Sweets, flowers, prayers: gestures of affection and gift exchange in the pandemic

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Sweets, flowers, prayers: gestures of affection and gift exchange in the pandemic

Author: Marina Frid, a postdoctoral researcher in Communication and Culture at UFRJ, Brazil. You can contact her at marina_frid@yahoo.com.br.

Fieldsite: I am staying in touch with a group of 18 informants who live and work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and are quarantining in different parts of the city and the surrounding metropolitan area. From my home in Rio, I am interviewing them over the phone, Skype and WhatsApp video calls.

Choosing your quarantine home

Messaging, videoconferencing and delivery apps, as other online resources, became central for staying in touch with workmates, friends, family and dates during the so-called “social isolation” period in Rio. Still, non-digital solutions were also very much a part of people’s strategies for finding comfort and affection in the midst of the pandemic.

For instance, two of my informants who are single and live alone decided to go back to their parents’ home. Gabriela described her choice as “convenient”. In 2019, she had moved out of her parents’ place in the neighbourhood of Recreio to her own apartment in the South Zone, about 40 km away, which she bought and renovated. During the pandemic, she has been going to the supermarket for her parents. Her mother knows the layout of her preferred store by heart and gives very specific instructions of the aisles in which Gabriela can find every product they need.

Gabriela, however, admits that shopping for her parents was not exactly the reason she moved back in with them temporarily. The help they offer her is, perhaps, the most important aspect. The pandemic turned into a financial crisis at her work. Clients started rescinding contracts as soon as social isolation measures went in effect. Her company had to completely redesign its products to readjust to crowd-control restrictions and try to avoid further cancellations. This means that Gabriela was suddenly overwhelmed with extra work. Hence, her parents have been helping her “a lot” by relieving her from the burden of some house chores like cooking, doing laundry and cleaning. Plus, Gabriela’s mother also acted as her “assistant”, helping her check some spreadsheets from her work.

During our conversations, I asked Gabriela about dating during the pandemic. In the first three weeks of social isolation, she was not in the mood of staying in touch online with casual dates and dismissed the idea. By the tenth week, she had listened to her therapist’s encouraging words and reactivated her Tinder account, though still intending to wait a little longer before trying to meet someone new.

Alex had moved to a rented apartment in downtown Rio not very long before the pandemic. As soon as “social isolation” began, however, he chose to stay at his parent’s home in the nearby city of Duque de Caxias. On the one hand, he had not installed certain things in his place yet, like cable internet. On the other, it would be easier to help his parents and go to the supermarket for them if he were there. Most importantly, Alex did not want to be in “social isolation” alone – “I know myself, I’d get bored”. To him, having the company of his family during this period of pandemic helped him keep his mind “sane”:

“I’m working from home. I’m giving personal training sessions from home. I’m studying. That and being with my family is crucial so this period of isolation will be no more than a phase, not a big sacrifice, like for some people I know, who live alone, who are really alone, who couldn’t go back to their family’s home. They’re kind of “freaking out” or about to. So, I think it was fundamental to be back here to have that interaction with my family.”

Choosing where to quarantine proved to be a critical decision for some couples as well. An acquaintance of mine moved in with his fiancée and in-laws to avoid going back and forth from his place to hers. My informant Joana, on the other hand, gave up on the idea of staying at her fiancée’s place and decided to stay at her own place to help her sister take care of their mother, who is in the risk group. Since Joana and her fiancée live in neighbourhoods that are quite distant from each other (about 50 km apart) and do not have a car, they had to keep a distance relationship during the pandemic. They text each other and do video calls over WhatsApp multiple times a day.

Though she is 19 years old, Carol considers herself and her single friends “old-fashioned”. They prefer not to look for dates online, and they are not worrying about that during social isolation – “We’re cool”. She knows that some of her acquaintances from college are going out on actual dates with people they meet on social media despite health recommendations. Also, her friends who have steady boyfriends never stopped visiting them at their homes, or vice-versa, because of the pandemic.

Celebrating birthdays and holidays

Carol and her friends organised a distance surprise birthday party for one of the girls of their group. First, they had a basket filled with the birthday girl’s favourite foods and flowers delivered to her mother. Then, at midnight, they all met on Zoom and the birthday girl received her basket live during their virtual gathering.

Pedro’s father also had a surprise birthday event, though not online. His friends drove by his house with their cars ornamented with balloons and singing happy birthday. Pedro did not exactly describe that episode in the social isolation period as a good moment. On the one hand, the friends did cheer his father up with that affectionate manifestation. On the other, Pedro lamented that his dad could not have a proper 60-year-old birthday party.

Easter is an important holiday in Brazil as a religious celebration and an opportunity for family reunions. Most of my informants tried to maintain something of the ritual, like cooking a fish dish or giving sweets, even if they could not gather with their relatives. The exchange of chocolates, especially chocolate Easter eggs, is an important part of the experience of that holiday in Brazil. So, many informants reported they bought chocolate for themselves or found ways to give out Easter eggs or other sweets to their loved ones.

Some of them, especially those who live fairly near their relatives, walked or drove to deliver chocolates to their parents, in-laws, grandparents, godchildren, etc. Differently, Ana ordered Easter eggs for her parents and sister on the internet. To avoid confusion, she warned them they would have chocolates delivered to them in the following days. That warning inspired her parents – with the help of her sister – to buy chocolates online for Ana, her husband and children as well. By Easter Sunday, Ana had received her parent’s gifts. However, her chocolate order had not reached her parents yet. Ten days after Easter, the chocolate shop had not delivered her order nor given any explanation about the delay.

In this “weird” Easter, Gabriela decided to do something special for members of her work team. She ordered gourmet brigadeiros (a typical Brazilian sweet that looks like a round fudge) in different speciality shops and had them delivered in their homes. None of them lives in Rio, so Gabriela had to search the internet for brigadeiro shops in their respective cities and near their addresses. In some cases, she used iFood, a food delivery app.

Figure 1 – Gabriela sent gourmet brigadeiros to her staff on Easter.

Mother’s Day is another important family celebration that happened during social isolation. There were no big family gatherings, but most of my informants managed to gift their mums by hiring online services or doing the delivery themselves. Elis made and delivered breakfast baskets to her mother and mother-in-law. Pedro and his wife ordered gifts to their mothers via WhatsApp and Instagram.

Figure 2 – Ana’s mother and her with their respective sunflowers on Mother’s Day.

Ana and her mother gave each other sunflowers. On that occasion, delivery on both ends was successful. The family met for lunch on Zoom, like they did on Easter Sunday: Ana, her husband and children joined the online meeting from their home, while Ana’s parents and sister connected from theirs.

Friendship gestures

Spontaneous gestures of affection and solidarity helped attenuate stressful experiences during the pandemic. For instance, Ana has a lot of trouble dealing with her parents’ and sister’s issues from a distance. Her father is supposed to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 given his age, history of cancer and diabetes, but he insisted on going out every day throughout the entire social isolation period. His behaviour strains his relationship with Ana’s mother and sister and causes a great deal of concern for the whole family. The three of them constantly call Ana to complain. She tries to talk her father into staying home and following health recommendations but has little success. Once, Ana was so upset and worried about her dad that she had to vent to a friend of hers during an online work meeting. The next day, the friend, who lives in South Africa, sent Ana flowers to make her feel better. The kind gesture worked: Ana showed me the bouquet she had just received with a big smile.

Figure 3 – Ana received flowers at her home in Rio from a friend that lives in South Africa.

Perhaps one of the most dreaded moments in the pandemic is getting news that friends or relatives were hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms. I for one felt tremendously anxious when learning that a friend of mine, José, had been admitted in a hospital and isolated in the wing for coronavirus patients. To restrict messages and phone calls to José’s wife, who was quite distressed and prevented from staying in the hospital with him, a close friend of the family organized a WhatsApp group to share the daily medical bulletins about José with the invited participants. The WhatsApp group grew to over one hundred members, many of which did not know each other, including relatives, friends, current and former coworkers. Nothing was posted in the group that did not concern José’s health. Participants agreed to pray together every day at 18 hours. Hence, around that time, many of them posted textual or visual messages related to their prayers and according to their respective religious beliefs – Catholicism, Candomblé, Spiritism, among others. Those not connected to a specific religion also shared positive thinking messages. Thankfully, after weeks of apprehension and prayers, we received the happy news that José was discharged from the hospital. The WhatsApp group has since been ended.

* I have changed the names of all informants to protect their privacy.