A COVID-19 Christmas — less glitter, but still some silver linings: ‘It gets back to what’s important’

Elyssa Cherney, Chicago Tribune

Kevin Hermanek crossed his legs while sitting in a wheelchair and peered out the tall first-floor window of a senior living facility in Lincoln Park where his daughter waited outside — the closest the two could get on Christmas Eve.

As light snow swirled overhead, Margaret Hermanek set up her headphones, dialed her 66-year-old father’s cellphone and struck up a holiday conversation about relatives, entertaining television shows and what items she would put on hold for him at the Chicago Public Library.

Though it’s no replacement for the typical Christmas Eve dinner that’s become a family tradition, the Hermaneks relish the moments they can share together — even if separated by a pane a glass. To put her dad in a festive mood, Margaret also dropped off a bag brimming with cookies, holiday cards and games — Santa’s version of no-contact delivery.

“It’s a little weird, but it’s the best that we can do, and I’m glad that we’re able to do it,” said Margaret, 33, through a plaid-patterned face mask. “He feels like he’s missing out because that’s just his frame of reference and he doesn’t realize that everybody out here is going through some version of not seeing people and not being able to do things.”

For most Chicago-area residents who observe Christmas, this year holiday is like no other in their lifetimes, with traditional gatherings of loved ones in homes and churches, and exchanges of presents and meals, curtailed, modified, Zoom-ified or done away with altogether.

Many are still trying to count their blessings and make the best of things.

For Chicago resident Arnold Park, typically family holiday gatherings were limited this year to dropping off presents at the front doors of loved ones with brief, masked and socially distant visits standing outside. He and his wife and their two teenagers were due to make a quick trip to Michigan to check in on his in-laws and give them a chance to interact with the Parks’ two new puppies who joined the family a couple weeks ago.

“We treated ourselves to two brand new puppies since we knew would be spending an inordinate amount of time at home this winter,” Park said. “Our family dog of 12 years, Bear, passed away in November and we were going to wait some time for a new dog, but the grim news and weather motivated us to get the two new puppies.”

The Parks also planned to make a Christmas donation of food and treats in honor of Bear to the rescue where they got him. That was another curbside drop-off, as the rescue center wasn’t allowing visitors.

It’s also one of the many charitable efforts that continued unabated, if modified, on Christmas Day around Chicago, with houses of worship, along with social service groups and community activists, handing out meals, COVID-19-related supplies and other needs for those struggling this year, in some cases for the first time.

The organization Ombudsman Chicago said it responded to the overwhelming need it saw at Thanksgiving in joining with other community groups to provide free toys, meals and COVID-19 supplies to families at Legends Chicken and Fish on the South Side Friday. Chi-Care said it planned to deliver thousands of meals to homeless people around Chicago Friday.

For South Side residents Mollie and Juan Rojas, Christmas plans were fluid because he works as a critical-care physician at UChicago Medicine. Because both he and his wife, a dentist, work in health care, they have not visited the extended family in months.

“Recently, my husband got the vaccine, and I am hoping to have it in the near future so we can more safely interact with family,” Mollie Rojas said.

Celebrating Christmas this year, then, involved Zoom calls with loved ones, lots of baking and special meals to share with their son.

Throughout her husband’s training, “he has often worked on the holidays, like so many other essential workers, and we just make the best of it,” Rojas said via email. “Growing up, my father was a fireman, so our family is used to improvising during the holiday season as he often had to work on either Christmas Day or Christmas Eve.”

For Kevin Hermanek, the holiday is normally spent with he and wife hosting relatives at their home in the South Loop, where she still lives. On Christmas Eve, their small family gathers to open trinkets, listen to him play the piano and face off in a game of charades after dinner.

But this year, Hermanek won’t be leaving his assisted living facility — Belmont Village Senior Living — and everyone plans to connect through a Zoom call instead. Guests are not allowed inside his building due to high infection rates in the city, and residents are discouraged from exiting.

Despite the changes, he said still looked forward to the holiday.

“I like to talk to my family,” said the retired attorney, who moved to senior living about two years ago due to health and mobility issues. “We don’t get together real often, so it’s a treat just to have some time together.”

On Thursday, Hermanek wore a thick red sweater — his favorite color — and sipped on a Diet Coke during the “window visit,” as the residents call them, with his daughter. While he stayed warm inside, his daughter pushed her glove-less hands into her coat pockets to shield them from the 16-degree weather.

As the pair talked, trucks clanged down a busy Fullerton Avenue behind them and pedestrians strolled the sidewalks, sometimes stopping to watch with their dogs or children.

“This is going to make us all appreciate Christmas a little bit more,” Kevin Hermanek said. “When you take away all of the trappings, all the fancy, frilly add-ons and get back to just getting together with family ... it gets back to what’s important about Christmas.”