MESA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - It's the story that has warmed so many hearts each Thanksgiving, but this year is a little different.

It started in 2016 when "Grandma Wanda" thought she texted her grandson to come over for Thanksgiving dinner but accidentally texted then-teenager Jamal. The two have celebrated Thanksgiving together ever since, but this year the pandemic changed everything.

COVID-19 took Wanda Dench's husband Lonnie Dench in March. So Friday, they had a safe, mini Thanksgiving in his honor.

"Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for bringing everybody here together safely," Wanda Dench said as she began to say grace.

Their tradition lives in the hearts of so many around the world. Thanksgiving just wouldn't be the same without Wanda and Jamal.


Wanda's husband Lonnie died from COVID-19 in March.

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"I didn't want to miss Thanksgiving with Jamal," Wanda said. "This year is definitely different than all the years in the past."

The pandemic has taken so much and took the one whose smile, hugs and warmth made Jamal and his girlfriend Mikaela feel right at home.

Wanda's husband Lonnie died from COVID-19 in March. Wanda was there with him in his final moments.

"It was five minutes later and he passed away," Wanda said through tears.

She knew her first Thanksgiving without him would be hard, but Jamal and Mikaela would make sure she wouldn't be lonely this holiday. They decided to have an early mini Thanksgiving together with Wanda, her daughter, and the real grandson. A seat and candle was left at the head of the table, knowing even though Lonnie isn't here, his spirit is. Jamal knew he would hear this.

"I would just like to say hi, say thank you for welcoming me into your home with open arms from day one," Jamal said.

Wanda and Jamal

"This year is definitely different than all the years in the past," Wanda said.

Lonnie would always say grace before the Thanksgiving meal. He was Wanda's biggest cheerleader. So in his honor, surrounded with family by blood and family by choice, Wanda led the prayer knowing Lonnie would be proud.

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"Thank you for all the blessings, and thank you so much for having Lonnie in my life. 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," Wanda said.


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