For his first Thanksgiving alone in 1985, Scott Macaulay was thinking that he would have to heat up a frozen turkey dinner and turn on a football game to stifle the silence in his apartment near Boston.
With his parents recently divorced and “nobody talking to anybody,” he said, “I was looking at a pretty rotten Thanksgiving. And I absolutely hate to eat alone.”
Then Macaulay, a divorced vacuum cleaner repairman, had an idea: What if he took out an ad in his hometown paper, the Melrose Free Press, and invited 12 strangers to join him for Thanksgiving dinner? It seemed like a manageable number to host at the First Baptist Church he attended — and, yeah, it was a little crazy, but it had to be better than being lonely.
“I knew that I couldn’t be the only one in this situation,” he said. “There had to be at least a dozen people out there who didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving Day alone.”
Since those 12 strangers gathered around his table for turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie 33 years ago, Macaulay has made his free feast an annual event, inviting anyone to make a reservation by calling his office phone number that’s printed in the paper. He does not own a cellphone or computer. Through the years, he has fed plenty of widows, widowers, homeless people and college kids who can’t make it home. A few years ago, one of his guests crawled under the table. All are welcome.
In the town of 27,000 about 10 miles northwest of Boston, Macaulay feeds 60 to 100 people every year. When the oven broke at his church one Thanksgiving, he moved the repast to the basement of Melrose’s Green Street Baptist Church, which now donates space for the dinner every year.
About a week before Thanksgiving, Macaulay, 57, who owns Macaulay’s House of Vacuum Cleaners and lives above the shop, goes grocery shopping and purchases everything himself, though he prefers not to say how much it all costs him because “that would take away the spirit of it.” When asked again, he said the total exceeds $1,000.
The menu includes: Four large turkeys, five kinds of pie (pumpkin, apple, mince, cherry and the ever-popular Hershey’s frozen sundae pie), sweet potatoes, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, butternut squash, cranberries, fruit cups and rolls with butter. He stores it all in refrigerators at the church until the morning of the feast.
A few days beforehand, he hauls in sofas, recliners, oriental rugs, even a couple of fake fireplaces, and decorates a rec hall to resemble a cozy living room. Candlesticks and cloth napkins are placed on the tables, curtains are hung in the windows, and adjoining rooms are set up for guests to relax and get to know each other over appetizers: chips and dip in one room and cheese and crackers in the next.
“This isn’t about the food, though,” Macaulay said. “It’s about having a place to go. Silence is unbearable, especially on Thanksgiving. My goal is always to replicate the feeling of having a nice dinner in somebody’s home.”
Reservations usually come in at the last minute, he said, “because everyone is hoping for a better offer.” After 32 Thanksgivings, Macaulay can laugh about it and never takes offense. He’s made dozens of friends and an equal number of memories.
“There was a guy one year who’d just lost his wife,” he said. “And after dinner, he put on her old apron and helped me to do the dishes."
One year, he said, an elderly woman paid $200 for an ambulance to drive her to the church from her nursing home. She arrived decked out in fancy clothes and told Macaulay she hadn’t been out in seven years. She cried when dinner was over.
Last year, two people showed up with service dogs.
Another year, Macaulay took a plate out to a woman who was living in her car and was too ashamed of her plight to come inside until almost everyone had gone home.
“She came in to get some leftovers,” recalled Macaulay. “And she sang ‘Amazing Grace’ with this incredible voice. What a year that was.”
Then there was the time his parents both showed up. Macaulay’s mother was dying of breast cancer and wanted to be with family. So did his dad.
“There they were, sitting on the couch together,” he said, “holding each other’s hand, years after their divorce. I can still see them sitting there. That’s a happy memory.”
Infants have spent their first Thanksgiving with Macaulay, and more than a few elderly people have sat down for their last. Some people return year after year to relax with strangers in front of a faux fireplace.
Geoff Shanklin, 65, who lives alone and has attended every dinner since the tradition began, said he watches in admiration each year when Macaulay makes the dinner happen.
“He prepares it all and we bring ourselves,” Shanklin said. “He really enjoys passing it on to lonely people in Melrose. For people like me with nowhere to go, Scott is family.”
Last year, Loretta Saint-Louis, 66, was feeling down because she couldn’t make it to Ohio for her family’s annual gathering. Then she spotted Macaulay’s newspaper ad.
“I had no idea what I was walking into,” she said, “and I was surprised at how fancy and well-done it was. Scott really goes all out. It’s extraordinary that he does this, but he sees it as a gift to give to everyone. He really pulls the little community of Melrose together.”
Because Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without giving thanks, Macaulay always asks people to write what they’re thankful for on a slip of paper and leave their thoughts in a basket. He saves the submissions and reads them throughout the year, long after the table has been cleared and the dishes washed.
The top thing people write about is being thankful for their health.
“Sometimes, they’re grateful they no longer have cancer or that they finally found a job or have a place to live,” he said. “One year, a guy wrote that he was thankful his son was speaking to him again. That one was a tear-jerker.”
Macaulay also has a son, Walter, 22, who pitches in to help serve and clean up. He’s the designated turkey carver.
Neither father nor son batted an eye a few years ago when Macaulay’s ex-wife strolled in with her new husband and offered to play the piano while everyone ate.
And as for the woman a few years ago who hid under the table?
“I don’t ask questions,” Macaulay said. “She got served the same as anyone.”