During her teen years, when Candice O’Brien Beasley worked as a waitress in Nashville, she often watched people settle into booths to dine alone during the holidays.

“I always wondered what happened to these customers on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day,” she said. “Did they have any family? Did anybody visit them?”

Twenty years later, with that in mind, Beasley decided to invite anyone who would otherwise be alone to a free southern-style dinner on Christmas Day at her restaurant in Ashland City, Tenn., about 25 miles from Nashville.

Every Christmas since 2013, Beasley, now 39, has served turkey, ham, dressing, mac and cheese, broccoli casserole and gooey fudge pie for anyone who walks in the door of O’Brien’s Southern Diner, no questions asked.

She also feeds people who don’t come to her restaurant but still need a meal. This year, about 30 volunteers will show up on Christmas morning to help her box up turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, pies and thick slices of Beasley’s homemade caramel cake, then deliver the food to about 300 people in Ashland and its surrounding towns who have nobody to celebrate with or can’t afford to buy their own fixings for a holiday family dinner.

Beasley said she knows how they feel.

“It’s hard to talk about, but my grandparents all died within a few months of each other when I was 13,” said Beasley, who was raised by her two grandmothers. “I then took turns living with my mom and my dad (who were divorced), and we often struggled.”

“I know what it’s like to go without food, to have nothing in the house during a holiday time or any time,” she added. “I know what it’s like to have that rug yanked out from under you. It’s painful.”

After signing a lease in 2013, Beasley decided to put a notice on Facebook, inviting anyone to bring an appetite and fill up the booths in her new diner on Christmas Day.

“That first year, about 25 people came,” she said. “We served a lot of truck drivers and widowers. It was wonderful. To have all these people around me on Christmas Day felt amazing — almost like I was a kid again, enjoying Christmas dinner with my grandparents and other relatives.”

Beasley made the dinner an annual tradition and soon had a small army of volunteers who wanted to help. Charles Marshal of Smyrna, Tenn., is one of them. In 2015, Marshal was facing his first Christmas alone in more than five decades after his wife, Betty, passed away of breast cancer at age 70.

With his children and grandchildren all living out of state, Marshal said he thought his holiday celebration that year would likely involve heating up a frozen dinner and watching television with his cat, Kiki.

Then he heard about Beasley and her free Christmas dinner.

“I decided to give it a try and ended up at a table with three other old guys like me,” recalled Marshal, now 75. “We sat and had dinner together and we all became friends. I went home feeling grateful that Candice had given us all some place to go.”

The following year, Marshal showed up again at the comfort-food restaurant — this time as a volunteer, to deliver hot meals to people who had difficulty leaving their homes. It quickly became a Christmas tradition.

“I might load my car up seven or eight times to make deliveries,” said Marshal. “To see the smiles on the faces of the people when they open their front doors makes my whole holiday.”

As Beasley often points out, her free Christmas dinner is good for everyone.

“Nobody — and I mean nobody — should have to be alone on Christmas Day,” said the married mother of six who has fond memories of her own Christmases growing up with her grandparents in Nashville.

“My dad was a truck driver who was gone a lot, and my mom wasn’t in the picture much when I was young,” she said.

Beasley’s maternal grandparents, George and Vina Linebaugh, ran the now-defunct Linebaugh’s restaurant, a popular hangout on lower Broadway for the Nashville music community, she said. Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Mel Tillis were among the restaurant’s famous regular customers, she said.

“I was a toddler when my grandparents closed the place, but I grew up hearing lots of stories about it and the wonderful food,” said Beasley.

Beasley often helped her grandmother, Ruth O’Brien, prepare and deliver chicken noodle soup, broccoli casserole and brownies to people from their church who were sick or elderly, she recalled. It was always her dream to one day open a cafe and serve her favorite childhood dishes.

Finally, in 2013, she saw an opportunity when a restaurant on Ashland’s Main Street had a “For Rent” sign in front of it.

Her annual Christmas Day feast is a highlight for many in Ashland, especially for those who volunteer. One of Beasley’s regulars is her friend Mary MacRae, whose husband, country-western songwriter Johnny MacRae, died in 2013.

“The Christmas after Johnny passed away, I was totally by myself and felt incredibly lonely,” recalled MacRae, 65. “I sat there and bawled my eyes out, then told myself, ‘okay, Mary, this will not happen again. You’re going to find something good to do on Christmas because there’s so much need.’ ”

Six weeks later, said MacRae, Beasley asked her to help coordinate the 2014 holiday feast and decorate the restaurant. More than 300 meals were served that year.

“This dinner has been a godsend for me every year since,” said MacRae. “I didn’t want to spend another Christmas home alone, crying.”

Another volunteer, Becky Beigert, 67, said she can’t imagine spending Christmas Day any other way since she showed up six years ago to pitch in at Beasley’s cafe.

“Our whole family goes — it makes our Christmas,” said Beigert, who helps coordinate meal runs to the elderly, and first-responders who are stuck working holiday shifts for police and fire departments in Cheatham County.

People begin calling as early as October to get their names on the reservation list for free Christmas dinners or to suggest people in the community who might be in need, said Beasley. Most of the hams, turkeys and side dishes are now donated by businesses or generous members of the community, she said.

“The dinner has taken on a life of its own,” she said. “We’ve done as many as 500 meals. This year, I’ll get up around 5 on Christmas morning and go down to the restaurant to start boiling vegetables, but I’ve learned to peel potatoes two days before.”

Later that morning, several dozen volunteers will show up to get the “to go” meals out the door by 11 and begin serving those who drop in.

“My entire family comes out to help, so we celebrate our Christmas either the day before or the day after,” she said. “But we’re fine with that. To us, this is Christmas.”

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