As at many South Jersey residences, the fine, sweet smell of backyard BBQ once again perfumed the air around the Deptford Township home of Patricia and Kenneth “Double K” Kelly this July Fourth Sunday.

For the first time in the nearly 18 months of COVID-19′s reign of terror, the Kellys’ extended family and friends — more than 50 people — were amassing from near and far to partake of Double K’s legendary Carolina-sauced chicken and ribs, Pat’s coveted potato salad, Jersey corn, a niece’s rice and beans, deviled eggs, string beans, and more. All the things that the pandemic cheated them out of last year.

But then Patricia Kelly figured: Why stop there?

“We’re having Fourth of July and Christmas in July,” said the head hostess of her family’s get-togethers.

The pandemic canceled the extended family’s annual Christmas bash, too. No Pollyanna. No one got their annual stash of Aunt Moy’s special Christmas cookie. No Christmas socks.

So Kelly put up a Christmas tree for the weekend. Her brother Guy Corsey of Glassboro agreed to play Santa. She told her relatives to bring gifts. She even got a sock box that everybody could pick from. But most important of all, she got the family back together again — finally — under the same roof, COVID-19 be damned.

“I said it was time for us to get together,” Kelly said. “I wanted us to celebrate and have a joyful time. So many things have happened in these past 18 to 24 months. We lost our mother in September of 2019, and then we went right into the pandemic. We just weren’t able to see each other, and it was such a loss and such an emptiness in me, not being able to see my family.”

Joyous things happened, too, that the family wasn’t able to share together. Over the weekend, however, they finally got that opportunity.

“Since the pandemic, my niece has had a baby, and this will be the first time the family has gotten to see and meet him. He’s 7 months old. His name is Jrue Jennings,” Kelly said in an interview last week.

In addition, she said, her cousin Charlene Love came up from Atlanta with her husband, and Charlene’s daughter and husband, Teresa and Allan Thomas, were in from Dallas. The younger couple got married in October, but because of the pandemic, only 10 people were at the wedding. Even Kelly, who made the bride’s gown, didn’t get to attend.

“We’re all going to meet her husband,” she said. “It’s an exciting time.”

It was a time for reflection, as well. Kelly said she and Double K did not lose any immediate family members to the coronavirus, but did lose two of their dearest friends, Louis and Jackie Pope . The Kellys have missed them terribly, and the Fourth of July celebration, though joyous, would also be a reminder of their absence. The Maryland residents always came to the annual July Fourth barbecue and brought crabs. Someone else was tasked with doing that this year in their memory.

Other relatives stepped up to make the family’s time-consuming special Christmas cookie — an intricate gingerbread creation — to make up for what everyone missed out on at the last Yuletide.

It’s not that the family didn’t see each other at all during the pandemic.

“My house is the gathering place for the family,” Kelly said. “Even during the pandemic, I would make dinner for my family. Like for Mother’s Day and Easter, even though we couldn’t gather, I would make dinner, and then have people come into the house and do takeout. We couldn’t eat together, but they could come.”

COVID-19 hasn’t been vanquished. The Kellys put out the word to their relatives that they had to be fully vaccinated and able to prove it to come to the July 4 shindig. Masks were also required indoors. According to Kelly, only a few unvaccinated cousins passed on the celebration.

Pulling together the family multi-holiday fete was no small feat. But the pandemic taught many lessons, and Kelly, for one, was listening.

“You could be here and gone tomorrow. We’re only here by the grace of God,” the hostess said.

“Life is precious, and we can’t take it for granted. You’ve got to love your family while you have them here on this earth. And that’s why I’m having my big party — to let my family know, ‘I love you. And let’s celebrate life.’”