Four years ago, the feel-good story of how a grandmother accidentally texted a stranger an invite to Thanksgiving dinner went viral. In the years since Wanda Dench (the grandmother) and Jamal Hinton (the teen stranger) have celebrated each Thanksgiving together.
This year has, despite the pandemic and terrible heartaches, been no exception.
For a fifth year, Wanda and Jamal gathered around a table for a bittersweet Thanksgiving this past Friday in Mesa, Arizona.
For their fifth Thanksgiving together, Wanda and Jamal sat down at the dinner table, this time without Wanda’s husband. Lonnie Dench, who Wanda had been married to for 43 years, passed away in April from complications induced by Covid-19. According to Wanda, he suffered from double pneumonia brought on by the virus.
“I didn’t believe I would have to go home without him,” Wanda revealed to CNN. “Even when he was in the hospital, I thought he would get better and come back to me. He was my soul mate. He was my biggest cheerleader.”
“I wasn’t looking forward to it at first because Lonnie wasn’t going to be there. The past seven months have been so difficult, but this was really important to me,” Wanda explained. “I can’t even explain how much joy I had, having good food with my favorite company. We laughed, we had a great time, we reminisced about the past. It was so good for all of us.”
Dench, her daughter, and grandson gathered together with Jamal and his girlfriend a little earlier this year. They decided on a Friday Thanksgiving celebration so that they could all receive coronavirus tests before sitting down with their own families. They wanted to avoid spreading the virus.
“At first it was sad. We had a photo of Lonnie at the table with a candlelit, and we were all shaky in the beginning but it lasted five minutes before we were back to ourselves,” Jamal told CNN. “We just told jokes and stories and shared our memories of Lonnie, so it was amazing.”
Four years ago, a misfired text brought Jamal and Wanda together.
In 2016, Wanda who is the grandmother to six children meant to text her grandson an invite to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, she accidentally sent a message to Jamal, who was 17 at the time. Confused that someone claiming to be his grandmother had texted him, Jamal asked for proof. Wanda replied with a selfie of herself at work. And even though she wasn’t his grandmother, Jamal asked if he could still have a plate. “Of course you can,” Wanda replied. “That’s what grandmas do … feed everyone!”
Jamal kept Wanda to her word, showed up at the family thanksgiving and the two became fast friens.
According to Jamal he and his girlfriend went on regular double dates with Wanda and Lonnie.
“It all has to do with this feeling. There’s just this connection. It feels like we’ve known each other in past lives,” Wanda explained. “There’s absolutely no generational gap between us. The conversation just flows, we never run out of things to talk about.”
Jamal explained to CNN the obvious concern of having an awkward encounter with Wanda and her family at their first Thanksgiving. The opposite was true. “Whenever we met, we would spend four or five hours, just talking and talking. It was never awkward, Wanda and Lonnie became two close best friends to me,” he said.”There’s nothing about her that is mean, or uncaring. It feels like I have told her my whole life story, and she always listens and shares her own story. She’s just the most loving person. She’s pretty much perfect.”
Their gatherings have become so important that Wanda and Jamal say they hope to never stop their tradition. Even with Lonnie gone.
“Lonnie was missing this year, and he was a big part of the Thanksgiving story and a big part of our lives, but that’s one thing Wanda and I know for sure. Lonnie would have been very angry if we didn’t have Thanksgiving together,” Jamal explained “Lonnie was never the quiet guy. Right when I walked in the door the first time I met him, he didn’t even reach out for a handshake. He just immediately pulled me in for a hug… He was the kind of guy to always bring your hopes up whenever you felt down. Losing him was losing a best friend.”
While still mourning their great loss, Wanda wants people to continue to have hope. “Just have patience,” she told CNN. “I know it isn’t easy, and everyone is frustrated and just wants to get back to normal. But we need to have hope and always care about other people.”
Thanksgiving this year is very different for families across the country. The standard family gatherings this year are giving way to safer distanced and virtual gatherings. Don’t worry. There are still ways to make this year’s Thanksgiving memorable.
This Thanksgiving is not going to be the same so make the most of it being virtual.
This year has been a very different year. This means that the holiday season will not be the same as year past. Family gatherings are going remote and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging Americans to stay where they are through the holidays as Covid spreads in the country. Thankfully, we live in the 21st century and technology is here to bridge the physical gap this holiday season. Here’s how you can make the most of a safe and wise Thanksgiving gathering.
First, create a Zoom link and send it to everyone you want to have with you on Thanksgiving.
You are already on Zoom all day every day thanks to working from home. We have all become used to our human interaction coming from a computer screen these days. Why should the holidays be any different? After all, it is all about keeping everyone safe so that you can all enjoy a bigger, more wonderful holiday season next year.
Next, share the recipes with everyone so everyone can make the same meal at their homes.
This is a pretty easy one. All you have to do is get a menu together to share with everyone you’ve invited. This gives everyone a chance to eat the same meal and have the same experience no matter where they are. The CDC recommends that people only celebrate Thanksgiving with their household to try to stop the relentless spread of the virus. Make sure you include a timeline so people can time all of their work for the same time to eat at the same time. This is also the perfect time to finally get the recipe for that one dish that you’ve always wanted.
This also means beverages.
No dinner gathering is complete without the beverages. So, if you are creating an special cocktails or seasonal drinks, include those in the recipe list. It’s not a party if people aren’t letting loose to feel the holiday spirit.
Make sure you remind everyone of the time to start. You know how our families are.
This one is serious. We all know that one person in the family that makes everything run late. Either they are late or don’t pay attention to things and end up making everything take so much longer. You might want to tell those who are always late that the gathering is earlier than it is so they are finally on time.
If you are meeting people for Thanksgiving, take all of the necessary precautions to stay safe.
Some people just can’t help it and need to be around people for the holidays. If you do, there are things you can do to make sure that everyone is as safe as possible. Avoid being indoors for long periods of time. It is better to hang out outside. When inside you should wear a mask the entire time. For dinner, find a way to eat outside. If it is a warmer climate for you, have a nice picnic and with everyone. Create some space to keep everyone safe and you can still have a wonderful time.
We can do this if we do it together. Have a very happy and safe Thanksgiving.