For months, the pandemic kept my extended family physically separated but socially connected through our group chat. It included grandparents, children, spouses, grandkids and siblings, 19 in total. All who wanted to join were welcome.
All were also invited to an offshoot of the group chat — weekly family Zoom calls. Our first call was in March, soon after my senior year changed drastically when Notre Dame moved to remote classes. At noon that Saturday, my relatives began to chime into the meeting room.
We joined from several different homes in St. Louis, from Austin, Houston and Dallas, from Nashville, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Collectively, we formed a pseudo-support group as we discussed worries, our favorite Amazon purchases, who’s avoided stores the longest. We answered weekly reflection questions determined by cousin Zoë, the moderator. Ongoing, bracket-style trivia dominated the month of April. On birthdays, we tried to sing — out of tune, off-rhythm and in full voice.
Almost all of us were sheltering in place, with little need to leave other than for groceries and distanced walks, so there was hardly an excuse to miss a call. Uncle Evan called in during one of his long runs; two cousins showed up while driving to see Aunt Paula in Texas; Uncle Jon and Aunt Stephanie joined from a Little League baseball game, when those resumed in June. If someone was late? Nana Pam would call them on speaker and lovingly but publicly shame them until their picture popped up on the screen.
We had our differences — where we got our news, if we believed the reported COVID-19 case numbers, whether we trusted or even respected the president — but in a time of crisis, blood was proving stronger. We needed somewhere to process the emotions we were feeling: the fear, the anger and, at times, the unexpected joy. Week after week, we turned to each other.
We turned to each other, until we turned against each other.
Our political differences were never a secret, but the group chat and Zoom calls had remained largely devoid of controversy — until late July. One text got the conversation rolling, and responses, tearing down and ridiculing each other, poured into the chat.
It started around 10:30 p.m. with one portentous word: Honestly.
“Honestly, I am sick of all of it,” wrote an uncle.
It didn’t seem important at the time what precipitated the long text. That summer night simmered with the politics on everyone’s mind — nationally televised town halls, protests across the country, shutdowns, reopenings and shutdowns again. The question wasn’t if someone would boil over, it was when. Earlier that day, the group chat discussion was about a comment from Missouri Governor Mike Parson about sending kids back to school: “And if they get COVID-19, which they will . . . they’re going to go home and get over it.”
A handful of relatives insulted Parson for about an hour (one called him “a dumb donkey”) then petered off. Until the “Honestly.”
“Honestly, I’m sick of all of it,” wrote the uncle, who had been uninvolved in the earlier conversation. “I am ashamed of pretty much all of you. Please do your own research. . . . Not one of you on this thread will die from it, and not one of you will get really sick from it. How do I know this? I can do stupid elementary math.”
The message continued for several paragraphs, and the discussion turned into a family affair quickly. My uncle’s siblings chimed in with the most stubbornness and vitriol, perhaps replaying scenes from their childhood. My grandparents tried to mediate — at times with a humorous bitmoji, other times with thinly veiled shame and disgust at their own children, who were arguing amongst themselves like they probably did decades ago.
“When you love something, be it a relative or a country, you’re more likely to be critical of it because you know it’s capable of so much,” chimed in a cousin. “I don’t think anybody in here hates America, I just think we’re all pained with the current state we find our nation in.”
“Y’all can go to hell,” said the uncle.
The comments from the youngest generation, the grandkids, at times seemed to generate the most annoyance. After all, the trope of the radical left Gen Z fueled the anger. My uncle took issue with the clothes one cousin wears (including a designer, expletive-laden hat) and the political opinions another puts on Facebook. Only one grandkid was spared the ridicule. With a year of ROTC under his belt and a post-college military contract about to be signed, he was deemed “likely the most rational of all of us here.”
The conversation soon turned to Black Lives Matter.
“I don’t feel much obligation to treat people with respect who blatantly disrespect a movement designed to uplift an oppressed group of people,” wrote the cousin whose hat was under fire. “Respect is earned and you’ve lost mine.”
“What did I say that led to you to the assumption that I blatantly disrespect the BLM movement?” replied the uncle. “What the heck . . . I said I did not like your hat. This is what is wrong with the world. I cannot have my own opinion unless it aligns with yours. Grow up.”
Over the course of the night, many messages, complete with emojis, expletives and emphasis in ALL CAPS, poured into the chat. Very few relatives stayed out of it, although some later wished they had. You name a topical issue, the family fought over it in the way only a family can. Personally, deeply, intimately — and very, very hurtfully.
The last text came in around 2 a.m. Later that morning, a handful of relatives popped back into the chat to express disdain and shock, each more disgusted by the previous night’s escapades than the last. The group chat — where we shared news, photos and, of course, the ever-important Zoom links — was disbanded in disgrace.
Would we move past the fight in time for the Saturday call, or Thanksgiving, or ever? I had no idea. Suddenly, so much seemed in jeopardy because of our late-night politics.
I had never before doubted that family could overcome political differences. After all, our matriarch and patriarch, Nana and Papa, fall very emphatically on opposite sides of the aisle — we call Papa’s study the “Fox Den.” But their political parties don't seem to matter. They just celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary.
So, in that spirit of compromise and respect, my brother Jack sent a plea to the group chat a few days after it went silent.
“Love y’all, wish we didn’t have to discuss politics anymore, no offense to anyone,” he wrote. “Just don’t think it’s good for the family.”
He was right. It was bad for the family and deadly to the group chat — once active daily, it now hasn’t received a text in months.
But, while not polite or politically correct, the texts were honest — like the first message promised right off the bat. They were more genuine, perhaps, than some have felt comfortable being around each other in a long time.
Of course, there are festering sores that will take much longer to heal. But I do think there will be healing.
Because, despite it all, we’re still meeting on Zoom — to play trivia, to sing happy birthday and to face this moment, together.
Mary Bernard works in marketing in Albany, New York. She graduated in May with a major in anthropology and a minor in the Gallivan Program of Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.