June 15, 2024


Free For All Food

Alone for Covid Holidays? Family Recipes, Flexibility and Online Connections Can Help

This article is part of “Life in Quarantine,” dispatches from around the world about how people are getting through the coronavirus pandemic. The fourth installment looks at holidays during Covid-19, including reinventing traditions and staying safe.

Taking time to heal and remember past holidays together; Alberta Sparks’ secret ingredient

Maria McCoy, 53, Greater Orlando, Fla.

Profession: Retired teacher launching a new business

What are you most thankful for? “I am thankful that I had the opportunity to have both of my loved ones who passed away in 2020 in my life for the time I had them. Both of them had a special love for all family. Their memories will definitely live on in the family.”

Maria McCoy’s parents raised her to be independent and strong—traits which helped when she lost her husband of 11 years in September to Covid-19. Now she faces the next hurdle: her first Christmas without her mom, who died before the pandemic in February.

“My mom was the one who made sure the family stayed together,” says Dr. McCoy, 53, a retired middle-school teacher with a Ed.D. in education.

Dr. McCoy, flanked by her parents, Louis Sparks, Sr., and the late Alberta Sparks, after she graduated with a Ed.D. in education in 2017.


Maria McCoy

Dr. McCoy is planning to spend the holiday as usual at her younger brother’s house in Miami, where some 30 family members will gather. But she will make the 3½ hour drive south alone this year. She expects there will be the customary big tree surrounded by hundreds of presents that will be eagerly distributed by the youngest children. Due to Covid, the celebration will be outside with each household separated by a table. They will still stand in a circle, but they won’t hold hands. Dr. McCoy’s preacher husband, Will McCoy, won’t be leading the prayer.

Dr. McCoy has turned to travel to help the healing process, being careful to follow all Covid safety advisories. She booked a two-week trip in November to the Gambia, a small country in West Africa where she had been twice before and had made friends. “With the things I’ve gone through, I just wanted to get away. Mentally, I needed a break,” she says. She and her daughter-in-law then vacationed in Jamaica and rode horses along the coast.

Dr. McCoy and her daughter-in-law Jeanelle Millender riding horses last month in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.


Maria McCoy

Returning for Thanksgiving was tough: Friends and family invited her to dinner, but she just wanted to sit alone by her husband’s grave. It soothed her to remember the last day they spent together, purchasing tables and chairs for a new event-venue business. They talked about anything and everything while she drove. “I will always live with the memory of that day,” she says. She held her husband’s funeral repast in the hall they were going to open together.

It is the memories that Dr. McCoy says will help her most. Her mom, Alberta Sparks, would always assign foods for family members to bring to the Christmas potluck. Dr. McCoy usually got desserts: poundcake, red velvet cake and key lime cake. She will bake again this year—but she will also make collard greens, a dish her mother always brought. That’s because her mom bequeathed her the secret ingredient. “My collard greens taste just like hers now,” she says. —Nancy Keates

Dr. McCoy with her parents and siblings at Christmas dinner in 2013.


Maria McCoy

Enjoying Life in Hawaii, While Planning Christmas Around Poland

Cooking pierogies online with her grandmother helps graphic designer feel close to family yet work and surf in Honolulu this year

Zuzanna Rogatty, 29, Honolulu

Profession:Graphic designer

Ms. Rogatty spends her afternoons exploring the island.


Zuzanna Rogatty

Have any of your traditions changed this year? It isn’t possible or practical to prepare a lot of traditional Polish foods this year, Ms. Rogatty says. “If it’s coconut water instead of borscht, haupia instead of kutia or papaya açaí bowl instead of bigos, I’m into it.”

Wandering through a shopping mall in Honolulu recently, Zuzanna Rogatty heard the first notes of something familiar but jarring: Christmas music.

“It feels so weird to see all of the Christmas decorations around the palm trees,” the 29-year-old graphic designer and recent Hawaii transplant says.

Paradise can be a strange place to linger during the holiday season when you’ve always spent the holiday in your native Poland. “I just feel that I’m kind of skipping Christmas this year,” Ms. Rogatty says. “For me, not being with my family or my close friends, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore.”

That isn’t to say that she doesn’t love her new reality, renting an apartment a five-minute walk from a surfing beach in Waikiki. Skipping winter, for the first time in her life, was part of the plan. Winters in Poland are harsh, frozen stretches, she says, and those in New York, where she lived for the last couple of years, weren’t much better. With her boss’ blessing, she put her desk, books and winter clothes in storage, packed one suitcase and set off for Hawaii at the end of the summer.

“I just took a risk. It was my adventure,” Ms. Rogatty says.

After a two-week quarantine, she started developing a rhythm to her new life: wake by 5 a.m., work until 1 p.m., spend the afternoons biking, hiking and swimming in the ocean. At 5 p.m., she’s on her surfboard. The ritual has become meditative.

“There’s just days that you just paddle out to the ocean and there’s no waves. You sit on the board, observe the world, how beautiful it is here. You can see a volcano, a rainbow, beautiful sky,” she says.

She catches the sunset, then heads home. Once a night owl, she’s now asleep by 8 p.m., since she has to keep East Coast hours for her job.

A graphic designer, Ms. Rogatty wakes up by 5 a.m. and works while catching the sunrise. A detail of one of her designs, right.


Zuzanna Rogatty (2)

Ms. Rogatty says the pandemic has made her value her family—and staying connected with them—even more than when she was living close by. December finds her preparing to ship a package of Hawaiian goodies—cacao nibs, macadamia nuts, Hawaiian-print shirts—to Poland. She has plans to make pierogies with her grandmother over Zoom on Dec. 23, and then bring the dumplings to a Christmas picnic hosted by new friends. —Rachel Feintzeig

Retiree Brings Spirited Flexibility to Locked-Down Holidays on Her Own

Californian embraces many ways to celebrate even if traditions have changed; ‘Go ahead and order a nice takeout dinner’

Kendra Heath, at her home in Windsor, Calif., will spend the Christmas holiday alone for the first time in years. She plans to take a drive and treat herself to a cracked-crab feast.


Kendra Heath

Kendra Heath, 69, Windsor, Calif.


Do you see a silver lining?“I have seen and spent time with my sister this year more than any other I can remember. We have never been extremely close but it feels as though we have gotten closer this year, which is nice as we are the only two left of our family.”

Any holiday advice for other singles?“Do something special for themselves. Go ahead and order a nice takeout dinner. Decorate if that makes them happy. Get flowers for the house. Do exactly what you want to do.”

Kendra Heath plans a long solo drive and lunch alone on the Mendocino coast on Christmas Day. “I’ll treat myself to a cracked crab lunch. If things go right, crab season will be under way by then.”

The single 69-year-old retiree from Windsor, Calif., adds, “I will eat outdoors, in my car or just take it home.” The temperature will likely be in the mid-50s and “I am not a cold-weather person.”

Ms. Heath and her sister Erica spending Christmas together in 2016. Ms. Heath typically spent Christmas with her sister’s family.


Kendra Heath

Ms. Heath will spend the holiday alone for the first time in four years. She normally spends Christmas at her sister’s house, feasting on the turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, green-bean casserole, and carrot soufflé whipped up by her brother-in-law.

During each holiday season, Ms. Heath is usually creating a mix of occasions celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas and her Dec. 26 birthday.

“This year, with me turning 70, I sort of wanted something special,” she says. “But with Covid, that will not be happening, especially with the spikes we are seeing. I am now looking at ideas for virtual parties. Maybe I can still think of something.”

Ms. Heath, a twice-divorced mother of one—she has a son who lives with his family in Boise, Idaho—had originally planned to spend Thanksgiving the way she had for years. Ms. Heath usually organizes what she affectionately calls orphan dinners by gathering groups ranging from three to 11 friends who also may not have family options for the day. She would prepare a turkey, potatoes and a fruit salad and each guest would bring a dish too.

Covid canceled that. “I have only one or two friends that I really trust in that regard,” she says, laughing. Then seriously, she says, “I’m just not going to chance it with anyone and I know they won’t either.”

Ms. Heath, lower right in orange feathers, with friends during a party welcoming a new friend into their group, in 2018. ‘I tend to throw little get-togethers whenever I can come up with some sort of reason,’ she says.


Kendra Heath

So she mixed things up and invited her sister and her family for Thanksgiving. With that major holiday already shared with Ms. Heath, her sister and brother-in-law will be in Seattle to spend Christmas with their grandchildren.

“I honestly have no problem being alone for the holiday,” Ms. Heath says. “I can sort of play it by ear and do whatever I feel like doing that day.” —Ray A. Smith

A photo Ms. Heath took while visiting the Sonoma Coast, which is about a 45-minute drive from her home. She plans to make the drive to the coast on Christmas Day.


Kendra Heath


What are your tips for spending the holidays alone? Join the conversation below.

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