This year was supposed to be no different, except everything was.
Dench and Jamal Hinton celebrated their fifth Thanksgiving together in Mesa, Ariz., on Friday in a bittersweet reunion punctuated by the painful absence of Wanda’s husband, Lonnie, who died of covid-19 complications in April.
“I wasn’t looking forward to it at first because Lonnie wasn’t going to be there,” Dench told CNN.
But the reunion lifted everyone’s spirits and drew the attention of people across the country who have followed their story over the years.
“We laughed, we had a great time, we reminisced about the past. It was so good for all of us,” she added.
Dench, 63, and Hinton, 21, dined and laughed together, joined by Hinton’s girlfriend, Mikaela, and Dench’s daughter and grandson.
As for millions of other people, the Denches’ lives have been upended by the pandemic. In the spring, Wanda and Lonnie, to whom she was married for 42 years, tested positive for the coronavirus, and Lonnie’s health quickly deteriorated.
In April, Hinton announced on Twitter that Lonnie had died after battling with pneumonia and covid-19.
Honoring the generosity the couple showed him years ago, Hinton has stood by her side and reiterated the gratitude he has for the woman who opened her home to him in 2016.
“Thanksgiving isn’t going to be the same anymore but we will make the best of it,” he tweeted in October.
The fortuitous friendship is a product of chance and a wrong text number. In 2016, Dench, a grandmother of six, texted who she believed was her grandson, inviting him over to her Thanksgiving dinner, as she finalized plans for that year’s celebration.
Then 17-year-old Hinton received the misdirected text while he was in class. Confused by the message, he asked who she was? She sent a smiling selfie of herself at work. It wasn’t his grandma. He texted a selfie of himself and asked whether he could still have a plate.
“Of course you can,” she replied. “That’s what grandma’s do…feed every one!”
Hinton shared the conversation on social media and the story quickly went viral, with people around the world reacting to the sweet exchange and Dench’s generosity.
Each year, Hinton shared photos and videos of their holiday celebrations, often accompanied by each other’s families on social media.
But with the pandemic raging through the country, families across the U.S. are grappling with tough decisions on how to safely celebrate Thanksgiving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people to stay home and avoid travel for the holidays. Arizona’s health officials have issued recommendations to limit gatherings to small numbers and reinforced the use of face masks and social distancing.
Dench and Hinton weighed the risks of holding a Thanksgiving dinner one day before meeting with their own individual families. After consideration, they concluded it was too dangerous and opted instead for a small dinner on Friday, so they could get tested for coronavirus before celebrating with their own families, according to CNN.
Dench lit a candle in front of a photograph of Lonnie and placed it at the head of the table. She 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, KPHO-TV reported. “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.”