For the fifth straight year, Jamal Hinton and Wanda Dench celebrated Thanksgiving together — though the yearly tradition this year was marked by grief.
Hinton, 21, and Dench, 63, first met in 2016, when Dench mistakenly texted Hinton while trying to reach her grandson about plans for Thanksgiving. Despite the mistake, Hinton jokingly invited himself over.
"Of course you can," Dench replied. "That's what grandmas do ... feed everyone!"
Hinton stayed true to his promised and actually showed up with his girlfriend, and Dench welcomed the two with open arms. Screenshots of their text interactions and photos from the meal were shared thousands of times on social media, making Hinton and Dench social media icons.
Hinton and Dench have stayed in touch over the years. The New York Times reports that Dench and her husband, Lonnie, would often double date with Hinton and his girlfriend. Throughout the years, Dench has saved two seats open for him at her Thanksgiving table, and Hinton always showed up.
But this year's Thanksgiving will mark the first without Lonnie. He died of COVID-19 complications in April.
At the time, Hinton broke the sad news on his Twitter account.
"As some of you may have already found out tonight Lonnie did not make it," he tweeted. "Wanda told me all the love and support he was receiving put a huge smile on his face, so I thank every single one of you guys for that!"
As some of you may have already found out tonight Lonnie did not make it... he passed away Sunday morning😔 but Wanda told me all the love and support he was receiving put a huge smile on his face so I thank every single one of you guys for that!🙏🏽❤️ https://t.co/tNvals0FMh
— Jamal Hinton (@Jamalhinton12) April 9, 2020
After seven months of grieving, Wanda told CNN that she was initially apprehensive about holding Thanksgiving this year without her husband.
"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," she told CNN.
Eventually, they decided that they couldn't let the tradition die. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, they decided to hold a small, socially-distant get-together outside at Dench's home in the Phoenix area, so they could then get tested for the virus before celebrating with family on Thursday.
Wanda said it proved to be just what she needed.
"I can't even explain how much joy I had, having good food with my favorite company," she told CNN. "We laughed, we had a great time, we reminisced about the past. It was so good for all of us."
"At first it was sad. 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," Hinton told CNN. "We just told jokes and stories and shared our memories of Lonnie, so it was amazing."
Despite all the challenges of the past year, Hinton said he was glad he was able to find a way to keep the tradition alive.
"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," Hinton told CNN.