Any other year and the impeccably decorated Whitley house would be packed.
Cousins and grandmothers, children and grandchildren, great-aunts and great friends since kindergarten — they’d all be there.
“There are people in and out all day,” said Willie Whitley, 49, describing a usual Thanksgiving as he stood this week scanning the food piled high on the counters of his kitchen in Fort Washington.
Three turkeys, a chicken, a ham, Stove Top stuffing, cornbread, towers of dinner rolls, green beans, collard greens, mac and cheese, and an industrial-size bowl of green confection called “Watergate salad.”
“This year,” the father said, “it’s just four of us.”
So why all the food?
The Whitleys — like thousands of other smart families who forwent their usual Thanksgiving crowd to help stop the spread of the coronavirus — are the kind of people who need to feed. They are that house, the one always full of people, buzzing with activity.
And the thought of a quiet, small Thanksgiving was agonizing for them.
So they decided to cook the same amount — Army-size — as always and take at least 50 Thanksgiving dinners to the people they see living under bridges, in parks and in tents throughout the nation’s capital.
[Thanksgiving recipes when your home is a homeless shelter]
“I heard in church that someday, if Jesus comes back, he could come back as a person who is homeless,” said the family’s younger daughter, Courtney “Coco J” Whitley, 18. “So I always have a special place in my heart for them.”
Across the country, families like the Whitleys have had the same idea — a beautiful and synchronous gesture by the kinds of humans who insist on feeding and nurturing people, whether strangers or friends, despite the constrictions of the coronavirus pandemic.
While searching for organizations that were providing meals to the homeless this Thanksgiving, I kept coming across people who are doing that work themselves.
Like a woman in Orlando who announced on Twitter that she’s “making mad food for thanksgiving, then saving some to feed the homeless.”
A man in Detroit asked friends on Twitter if they want to come along and help him on Thanksgiving Day, when he’s “just riding around with 50 spaghetti dinners in my trunk and handing them out.”
A woman in Kentucky is going to feed the homeless and asked friends if they’d like to contribute blankets that she can give out, too.
And Asia Chloe Brown, an urban farmer in D.C., said she handed out about 25 plates of food — cooking “roast chicken, candied yams, cornbread stuffing, baked mac and cheese, collards, cornbread, yeast rolls, cranberry sauce and Dutch apple pie.”
On social media, she asked others to “please consider doing something similar in your area in lieu of gathering. Wear your PPE, glove up, wrap those plates up well, and feed our houseless friends out there.”
The Whitleys have been doing this on Thanksgiving for a few years. But it usually has been a small, quiet morning routine — just the four of them — before all the friends and relatives descended on their house. They’d take 10 or so meals to the folks they’re used to seeing on the street during their commutes to work or school.
It’s a common impulse, on the day of giving thanks, to want to help others. Every year, soup kitchens and shelters are overrun on that day with do-gooders who show up for a quick spit-shine of their souls, and leave feeling better about themselves after working at the sweet potato station of a food line for a spell.
It’s not so easy to do amid the pandemic this year, as those organizations have trimmed their offerings, minimized contact and spent a lot of time training volunteers on proper coronavirus protocols.
So everyday Americans are responding to that shift. Without a formal movement, petition or hashtag, folks are turning this year’s stunted celebration into a magnanimous gesture.
[What do Native Americans do on Thanksgiving?]
Maybe it’s because we are all desperate to connect with other people.
Courtney and her 21-year-old sister, Brittany, are back living at home, taking college courses online from their childhood bedrooms. Their parents are home with them. They are all craving the company of others — just like everyone. And in this pandemic-induced social isolation, we may have a small glimpse of the utter loneliness of those without a home.
“It’s not just about giving people food or money and walking away,” Courtney said. “They get really excited about the interaction.”
The Whitleys avoid the well-known parks and big encampments, and instead look for people who are isolated and alone.
“Over the years, we’ve seen some of the same people in the same places,” said Veronica Whitley, 50, the matriarch of the family. “I remember a woman who kept telling me she didn’t know where her son was. I wonder if she found him.”
On Wednesday evening, she put on her mask and showed her daughters how to massage the brown sugar into the ham.
“We’re going to be up all night,” she said, leading her daughters through years of tradition, making a meal that would be eaten by dozens of strangers.