Photo Credit Michelle Winters Photo Credit Michelle Winters

The Winters family will be missing a key member of their Christmas traditions. But they’re determined that her memory will guide them.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—For Michelle Winters, this will be the first Christmas since her grandmother passed away over the summer.

Ordinarily, she and her big, Midwestern-Italian family would all travel together to see the matriarch in Illinois, the grandmother who oversaw five generations of now so many names. For fear of spreading the virus before the vaccine was available, the family held off on holiday travel in 2020, forgoing the Christmas tradition and following health guidance. 

Now finally vaccinated, looking ahead to a small reunion this year, so much has changed for the Winters family.

A pandemic arose, ebbed, and flowed. Her daughter and son-in-law moved home to Michigan from Arizona, along with children of their own. Vaccines became available, rolled out systematically to first inoculate the most vulnerable members of society.

In springtime of 2021, Winters and her husband had just become both fully vaccinated, thanks to their age and her husband’s status as a veteran. For the first time in a year and a half, they felt comfortable to see their family in Illinois, including her Nonna. In April, they skipped across state lines to visit the grandmother Winters hadn’t seen since Christmas of 2019—back in normal times. 

“As soon as we were fully vaxxed, two weeks after my second shot, we traveled to Illinois to see her,” Winters, a fitness instructor in Ann Arbor, said.

Their reunion, for so much time having passed, immediately reconnected the dots, transporting both sides to an alternate universe where life was normal and conversation flowed freely. Nonna teased Winters’ husband, Jeff, sarcastically flirtatious in her jabs, and asked for photos of her great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Winters brought her Italian noodles that she had made for Nonna and then frozen, as the pandemic passed on, as well as cappelletti broth.

But over a time of immense societal transformation, Winters’ grandmother had undergone her own transition. Her health had deteriorated, and she’d begun sleeping more and eating less.

Two weeks after Winters departed, her grandmother died. She left the world peacefully and naturally from causes unrelated to COVID-19, with Winters’ aunt by her side.

Winters’ grandmother with her great-great-grandbaby. She passed away in May 2021. Photo courtesy: Michelle Winters

Though their final meeting proved to be a farewell, as the holiday season sneaks up and the year closes, Winters is grateful for that time she was able to cherish with the woman she remembers so much about and looks up to. For her and her husband, they received the vaccine just in time for one last meeting.

“I am ever grateful that she was the grandmother I got,” Winters wrote in a tribute on Facebook. “Her heart was as big as any I’ve ever known.” 

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A Baby on the Way

Going into this Christmas will be different in many ways once again, Winters said.

In fact, if all goes according to plan, Winters’ family will have a new member at the table, as her daughter is expecting a third child any hour of any day now.

Six adults and three children should be all together, and homemade delicacies will crowd out the dinner table.

“It’s just us. It’s just smaller,” Winters said.

While the family plans to get together this Christmas (with all members vaccinated and boosted who can be), not quite everything is back to normal.

The Omicron variant spreads through Michigan, driving up deaths and illnesses as COVID-19 pushes hospitals to the brink. Winters’ son-in-law’s father had a bypass surgery postponed, as the hospital was too short-staffed with not enough beds. The situation is “life and death.”

The nine attendees is a smaller number than Winters would like. Though everyone except for the young children are vaccinated, no one wants to travel at this point to reconnect with far-away family. Best to keep a small circle for now, Winters said.

“Everybody just wants their lives, especially the kids’, to get back to normal,” Winters said.

Families around Michigan are changing their holiday plans last minute. 

Alex P.N. from Grand Rapids had planned a trip to Chicago to meet up with friends for after the new year, he told The ‘Gander. But he and his spouse have reconsidered these plans, with the rise of the Omicron variant. 

While being fully vaccinated has made the couple feel more comfortable going to restaurants and retail stores in the area, they still feel uncertain about being in public with those who are not vaccinated. For them, not everything is back to normal.

“We are closely monitoring the impact it will have on Chicago businesses and venues by the time we arrive,” P.N. said.

In Canton, Kelly Savine is back with family for Christmas, after when last year the family voted to not come together. They’re fully vaccinated, except for her 3-year-old, but to be extra safe, everyone is taking an at-home rapid test prior to showing up. 

They did the same for Thanksgiving.

“This is a very privileged thing to do, because it’s $25 for two tests,” Savine said. 

Sue Wilson, in West Michigan, said she had a transplant last year, which left her extremely anxious and depressed during COVID-19. This year, the vaccine has appeased most of her worries, with her and her husband getting their vaccines and boosters and all her children now vaccinated.

“We are excited to be able to do some things during my [kids’] Christmas break,” she wrote in a Facebook comment.

As for the Winters, they’ll be having a fire in the backyard, and she’s decorating the house with Santas from all over the world. The kids are sure to run around and have a jolly good time.

“Santa’s still coming,” Winters said.

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Photo Credit Michelle Winters

It’ll Be a New Christmas

In the first Christmas since losing her grandmother, with whom she used to play Pokeno and eat square-cut pizza with as a little girl, Winters is pensive, but not blue. She’s actually quite thrilled to see her loved ones and assume her role as grandmother for the now three children that will be present, instead of just two.

“We’re still looking forward to Christmas,” Winters said. “It’s not a sad time out here by any stretch of the imagination. We’re so excited and looking forward to this baby.” 

At the dinner table, they’ll be serving cappelletti, a folded and stuffed specialty of Italian pasta and a favorite of Nonna.

But in the time of COVID-19, more has changed than just the virus.

Family dynamics have morphed, after months or years apart. Businesses have mutated too, as Winters has turned to requiring vaccines for the fitness class she runs. And so have the holidays.

For Winters, she’s still navigating how to be there for her children and grandchildren while living close by, instead of far away. 

But she has a stellar model to follow—her Nonna. 

“As I transition to this new phase of my life, I have so much to strive toward,” Winters wrote. “I want to be the one they laugh with until the very end. I want to be all those things that she was to me.”

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