Rachel Velsher is a Canadian expat living with her Swedish husband here in Budapest. As the lockdown made face-to-face interaction impossible, she and her nine cousins turned to WhatsApp to share stories, coordinate games nights and keep their spirits up. The following story is in her words.

We call ourselves the Shechter Cousins. There are ten of us, starting with my cousin Elizabeth, a doctor based in Seattle, and ending with Naomi, who is just finishing the first year of her undergraduate physics degree. We are the ten grandchildren of David Shechter, a baker from a small town in Romania called Targu Neamt. He fled Romania with his wife and infant daughter after the World War II, and made his way to Montreal.

He went on to have three more children, another daughter and twins – a boy and a girl. He raised them to be self-sufficient, clever and witty, hardworking, and most importantly, family-oriented. Nothing mattered more to my Zeida David than his family. He would sit at the dining room table, in the midst of the chaos of his active grand-babies, and take in the madness with a serene smile. 

We each have stories of Zeida David. How he would tease Rebecca over the sugar she spilled. How he would pretend he needed help standing up, only to pull Jacob down on the sofa next to him when he gave him a hand. How he would try to bribe my comfort blanket away from me for five dollars, and it would never ever work. And how he always, always insisted on getting a family photo at every event, get-together, brunch or dinner. We have hundreds of those photos floating around our family ether, with us all huddled around Zeida David who sat tall and proud, wearing that smile.

Zeida David’s way of staying connecting to us was through those pictures and through letters. Whenever any of us went off somewhere, be it sleepover camp or Australia, Zeida would write long letters, telling us of his days, of family gossip, of the news around town. We sometimes spoke on the phone, but he lost most of his hearing pretty early on, so letters were his way of comfortably communicating. He always included an extra blank page in every letter he sent – to get us started on our replies.

It’s been 13 years since Zeida David passed away. There have been many changes to the ten of us since then. Marriages, births, the passing of parents, moves to new countries, many new jobs, and one trip around the globe. Through that we’ve stayed in touch, first through phone calls, then email, then Facebook.

Two years ago, right after we all gathered for my brother’s wedding, we started a WhatsApp group. It’s just the ten of us. No spouses, no parents, just us. This group sees nearly daily uploads of baby pictures, bad jokes, life news and some really weird banter. We’re an odd bunch.

A couple of months ago, Gabe, who was planning his wedding in Chicago for the end of April, started sharing that he was worried about this virus going around. It was starting to affect travel, and he was worried that his cousins from abroad, mainly Karen who is stationed in Greece, and myself in Budapest, would not be able to come to his wedding. We quickly assured him that we would be there. Nothing would stop us from joining our family in celebration.

About two weeks later, Gabe informed us that he and his fiancé were planning a small ceremony before the scheduled wedding date, just in case anything happened. About a week after that, our flights started to get cancelled.

Our chat has always been our forum for sharing our good news and our bad, and for seeking support from those who love us. It’s easier than turning to parents; there’s less fear of disappointment. And it’s helpful to get advice and comfort from our peers rather than our elders.

When we started to realise the extent of COVID-19, the reach of this virus, we had a built-in channel for sharing our worries. We shared news from our various corners of the world, the different impacts on our jobs and day-to-day lives, and even some of those bad jokes to lift the worry. Whatever it is we’re sharing, there is the layer of love and care that outstrips all oceans and time zones.

When schools closed, and the cousins with children had to manage that new reality, our group became a medium for venting, and for sharing meditation and calming techniques. When unreasonable roommates became overbearing, our group became a place for sharing similar stories and coping mechanisms. When the loneliness of isolation became real, our group became the platform for a virtual Games Night.

The latest endeavour was a Zoom call with the Cousins and the three living children of Zeida David. We asked our parents to prepare one story each from their childhood. The call lasted over two hours, and was like all those times we got together on a Sunday morning for bagels and family time.

Gabe got married in a small ceremony on 15 March, attended by his and his wife’s immediate family. Pictures were posted in real time to our WhatsApp group. The big party in April is officially cancelled. Having a virtual gathering does not make up for the spontaneity and humanness of face-to-face contact. I want to give Gabe and his wife a hug. I want to cry happy tears with Ilana. I want to do yoga with Rebecca and giggle with Deb. I want the comfort of sitting next to my loved ones in happy silence. It’s particularly difficult to accept this isn’t going to happen, since I don’t even live on the same continent as my family, and the chasm has never felt wider.

Still, I’m grateful for Facebook, emails, WhatsApp and Zoom, and for having the cousins who love me enough to share their virtual time with me. We’ll have our hugs and our quiet time together in the future. For now, we have an opportunity to deepen our internet connections, and we are lucky for it.