For four years, hearts have melted over the story of Wanda Dench and Jamal Hinton, the Arizona grandmother and young man who struck up a lasting bond after meeting through an errant text.
In 2016, Dench tried to invite her grandson to Thanksgiving dinner and accidentally messaged Hinton, then 17 years old. Hinton ended up coming over anyway, and the gathering was such a hit that their families reunited every November afterward — charming the Internet along the way.
“Family is more than blood,” Wanda Dench said at Thanksgiving 2018. “It’s the people you want to be with.”
That chosen family came together this week to comfort Wanda as the coronavirus infected her and her husband and as tragedy hit. Lonnie Dench died this week, Hinton announced Thursday on social media.
Wanda is undergoing a two-week quarantine, Hinton and his girlfriend said in a YouTube video. That means she’s physically cut off from family and friends, the young couple said, like so many people separated from loved ones in the pandemic.
They may not be able to hug her, the said, but they can share their love with home-cooked meals, food from Wanda’s favorite restaurant and a special tribute — a flash drive with dozens of videos from well-wishers around the world.
And a second video, Hinton promised, is on the way.
“We miss you Lonnie,” he tweeted Thursday above a video clip of one of his many get-togethers with Wanda and Lonnie, adding a broken heart.
We miss you Lonnie💔 pic.twitter.com/t9lXt31FLw
— Jamal Hinton (@kingjamal08) April 9, 2020
The Washington Post could not immediately reach Wanda Dench Thursday evening, but she confirmed Lonnie’s death to local news site AZFamily, remembering her husband as the first to greet people on Thanksgiving and last to bid goodbye.
“He had the truest heart of love, like no other,” she said in a statement to AZFamily. “He did so many acts of kindness that no one ever heard about. He was my hero. And I’m a better person because of him.”
Last Wednesday, Hinton broke the news to fans that Wanda and Lonnie both had COVID-19. Lonnie was in the hospital with pneumonia as well as the coronavirus, he said, urging his more than 60,000 Twitter followers to “send words of love and encouragement their way.”
I am so sad to announce that Wanda and Lonnie both have COVID-19 and that Lonnie is currently in the hospital fighting both COVID and Pneumonia please send words of love and encouragement their way 💛🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/tUNpUB20qg
— Jamal Hinton (@kingjamal08) April 2, 2020
His request was answered. When Hinton announced Thursday that Lonnie had died Sunday morning, he also shared that, according to Wanda, all the support had put “huge smile” on Lonnie’s face.
It was a painful twist in the story that’s made headlines since 2016. Back then, the mix up that brought Hinton into the Denches’ lives swiftly became clear, as Hinton asked for a photo from the woman who said she hoped to see him at her house at 3 p.m.
“You not my grandma,” he texted back, an emoji added to convey his laughter.
Hinton said he was joking when — after confirming the unknown number was not, in fact, his grandma’s — he texted, “Can I still get a plate tho?”
“Of course you can,” Dench said. “That’s what [grandmas] do . . . feed every one.”
She lived 25 minutes away in Mesa, Arizona. Hinton took the offer.
“She was very sweet and open,” Hinton told The Post two years ago. “I thought, ‘I can’t really not accept an offer like that.’ “
Their relationship came to encompass far more than the annual meal where they snapped Thanksgiving selfies. To fans’ delight, they also came together for barbecues and went on dinner dates to Benihana.
“She’s a great cook and she’s a great person to just hang out with,” Hinton told Time last year as the latest get-together approached. His favorite dishes from Dench’s kitchen: her turkey and green bean casserole.
Their families came to know one another. Hinton started bringing his girlfriend, Mikaela, to dinner. The 2019 holiday brought Dench to the house of Mikaela’s aunt, he told “Good Morning America.” Also present: the Monopoly set that Hinton says he got from Dench as a gift.
“We don’t watch TV or anything. We just sit at the table for a couple of hours and talk the whole time and tell stories and see how we’ve been,” he told Time. “Time kind of just flies, we don’t even realize how long we’ve been there. They’re really good company.”
At last year’s celebration, captured partially on video, relatives mingled as Hinton flipped through a scrapbook from Dench.
Someone offered to meet up again for Sunday dinner as the footage ended with Lonnie Dench’s goodbye hugs on the porch.