A grandmother accidentally invited a teenager to Thanksgiving dinner four years ago and the unlikely friends have shared the holiday together ever since. But this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the pair celebrated a little differently — and there was an empty seat at the table.
In 2016, Wanda Dench was trying to let her grandkids know about the family's upcoming plans for the holiday and tried to send a text message to her grandson. But Jamal Hinton, who was a 17-year-old high school student and complete stranger to Dench at the time, received the text instead.
Once the two Arizona natives realized the mistake, Hinton asked if he could "still get a plate," according to screenshots he posted on Twitter. Dench replied, "Of course you can. That's what grandmas do...feed everyone."
Hinton shared the sweet conversation on social media and the story quickly went viral. They have celebrated Thanksgiving together every year since, always snapping photos and taking videos, much to the delight of many following their story.
This year, a very important person is missing from the annual tradition — Dench's husband, Lonnie. He died from the coronavirus this spring, CBS affiliate KPHO-TV reports. Wanda was able to be with him during his final moments, the outlet added.
Hinton announced on Twitter on April 1 that both Lonnie and Wanda had tested positive for COVID-19. He said at the time that Lonnie was "in the hospital fighting both COVID and Pneumonia." One week later, Hinton tweeted "Lonnie did not make it."
Dench and Hinton thought about the risks of holding a Thanksgiving celebration amid the pandemic, weighing if they could figure out a way to get together the day before gathering with their own individual families, The New York Times reports. But, they eventually concluded the risk was too high, according to the New York Times.
In honor of Lonnie, the friends instead held a small, pared-down gathering on Friday, KPHO reports. Dench, her actual grandson, her daughter, Hinton and his girlfriend, Mikaela, got together for an early Thanksgiving meal. The event was a sharp contrast from the larger celebrations of years past.
"I didn't want to miss Thanksgiving with Jamal," Dench told KPHO. "This year is definitely different than all the years in the past."
To honor Lonnie, an empty seat and lit candle were placed at the head of the table. The beloved husband would always say grace before the holiday meal, so this year, Dench led the prayer.
"Thank you for all the blessings, and thank you so much for having Lonnie in my life," Dench said as everyone sat around the table. "I miss him, but I know he's in a good place. So to everybody here, I love you and have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Amen."
Hinton also wanted to send a message to Lonnie during the celebrations, "I would just like to say hi, say thank you for welcoming me into your home with open arms from day one," he said.
The CDC on Thursday urged Americans not to travel during the holiday as cases of the coronavirus continue to surge. The agency's updated recommendations say the safest way to spend the day is "at home with the people you live with."
"Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu," the guidance added. "Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year."