On April Fools’ Day this year, Lori Thomas and her family stuck a handful of "For Sale by Owners" signs in the yards of their neighbors, giving them a momentary shock, and then laughs, when they woke up that morning.
Their Northwest Austin neighborhood is a tight-knit one. But another beloved spring tradition — Easter — is going to be a lot harder to celebrate in 2020.
Normally, the neighborhood has Easter egg hunts in people’s yards and other related activities. She said she was thinking of contact-free ways — maybe sidewalk chalk art — she could bring cheer to her Canyon Creek neighbors over the holiday. Inspirational chalk messages have become one way communities around the city can stay connected as everyone shelters in place.
Heather Forshay’s family, for their part, created giant poster board Easter eggs that they’ve hung in the front windows of their home, just down the street from the Thomases. They’ve noticed more people than usual are taking walks outside and want to give them a little extra joy, she said.
Both families’ Easter plans have been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced billions around the world to stay home. This weekend, Thomas, her husband, Kevin, and their two kids — 13-year-old son Parker and 11-year-old daughter Riley — would have driven with Thomas’ 78-year-old mom to a small town outside of Houston to celebrate Easter with their extended family, as they have done every year.
Almost two dozen people attend that Easter fish fry in East Bernard, all of them relatives from Thomas’ mom’s side of the family. The fish fry is always accompanied by games, including an adult Easter egg hunt (with money instead of candy or confetti) and a raw egg toss that Thomas and her husband tend to win. Inevitably, she said, at least one person ends up covered in goopy, sticky, raw egg.
During the Easter egg hunts, 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds — at 50, Thomas is the oldest of her half-dozen maternal cousins — run around the yard, trying to find the one egg with $20 inside. If it makes noise when you shake it, you don’t want it — there’s just a quarter inside.
"We're kind of a goofy family. Lots of laughter and pranks," she said. "We have a lot of adult cousins, we all grew up around each other, and it's fun to pass on the traditions to our kids. I think we're modeling to them that you can be older and still have fun. You don't have to just sit in a chair and watch the kids; you can participate, too."
This year will be a notably smaller gathering, though no less joyful. Just Thomas’ immediate family will drive to Sun City, where her mom lives alone and hasn’t seen anyone for roughly three weeks. She’ll sit on her back deck 20 feet away and watch as Thomas, her husband and the two kids compete in a smaller-scale raw egg toss, fly a kite, make a craft and "have a good old-fashioned Easter egg hunt," she said.
They also want to have a Zoom call with the other family members they can’t be with this year — including Thomas’ brother, who works for an ad agency in Manhattan, one of the hardest-hit areas of the pandemic in the U.S. He’s able to work from home, but venturing out to get groceries feels downright dangerous.
"Thank God for technology," Thomas, a physical therapist who hasn’t been working because of canceled elective surgeries, said more than once.
The ability to connect virtually isn’t lost on Forshay. She works for the nearby Hill Country Bible Church that both families attend. Since COVID-19 became widespread here, the church has been hosting Sunday service online and will do the same on Easter Sunday. Remarkably, she said, the livestreams have had higher numbers of viewers than there had been people coming in the door previously.
On Sunday, her family plans to watch the Easter service and have a devotional at home, reflecting on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Forshay’s father also lives in Sun City. Usually, on Easter weekend, he makes a coconut Easter bunny cake and relatives from Fort Worth drive down to enjoy a day of good food and the requisite hunt for Easter eggs. (Lately, the eggs have been filled with quarters to motivate the teenagers.) Forshay and her husband, John, have a son, Ben, 18, and a daughter, Katie, 14. As a high school senior, Ben likely won’t get to enjoy prom or graduation, but he’s taking it in stride.
The night before Easter, the Forshays and their relatives, which include her older brother and college-age nephews, will have their usual Easter dinner together — virtually. Forshay said she set up her father on Zoom beforehand.
"For the Zoom dinner, everyone is going to make what we have at the house rather than make a big meal," she said. "It's less about the food and more about all being together. We'll miss the coconut bunny cake, but you realize what is most important in these times."
Forshay is particularly excited about late Easter morning, when the neighbors along her street in Canyon Creek plan to head to the end of their driveways or front stoops to greet each other, "saying good morning, happy Easter and all of that," she said. "We’ll visit with triple the social distancing measures."
If there’s one good thing that has come out of staying almost exclusively at home, she said, it’s that some people have the time now to evaluate the trajectory of their lives — and what better time than Easter to make those changes?
"We have the space now to cultivate what’s important," she said. "With the families (the church) is involved with, I see fathers and sons reconnect. Families renew game night. Board games come out. We've lived in our neighborhood for a while, and I've never seen so many people out and about, walking and riding bikes. I think that's phenomenal. The space allows people to go deep and ask, ’What am I supposed to be doing with my life?’ I think we'll see more of that spiritual shift in the weeks and months to come."