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For first time in 35 years, man can't host Thanksgiving dinner for strangers

Since 1985, Scott Macaulay has prepared massive turkey dinners so people don't have to be alone. This year, COVID-19 changed everything.
Scott Macauley hosts Thanksgiving for people who don't want to be alone on turkey day.
Each year for more than three decades, Scott Macaulay of Massachusetts has hosted an elaborate Thanksgiving meal for strangers. In this photo taken more than seven years ago, he's shown shopping for one of his big turkey day events.TODAY Archive
/ Source: TODAY

Scott Macaulay will be eating Thanksgiving dinner alone this year.

He’s not the only person in this situation, of course. The stubborn albatross of the coronavirus is keeping countless people isolated in 2020. But for Macaulay, this turn of events is almost unthinkable: Over the past 35 years, he’s prepared elaborate turkey spreads for hundreds of people he’s never met, all with the goal of making sure they don’t have to be alone on Thanksgiving Day.

“I just don’t want people to be stuck at home feeling rotten,” the 59-year-old vacuum cleaner repairman from Melrose, Massachusetts, told TODAY.

On a normal Thanksgiving, Macaulay spends hours hauling soft chairs, rugs, lamps, candles and portable gas fireplaces into a big open meeting space to give people a cozy, comfortable place to hang out and talk for hours. Then he sets tables with beautiful place settings for anywhere from 70 to 100 individuals — elderly people, cancer patients, AA members, low-income people, at-risk teens, recently divorced people, nursing-home residents eager for a change of scenery — and he serves them all mountains of food that he purchases on his own dime and prepares himself.

This fall, as COVID-19 cases began climbing again in Massachusetts, Macaulay watched his best-laid turkey day plans fall apart. So, he hatched a two-pronged plan of attack.

First, for people who can cook at home, he’s been using disposable roaster pans to create Thanksgiving gift baskets. He fills the pans with boxes of stuffing, cans of cranberry sauce and an assortment of other fixings. Then he adds gift cards so people can buy turkeys at a local grocery store, and he wraps the whole package up with gift paper to make it look nice.

Second, for those who don’t have the means to prepare a turkey and side dishes, Macaulay has purchased coupons for individually catered Thanksgiving meals from the deli J. Pace & Son in the nearby town of Saugus, Massachusetts. On Thanksgiving Day, people can don their masks, dash inside the store, present their coupons and walk out with a fresh, hot meal.

So far, Macaulay has given away about 80 coupons and a dozen gift baskets. He said he feels good about that — but one detail keeps gnawing at him.

“People are still gonna be alone!” he said. “It’s never really been about the food — it was about having a place to go so you wouldn’t be by yourself. But I can’t fix that this year.”

He keeps offering up the same advice to all his gift recipients: “I tell them, ‘Spend the day calling people and telling them what you’re thankful for. If you do that, technically speaking, you won’t be alone.’”

Macaulay began his Thanksgiving tradition back in 1985, shortly after his parents decided to get divorced. The holidays turned complicated that year, and Macaulay, who was 24 at the time, could tell that he would be spending Thanksgiving by himself.

He hated that feeling. So, he placed an ad in his local newspaper inviting anyone who might be alone on Thanksgiving to give him a call. He explained in the ad that he’d be happy to have them over to his place for a meal.

A few people showed up that first year, and it was great. So, he kept placing ads each year. As time went on, the event grew so much that he needed to find larger spaces to host it. In recent years, he’s been serving up his Thanksgiving dinners at local churches.

This year, in an effort to combat the feeling that COVID-19 is ruining everything, Macaulay has maintained a tradition from his annual dinners: He asks his meal recipients to write down what they’re thankful for.

“We’re all messed up in this country right now, but I think if we focus on what we’re thankful for, it can change our perspective a little bit,” he said. “It just makes you feel better.”

The messages he’s been receiving on folded slips of paper from grieving people, aging people and sick people keep cheering him up:

“In this COVID-19 time, I’m thankful for life itself!” a 99-year-old woman wrote.

“I’m thankful for the ability to go for a walk every day,” wrote another person.

“I’m thankful for all the doctors, nurses, EMTs, firefighters and police who have been working so hard.”

“I’m thankful for every morning when I wake up with my dog.”

“I’m thankful for being able to walk, talk, breathe, see and hear.”

“I'm thankful for the beauty of the change of leaves. Even in death, they are beautiful.”

“I’m thankful that I will have a turkey dinner thanks to Scott.”

“See how this changes your mood?” Macaulay said with a big laugh. “I love reading these!”

This pandemic year has been challenging for Macaulay. (“Vacuum fixers like me aren’t doing so good!” he mentioned in an offhand way about his business, Macaulay’s House of Vacuum Cleaners.) Still, he said, it’s important to “do what you can do to take care of people.”

“I never ask for donations for this. Everybody’s looking for money at this time of year!” Macaulay said. “I’ll just do as much as I can until there’s no money left.”

He said he expects his Thanksgiving morning will be busy with lots of hustle and bustle, bringing gift baskets out to the cars of people with disabilities and handing out last-minute catering coupons to people in need. But then, for the first time in years, his Thanksgiving afternoon and evening might be unusually quiet.

“I think it might be a bummer because, all of a sudden, I’m going to be alone!” he said. “Maybe I’ll crank up my phone and do what I’ve been telling everybody else to do. I may just go down my whole list of people and ask them if everything went all right with the coupon and if everything tasted good. Ask ‘em, ‘How ya doing?’

“It’s the best I could do this year. Yep. The best I could do.”

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