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For normal-ish Thanksgiving, a day of reunions at Tampa International

In a return to pre-pandemic travel levels, the airport expected 70,000 passengers to come through on Wednesday.
Nancy Becker of New Port Richey embraces Michael Meltzer, 25, while Scarlet Meltzer, 25, looks on at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday. The Meltzers flew in from New York. Becker fostered the siblings, who are her cousin’s grandchildren, when they were younger.
Nancy Becker of New Port Richey embraces Michael Meltzer, 25, while Scarlet Meltzer, 25, looks on at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday. The Meltzers flew in from New York. Becker fostered the siblings, who are her cousin’s grandchildren, when they were younger. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 24
Updated Nov. 25

The time was 9:58 a.m., the weather was clear and sunny and 64 degrees, when the flight from Hartford, Conn., touched down at Tampa International Airport. A half-hour later, the first jubilant round of hugs complete, Anne Collord looked out over the terminal, already bemused by the change in scenery.

“It was 26 degrees when we got in the car this morning,” she said with a laugh.

Her husband, Barry, flattened a hand and raised it dramatically until it came level with the top of his granddaughter’s head. Anne and Barry hadn’t seen Faye, 12, in two years, since the last Thanksgiving that anyone considered reasonably normal.

“Isn’t she tall?” Faye’s dad, Brian Collord, asked. He had Faye stand next to Anne, who was now a bit teary-eyed. “Grandma’s still got you by a couple of inches.”

A few minutes earlier, as she and Brian waited for the travelers of JetBlue Flight 533 to emerge next to the P.F. Chang’s, Faye had been asked how she’d changed — aside from her height — since she saw her grandparents last.

“You just change how you view things,” she said.

Faye Collord, 12, left, embraces her grandmother and grandfather Anne and Barry Collord while her father, Brian, looks on at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday. It had been two years since Faye last saw her grandparents.
Faye Collord, 12, left, embraces her grandmother and grandfather Anne and Barry Collord while her father, Brian, looks on at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday. It had been two years since Faye last saw her grandparents. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The scene Wednesday at the airport looked different, too, from a year before. In 2019, airport spokesperson Emily Nipps said, 70,000 arriving and departing passengers went through the airport on the day before Thanksgiving. Last year, with the pandemic still raging and vaccines months away, that number was down to 48,000.

This year, the airport expected a rebound to 70,000 travelers on Wednesday, with more than 80,000 flying in or out on both Saturday and Sunday. Those days are usually the airport’s three busiest of the year.

And so, on Wednesday, the main terminal hummed with activity, with masked travelers hustling past a towering Christmas tree, with the irrepressible yelps and run-jump-hugs of the newly reunited. People listed the dishes they’d make or devour on Thursday — sweet potato mash or stuffing or baked ziti — and offered, unprompted, that they’d not only been vaccinated, but boosted.

Nancy Becker, who makes the baked ziti, sat outside another set of gates while her 6-year-old great-grandson, Andrew, rolled on the floor and declared himself a potato. She was waiting, she said, for her cousin’s grandkids.

“I fostered them a couple of years ago, when they were about his age,” she said, gesturing toward Andrew.

It was more like a couple of decades — the kids were adults now, in their 20s and living in New York City. She was proud of them, she said. How one had struggled in school until “the lightbulb went on above her head,” and now she’s studying to become a lawyer. How the two lived in different apartments in the same building, so they could look out for each other.

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Their family of New York Italians was tightknit, she said, but not as big as it once was.

“We used to be more than 40″ for holiday meals, she said. “Now we’re down to 10. That’s what happens.”

A rush of travelers appeared from the direction of the gates. Her face lit up.

“Here they are!” she said.

Nancy Becker of New Port Richey embraces Michael Meltzer, 25, while Scarlet Meltzer, 25, looks on at Tampa International Airport  on Wednesday. The Meltzers flew in from New York, where Becker fostered the siblings, who are her cousin’s grandchildren, when they were younger.
Nancy Becker of New Port Richey embraces Michael Meltzer, 25, while Scarlet Meltzer, 25, looks on at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday. The Meltzers flew in from New York, where Becker fostered the siblings, who are her cousin’s grandchildren, when they were younger. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A clutch of balloons in the shapes of hearts and stars hovered nearby. Marilin Perez took them from her husband, Mario, and started pacing the terminal.

She nervously wrapped the strings around her hand, unwrapped them, wrapped them again. Five years ago, she said, she and Mario moved to Florida from Venezuela to escape their home country’s economic crisis. The half-dozen relatives they awaited still lived there, and it had been four years since she’d seen them.

The flight carrying them from their connection in Dallas had run 13 minutes late, and now that they were here, how long could it possibly take for them to get off the plane?

“This is eternal,” Marilin said to her daughter, who had to work, but video-called in to watch the reunion.

Then her aimless pacing turned into a beeline, the balloons in her wake, and she was obscured in a throng of hugs. Soon, more relatives would arrive, from Chile this time.

And on Thursday, they will indulge in a traditional Thanksgiving meal, which the Perezes have picked up in the past few years.

“One can adapt to everything,” Marilin Perez said. “What we eat, how we sleep. But you don’t adapt to missing family.”

Marilin Perez, 44, left, embraces her nephew Carlos Perez, 14, while her son Mauro Perez, 14, speaks to his cousin, and her sister-in-law Vanessa Montilla, 45, hugs Mario Perez, 45, at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday. It was the first time in four years since the family had seen each other after Marilin and her nuclear family immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela.
Marilin Perez, 44, left, embraces her nephew Carlos Perez, 14, while her son Mauro Perez, 14, speaks to his cousin, and her sister-in-law Vanessa Montilla, 45, hugs Mario Perez, 45, at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday. It was the first time in four years since the family had seen each other after Marilin and her nuclear family immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]