced world:
“After seven hours of contractions and eagerness, my doctor informed me that our son would not move his arm. With disappointment and sympathy, he told us, ‘We’re going to have to do a C-section. His arm is up like Mighty Mouse.’ Our son’s heart rate dropped prior to his delivery, further emphasizing the urgency of it all. I was terrified for our son’s health and safety. My husband was upset, but we both leapt into parental mode and did whatever was needed. He was not allowed to come into the delivery room at first.
“After a little while, my doctor’s happy tone and laugh alleviated my fears. We were overjoyed at the sound of our son’s cries. I melted over that sound. My doctor lifted him above the curtain for about two seconds for me to see him. They invited David to see him, so he bolted away, brimming with pride. I heard him talking with the nurses, laughing at times, and taking pictures.”
“All of the stress of the pandemic, the actions we took to protect our son, and the appointments I had to attend alone did not matter. He was safe and healthy. We stayed two hours in a recovery room, where I finally held him with some initial assistance. We would have loved to share him with family and friends, but we settled with sharing pictures. Our son’s delivery fit perfectly with the trials of the year. A part of me feels his welcoming was incomplete, but gratitude dissipates these challenging emotions when they arise.
“Our new normal is simply our son’s normal. His sweet, radiant demeanor emphasizes his ability to prosper in a version of our world that he cannot compare with another. He is happy as long as he is with his family. He smiles at masked faces, loves being in nature, and relishes playing with his older sisters. He is accustomed to Zoom and FaceTime. His view of certain aspects of the world is always at a distance, but it exhilarates him nonetheless. We have so much to show him, and we anticipate widening his perspective.”
Mallorie Kristoffersen: A Missed Call and a Lost Life—A Reflection on Life and Loss During the Pandemic
On the other end of life’s journey, millions of us adapted to new ways of losing loved ones. The ones we lost faced unprecedented isolation in their last months, and we commemorated them in funerals adjusted to meet socially distanced requirements. Life took on new meanings as we reflected on life and love.
Mallorie Kristoffersen reported on how she “could spend hours on the phone” with her grandmother, “who was not always the easiest person to love. But she was my grandmother in all the ways one loves their grandmother: her fried chicken; her rum cake; her table settings for elaborate birthday, Easter, and Christmas meals; and her phone calls and birthday cards. The conversations could abruptly end, and that is what the past year has felt like: an abrupt end. Abrupt endings on the phone happened less and less as she got older. There was a subtle shift—a stronger desire for shared presence.
Before I knew it, her health deteriorated, and she was in a healthcare facility, where connections were difficult. The phone would only ring when I tried to call her in November. By January, I was advised that it might be best to not contact her, as she was no longer fully coherent. She was slowly getting further and further from us here, in the present. I have countless voicemails I cannot bear to delete. I have yet to listen to many of them. I think my grandmother died in part from loneliness during COVID. I wish I had returned more of her calls.”
“My grandmother passed away on January 22. Her funeral was meaningful, but it was not like any our family experienced before. We had limited seating to accommodate the greater amount of space necessary between those in attendance. It felt bare, distant, empty, hollow. As a family, the ability to begin the process of closing out my grandmother’s life was necessary. I am compelled to pick up the phone and ask others in my family how they feel. I would not be surprised to discover we are all looking forward to a mask-free gathering to celebrate her life and lay her to rest next to my grandfather in Arlington Cemetery. I am hoping, come fall, with vaccinations more readily available, we can hug each other, have tears unencumbered by masks, see each other’s smiles, and hold each other’s hands.”
Annette Toro: “What I Learned from My First Big Puerto Rican Thanksgiving without My Big Puerto Rican Family”
Annette Toro’s cooking skills met their biggest test as she made her first attempt as head chef for the Thanksgiving meal in 2020, shared virtually among family members in Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. Accustomed to preparing meals only for her husband and herself, now Annette had to cook for fifteen rather than two.
Annette reported on her intensive preparations: “I got to work collecting all the recipes and accompanying stories to recreate whatever little bit of home and normalcy I could for the holiday. My dad emphasized the importance of not stirring the arroz con gandules too much or I wouldn’t get the crunchy bits at the bottom, no tengas prisa, nena, o no te sale. My sister gave me a new sofrito recipe and, knowing my forgetfulness, told me not to forget to freeze the extra in ice cube trays right away. My mom worried about the oil burning me when I was trying to make tostones for the first time. My aunt gave me three alternate recipes for pernil in case I wanted options, all calling for increasing amounts of garlic. Each recipe brought memories of holidays gone by, like the Christmas I set my dress on fire leaning over the stove to sneak a whiff of the arroz con gandules, or the Thanksgiving when I cried because I was too sick with strep throat to have my traditional hot chocolate with a chunk of Edam cheese at the bottom.”
Reflecting on her experiences, Annette learned important skills and lessons about personal agency, active engagement in her Puerto Rican heritage, and reinventing intimacy during the pandemic. She recalled, “I saw the great importance of taking ownership over your culture, rather than act as a passive participant. Being forced into the position of leader and the main storyteller, head chef, and resident DJ, I figured out ways to put my own spin on things. After going vegetarian, I made my first plant-based pollo asopao and pernil. For the first time in nearly a decade, I enjoyed my childhood favorites in new ways that I was able to define myself. Closeness is far more than sitting around the same table. Closeness is seeing your mom’s hands when you look down at your own putting your spin on her classic pollo asopao recipe. Closeness is FaceTiming your family fifteen times in one day to make sure you aren’t forgetting anything. Closeness is putting on your family’s favorite song on and dancing around your kitchen with your husband who is usually too shy to dance when your whole family is around.”
Jasmine Turk: A Brush at Brunch
For Jasmine Turk, the pandemic highlighted the importance of finding joy by gathering regularly with friends or family over a shared meal. With restaurants shuttered or closed for indoor dining, meals happened in homes that were linked together online. These dinners reconstructed the spirit of pre-pandemic gatherings.
Jasmine recalled, “My family, friends, and I would gather at least once a month to share brunch at a rotation of our favorite restaurants. We would fill up large tables and discuss the liminal space that exists in between everything and nothing at all. We would tell jokes and long stories about our days since our last gatherings and create a space to turn whatever pain or challenges we may have experienced into some sense of joy. Saturday or Sunday brunches were filled with bottomless mimosas, oversized pancakes, and even more oversized bills.”
“Something wonderful that came about from this unfortunate absence was reflection about what was and wasn’t important to us. Was it the physical spaces that we missed? Was it that the space created a sense of community? Was it the food? Was it the presence of one another? It was all of the above. We decided that what was most important to us was the space that we created to exist and be with each other, shifted to a virtual format. We were at least still able to share laughter, body language, presence, and the essence of each other. Instead of dining in restaurants, we dined separately in our own homes over shared recipes that we each would select in rotation, as we would’ve done in person as we each picked restaurants. Some of us created masterpieces, and, well, some others created near fires. Nonetheless, we laughed, we gathered virtually, and we rejoiced, which was the real joy.”
“When warmer spring weather arrived, we safely moved toward very small and personable socially distanced, in-person gatherings. We continue to share rotation on who cooks and hosts, and we eat outside at a distance, holding picnic-style gatherings. We recall moments of collective laughter and joke telling and poking and prodding in person that once was, all while smells of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and the warmth of maple syrup waft in the air. We find joy and solace in gathering.”
The experiences of the Goucher students vividly describe how to find new meaning in familiar practices adapted to the constraints of the pandemic. Their accounts reinforce how important friends and family are in times of crisis. As participants and observers, they reflect deeply on joy, sorrow and grief, mastery of new skills, and the importance of relationships. They also illustrate how we creatively transformed and reinvented cultural traditions during the pandemic.
None of us would have wished the pandemic on ourselves and those we care about most. Nevertheless, the Goucher course provided an engrossing collective learning experience that countered the isolation of the pandemic. By sharing reflections about cultural practices in the time of COVID, and despite collective hardships and suffering, we learned what is important in life for us.
Robert Baron and Rob Forloney are faculty members in the Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability program at Goucher College. Carolyn Carr, Khamar Hopkins, Mallorie Kristoffersen, Annette Toro, and Jasmine Turk are graduate students in Goucher’s MACS and Master of Arts in Arts Administration programs.