11:25 AM PST, November 24, 2021
For the sixth consecutive year, Arizona grandmother Wanda Dench will sit down to Thanksgiving with Jamal Hinton, a young man she initially invited by text, mistakenly thinking she was talking to her grandson.
At the time, Hinton was a total stranger, sitting in his high school classrom
And for the second year in a row, she will sit down to a holiday dinner at a table with an empty chair, signifying the seat occupied by her beloved husband, Lonnie, who succumbed to COVID in April 2020.
The inspiring relationship between Wanda and Jamal began in 2016, when her wrong-way text made her an internet star.
Dench thought she was sending a Thanksgiving invite to her grandson, but the teen who received it didn’t know her from Adam.
Jamal, then a 17-year-old high school senior, was in class when the invitation showed up on his cellphone. He didn’t recognize the phone number, so he wrote back asking who sent it.
“Your grandma,” Dench wrote back. “Grandma?” Hinton replied. “Can I have a picture?”
That’s strange, Dench thought. But she dutifully took a selfie at work and texted it.
And this is where things got very humorous.
“You not my grandma,” Hinton said. “Can I still get a plate tho?”
Dench was embarrassed by her mistake, but quickly recovered.
“Of course you can,” she wrote back. “That’s what grandmas do … feed everyone.”
Dench is white. Hinton is Black.
The teen took a screenshot of the conversation and posted it on Twitter, where it was retweeted more than 150,000 times.
Dench had no clue Hinton had posted their exchange online.
Then her phone blew up. In just a few days, she received more than 600 text messages and dozens of voicemails because her phone number was included in the screen shots.
She had to change her number.
And ever since, Hinton and his girlfriend have celebrated Thanksgiving with Dench and her family. Even last year, when Dench didn’t feel much like celebrating at all. Her husband had died the previous spring from coronavirus complications.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” Dench, now 64, recently told Inside Edition Digital. “I knew it was going to be tough with COVID, social distancing, quarantines, masks. Jamal and i were talking about it.”
They decided to keep the gathering small. “It was just five of us. My daughter put my husband’s picture on the table with a candle,” and the group toasted present and absent friends.
This year, Dench is going all out. She’s cooking a turkey, a ham, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie and assorted fixings for 12 people.
Hinton of course will be there, along with his girlfriend, Mikaela. Now 21, Hinton is a successful salesman of water-softener systems, Dench said. He has grown into a fine young man, and she is as proud as a grandmother could be, she said.
She expects this year’s holiday gathering to be bittersweet.
“We were married 42 years. he was definitely my soul mate,” she said. Last year “was emotional for me, but I know he was there in spirit. He just loved all the news media attention Jamal and I got,” she said.
“I miss him everyday. I tell him I love him every day. I wish he was here to be part of it. I know he is around me all the time, so I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and moving forward,” Dench said.
The unexpected entry of Hinton into her life brought great pleasure to her, and to her husband.
“To meet someone as special as he is, the friendship we have developed, is priceless,” she said.
Hinton is “mature for his age. He’s very caring and attentive to people,” Dench explained.
“I used to wear a lot of pink. One year, he bought me a pink sweatshirt and I said, ‘How did you know about the pink?’ And he said, ‘You wear it all the time, and you always seem to brighten up when you wear it.'”
Despite the generation gap between herself, and Hinton and his girlfriend, Dench said they are the closest of friends, frequently sitting for hours in a restaurant, just talking.
“They changed my life. I’m just in awe over them,” she said. “I don’t have anything to worry about with this generation. They’re going to be just fine.”
But she may do things differently for Thanksgiving 2022.
“I’m going to push Jamal to have it next time,” she said, laughing.