May 07, 2020
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How Mainers celebrate birthdays while social distancing

Sam Schipani | BDN
Sam Schipani | BDN
Linus Clark and his parents, Ruth and Matt, stand outside waiting for passersby to honk in celebration of Linus's 11th birthday.

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It may feel like time is standing still right now, but the days continue to trudge ahead — and, with that, come birthdays. With social distancing, self-isolation and self-quarantine, celebrating is a little more challenging than usual.

You may have seen the meme: The text reads “People with birthdays in March,” and below it, a triptych of stills from Netflix’s “Narcos” of the actor Wagner Moura portraying a lonely Pablo Escobar, sitting alone on a porch swing, sitting alone at a dinner table and standing alone on a stretch of pavement.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Despite the challenges of coordinating a socially distant birthday celebration, Mainers are determined not to let their loved ones celebrate their birthdays alone — and they are getting creative with their socially distant celebrations.

Zooming around

Video chatting platforms like Zoom have become essential in the age of the coronavirus — even for celebrating birthdays.

Courtney Altmaier in Brunswick had planned to have a big birthday fete for her 30th birthday, perhaps renting a cabin and going all out. That all changed in the past few weeks, as residents have been asked to stay home to prevent the spread of the disease.

Since COVID-19, Altmaier had been using Zoom frequently to work from home. She and her husband realized they could also use it to celebrate her birthday.

“My husband set it up,” Altmaier said. “We used my work Zoom account and then he emailed 12 different people on the call, which seems like a lot, so we were unsure about how [it] would go.”

At first, she was worried it would be awkward — her sisters even messaged her before the virtual shindig to express the same concerns. But even though Altmaier’s party guests were from all over the country, many of them had met at her wedding last year and were happy to chat for another happy occasion celebrating their friend. Even digital partygoers who did not attend the wedding quickly meshed with the rest of the group.

“We weren’t sure how long it was going to last,” Altmaier said. “At first I was thinking maybe 30 minutes, but we were [online] from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.”

In fact, Altmaier saw a silver lining to the Zoom birthday party.

“It would have been a party maybe half that size if we had done it in person,” Altmaier said. “It was really neat that I had a chance to celebrate with my family and my friends who live in Texas, New York, Ohio — all over the country.”

The technology was much easier to use than she expected, too. Altmaier said that none of her loved ones had any difficulty connecting to the call.

“I was actually super proud of my mom,” she said. “She’s not a tech person at all. This is far out of her realm of comfort, and she had no problems.”

Geoff Bell in Portland also celebrated his birthday over Zoom — but his party was a surprise. His sister sent him a link under the guise of video chatting with his parents, but in actuality, more than a dozen of his friends and family were waiting for him.

“I had no clue,” Bell said. “I think my sister and my girlfriend had conspired to get some folks together. I think typically with surprise parties, the folks are a little bit onto the razz. But in this case, I was seriously, genuinely surprised.”

When Bell clicked through, he said everyone was hiding off their respective screens, waiting to jump out and shout, “Surprise!” — just like they would if they were there in person.

“I signed on and there were a bunch of empty squares, and they all jumped into view,” Bell said.

Sam Schipani | BDN
Sam Schipani | BDN
Linus Clark and his parents, Ruth and Matt, stand outside waiting for passersby to honk in celebration of Linus's 11th birthday.

Matt and Ruth Clark also used Zoom to call relatives around the world — including their Dutch relatives and family members that called in from hospital shifts — to celebrate their son Linus’s 11th birthday.

The Clarks wanted to do a little something extra, though. Ruth Clark’s father dropped off a sandwich board proclaiming that it was Linus’s birthday, and the family set up signs encouraging people to honk as they passed by. Ruth Clark said they had heard upwards of a dozen honks over the course of the day on their quiet corner of Pine Street in Bangor.

“It’s definitely [been] a bright spot,” Ruth Clark said. “Hearing the honks gave us something to look forward to.”

When the parade passes by

At 8 p.m. Wednesday night, Sam Freeman put out a call on Facebook for people to meet up for a parade in Orrington to celebrate her godson Noah’s birthday.

“I had seen the videos of the teachers going to see all the students and stuff,” Freeman said. “Then I saw the Hermon Fire Department post that they would gladly take their fire trucks to birthday parades, and I said, ‘We have to do this.’ I wanted to make a special birthday for him and not make his memory be that he lived in quarantine.”

She did not expect the turn out that she got the next morning: more than 30 cars, plus representatives from the fire department and the Penobscot County sheriffs.

“I thought it could just be me and my husband in the parade,” Freeman said. “We weren’t expecting the turnout that we had. Luckily, the firemen showed up and they were out of their cars [directing] people.”

Noah’s classmates and parents came to the parade, some waving colorful signs to celebrate their classmate and friend. Some parade attendees were even people that neither Freeman, nor her godson Noah personally knew.

“I was just amazed at all the people I didn’t know,” Freeman said. “I wish I could have run up and hugged every single one of them, but I just had to say thank you from my window. That’s small town Maine: They just all wanted to help him have a birthday not locked in the house.”

Freeman said that there will also be more birthday parades in the near future.

“One of my friends was like, ‘Are you ready to do this all over again on Monday for my son’s 10th birthday?’” Freeman said. “I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Hunting for answers

Kayla Willigar in Bangor didn’t want her son Ethan’s sixth birthday to pass by in isolation, either. So, the morning of his birthday, Ethan received a note from Screenslaver, the villain from the “Incredibles 2” movie, saying that she intended to ruin his birthday by kidnapping his five Incredibles action figures. That set Ethan off on a scavenger hunt around his neighborhood to find and rescue them.

“They were kind of spread out,” Willigar said. “We live in the Tree Streets area, [so] we had one at a house on Mount Hope [Avenue] in a tree. A little further down Mount Hope, there was one tied on the fence.”

Along the way, friends from the neighborhood left Ethan signs in their windows and presents in their yards. One classmate who lived nearby left a present in a tree for Ethan to find. His kindergarten teacher left him a present at the end of the street. Wiligar coordinated the effort for her son, though the random acts of kindness were all his friends’ and family’s doing.

“I reached out to his kindergarten teacher and I had her give all the parents my phone number and email,” Kayla Willigar said. “The ones that weren’t able to [participate in the scavenger hunt] Facetimed to wish happy birthday. I wanted the messages from his friends and stuff to be a surprise. I wasn’t sure what he would think, but he loved it. Absolutely loved it.”

Willigar said that they made about 25 stops on their scavenger hunt, waving to people from windows whenever they could. Ethan’s grandfather, who works for the Bangor Fire Department, also stopped by in his fire truck to sing happy birthday.

After Ethan had rescued the Incredibles, the Willigars celebrated as a family, too.

“We had pizza and ice cream cake,” Willigar said. “You don’t have socially distance from cake.”

 


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