Grandparents, forced to miss first birthday, have to make do with Zoom

Bob and Dianne Jenkins planned to be at their grandson’s party in California before the world changed.
Gina Papabeis, Ryan Jenkins and their son Anderson participate in the boy's first birthday party on Zoom on April 4.
Gina Papabeis, Ryan Jenkins and their son Anderson participate in the boy's first birthday party on Zoom on April 4. [ Courtesy of Gina Papabeis ]
Published April 9, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Fifty-seven days before our grandson Anderson would have his first birthday party, my wife Dianne had booked our flights and hotel in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the college town where parents Gina Papabeis and Ryan Jenkins would be hosting the party.

Dianne and I could hardly wait for the two months to pass.

As it turned out, in about half that time we knew that our trip would not take place.

Both retirees, we came to realize we could not take a chance of getting infected with the coronavirus during the flight out and back or, God forbid, bringing the infection to the party.

Gina and Ryan also recognized they could not host others in their home. So they went to Plan B. They would hold a party via Zoom, the newly popular online teleconferencing app.

Dianne and I had regularly checked in on the baby with FaceTime chats — well, the chats were actually with his parents, for Anderson is still working through his answers to “What sound does a cat make? What sound does a doggie make?’’

But a Zoom event would be new for us grandparents. We are at least a generation removed from those folks who are used to Skype or FaceTime with pals.

I still prefer speaking over a telephone. Texting suits Dianne well enough.

Not so with Anderson’s parents. Both are St. Petersburg natives who first met in the Center for Advanced Technologies magnet program at Lakewood High School. Romance was born, and it was nurtured as both enrolled at Florida State University; she majored in film studies, he in philosophy. They became husband and wife while he got his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Colorado.

Gina continued working behind the camera while in Boulder and then in San Luis Obispo for the Oscar-winning Oceanic Preservation Society. Ryan is an associate professor of philosophy, specializing in ethics and emerging technologies, at California Polytechnic State University. Both in their early 30s, they are more attuned with alternatives to face-to-face, same-room communicating.

Gina invited us — by email, of course — to attend Anderson’s birthday party via Zoom. Dianne and I downloaded the app and at 6:11 p.m. on April 4, we clicked on the link to join the party. Suddenly our faces were in a rectangular box on my desktop computer monitor and Dianne’s iPad. We said hello to the handful of other attendees, then waited as more and more people came online.

Dianne Jenkins participates in the Zoom party for grandson Anderson.
Dianne Jenkins participates in the Zoom party for grandson Anderson. [ Courtesy Robert N. Jenkins ]

Ultimately there would be 20 other boxes on the monitor. Most of them had two people, but six boxes included toddlers from Anderson’s play group. Two women stood in front of their computer cameras to display baby bumps.

People joined from not only San Luis Obispo but also Tennessee, Maryland, North Carolina and the distance winner, Tasmania. Tampa Bay guests included Gina’s parents, her sister and Ryan’s older brother.

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Everyone’s name appeared beneath our on-screen rectangles. Sometimes our audio would be muted, usually by Gina as host.

But even without the muting, it seemed to me there was little conversation from most of the guests. Perhaps because there were so many of us, we hesitated to speak, lest we talk over someone else.

It dawned on me later that if all of us could have been in the same room, we would have been introducing ourselves.

Dianne told me, after the party, that she “would have been holding Anderson as much as possible‘’ — just like old times. (Dianne spent the first two months of Anderson’s life as his regular babysitter and nanny, letting first-time mom Gina sleep unless Anderson needed to nurse.)

To prompt some interchange, Gina asked us to summarize our biggest takeaway from the coronavirus pandemic. Fellow Lakewood High grad and current Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell quickly answered, “glad I don’t have to wear pants.’’ Then he assured us that was not true during this online appearance.

When it came time to sing Happy Birthday, Anderson’s attention was briefly caught by balloons and the cake, if not the sound of several — but not all — of his guests singing. Some voices were slightly delayed by glitches while joining the chorus.

Being on Zoom gave me the perfect reason to not sing; my voice is a showstopper, but not in a good way.

Robert N. Jenkins retired after more than 39 years as a Tampa Bay Times writer and editor. His four e-book travel anthologies are available at the Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords sites.