Grandmom from viral text mix-up observes 1st Thanksgiving since husband's death

This is the fifth year in a row Wanda Dench and Jamal Hinton have celebrated the holiday together. But this year, the holiday was bittersweet.
/ Source: TODAY

For the fifth year in a row, Wanda Dench, 63, and Jamal Hinton, 21, have celebrated their annual Thanksgiving dinner together with a few changes.

Their unlikely friendship sparked in 2016 after Dench mistakenly texted Hinton inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner, thinking she was texting her grandson. The then 17-year-old asked who the message was from to which Dench replied, “Your grandma.”

They exchanged selfies, soon realizing that Dench was not Hinton’s grandmother. The teen replied back, “You not my grandma. Can I still get a plate tho?”

Dench happily obliged and Hinton joined her and her husband, Lonnie Dench, for Thanksgiving dinner in a tradition that carried on for many years after at her home in Mesa, Arizona.

Dench told TODAY that she and Hinton planned their pared-down celebration a couple of weeks back so they would be able to spend the holiday together safely amid the pandemic. The duo was able to reunite in a small get-together ahead of the holiday on Friday, Nov. 20, with one notable presence missing. Dench’s husband, Lonnie, passed away in April due to complications from COVID-19. Hinton shared the news on his Twitter shortly after announcing that the couple was diagnosed. Lonnie was 63-years-old.

That same month, Hinton also shared a video of him at lunch with the Denches, writing, "We miss you Lonnie."

“He’s changed my life a lot, I know that"

For this year's Thanksgiving, the intimate group consisted of her daughter, Lisa, and, as Dench put it, “the grandson that originally started all of this by changing his phone number and not telling me he changed it,” Randall Burgoyne. Hinton’s girlfriend Mikaela Grubbs was there as well.

The chosen family enjoyed all of the traditional holiday fixings, including a turkey, mashed potatoes and a pumpkin pie while taking time to reflect on their celebrations in the past.

“We had a picture of my husband and my daughter put a candle in front of his picture at the head of the table."Wanda Dench

“We had a picture of my husband and my daughter put a candle in front of his picture at the head of the table,” Dench said. “We had such a wonderful Thanksgiving. It was just having a small group with people that you love and good food. We reminisced about the past Thanksgivings… in spite of the fact of not having my husband with me for the first time after 42 years, it was a really, really good Thanksgiving.”

She continued, adding, “I really enjoyed the smaller group where all of us could share our thoughts and feelings with each other and have a relaxing conversation. It was wonderful.”

Dench said that she may even want to start a new tradition with a smaller celebration for years to come.

On her relationship with Hinton, Dench said she feels like “fate stepped in" all those years ago after one text message was sent to the wrong number.

"So now I look at a lot of young people in a different light than I used to and I make it a point to talk and get to know them.”Wanda Dench

“Jamal taught me that age made absolutely no difference. I love all of my grandkids and kids, but we all are different generations and we all reminiscence about different things,” she explained. “But when Jamal came along, my husband and I and him and his girlfriend, we would go out to dinner throughout the year together and we would just lose all track of time. One time, we were at a restaurant for three or four hours and I couldn’t believe we were there that long. We kept talking! It was just such a wonderful conversation.”

She continued, “That’s when it dawned on me that there doesn’t have to be a generation gap to have friendships. So now I look at a lot of young people in a different light than I used to and I make it a point to talk and get to know them.”

“He’s changed my life a lot, I know that."