Thanksgiving looked notably different this year for Jamal Hinton, the Arizona man who, as a teen, began celebrating the holiday with strangers Lonnie and Wanda Dench when Wanda accidentally texted him an invitation to their dinner in 2016. That’s because Lonnie died in April from COVID-19 complications.
“It was sad,” Jamal, now 21, told CNN. “We had a photo of Lonnie at the table with a candle lit, and we were all shaky in the beginning but it lasted five minutes before we were back to ourselves. We just told jokes and stories and shared our memories of Lonnie, so it was amazing.”
Wanda, now 63, had been married to Lonnie for 43 years before he died on April 5, after battling COVID-19 and succumbing to double pneumonia caused by the virus, she said. She said she was dreading the holidays this year because she wouldn’t be able to spend it with her beloved.
“The past several months have been so difficult,” she said. “But this was really important to me. 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."
"Lonnie was missing this year, and he was a big part of the Thanksgiving story and a big part of our lives," Jamal said. "But that's one thing Wanda and I know for sure – Lonnie would have been very angry if we didn't have Thanksgiving together."
The unlikely annual celebration in the Dench household started four years ago, when Wanda, grandmother of six, accidentally sent a text message to the wrong number. She had intended on inviting one of her grandchildren to Thanksgiving dinner.
Jamal, then 17 and still in class when he received the message, asked whose grandmother she was claiming to be. Wanda, who is white, sent a selfie. Hinton, who is Black, responded with one back, and the pair quickly realized the error.
“Can I still get a plate tho?” Jamal joked.
She wrote back, “Of course you can. That’s what grandmas do… feed everyone.”
Every year since, the Dench family have invited Jamal over for Thanksgiving at their home in Mesa– with photos from each dinner quickly going viral soon after.
“There’s just this connection. It feels like we’ve known each other in past lives,” Wanda said of their unlikely friendship. “There’s absolutely no generational gap between us. The conversation just flows, we never run out of things to talk about."
But their celebrations this year – as with all Thanksgiving celebrations in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – couldn’t be done without adjustments.
Their dinner this year was much smaller. Other than Jamal and Wanda, the only other people in attendance was Jamal’s girlfriend and Wanda’s daughter and grandson. They also opted to celebrate Thanksgiving on Friday, so they could get tested before celebrating with their own families on Thanksgiving.
Wanda especially hoped that their annual tradition, now with one empty chair at the table, will be reminder to everyone to stay safe this holiday season.
"I didn't believe I would have to go home without him," she said. "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."