For the 15th year, the Grimes and Carberry families will serve their traditional Thanksgiving meal at the West Orange Christian Service Center to anyone who needs it.
Sandra Carberry’s mother was the type of person who never met a stranger.
Tera Grimes may have been just 5-feet-tall, but she had a big heart, Carberry said. In fact, her heart for others sparked a family tradition now entering its 15th year.
The Grimes and Carberry families have been providing a free Thanksgiving meal to anyone in the community who was hungry or lonely since 2005. It all began when George and Tera Grimes opened their family restaurant, Mullet’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar.
A TRADITION IS BORN
The year Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, Tera Grimes decided suddenly she was going to provide a Thanksgiving meal to anyone who wanted to share her family for the holiday.
“She said, ‘You have elderly couples who maybe one passed away and they didn’t have any children — they’re not homeless, they need a family,’” Carberry said.
That first year, someone drove a stolen truck into a pole and knocked the power out. But it didn’t phase Tera Grimes, who simply turned it into a Thanksgiving meal by candlelight.
“One of the preachers she knows, Mr. Ricky Faircloth, bought some candles,” Carberry said. “(Mama) told everybody to come in — ‘I’m making it special, because we’re having dinner by candlelight.’ She never once let anybody know we didn’t have any power.”
Tera Grimes died five years ago. The first year since her death, Carberry didn’t want to carry on the tradition without her. But she knew her mother wouldn’t let her sleep as long as she was considering abandoning the meal.
“(Mama) came to me every night in a dream, saying, ‘No, I told you we were going to do it as long as they need it, and if you feed 100 people, they need us,’” Carberry said. “So me and Daddy, my kids, my nieces and nephews — we continue to do it.”
The seafood restaurant has been gone for years now, and the Grimes and Carberry families even served Thanksgiving meals out of the Ocoee Cafe for a couple of years. Today, the tradition lives on at the West Orange Christian Service Center in Ocoee.
“We are delighted,” said Rosemary Wilsen, an Ocoee commissioner and Christian Service Center employee. “There’s folks (who) can’t cook their own meal, or they’re alone, so it’s nice to get a traditional dinner. Not everyone has the ability to cook it, or some people might be alone or homeless. It’s wonderful and we love what they do, and folks enjoy coming here and getting a meal. It’s a family affair — the whole family comes in to help.”
Carberry estimates between 20 and 25 family members are involved each year. Last year, there were five generations helping. Typically, some family friends will jump in and serve, too.
Some of the food is donated — from the turkeys to the desserts — and the family also accepts monetary donations to purchase what isn’t. Once all the food is collected, the family gets to work preparing it.
“We used to have a big smoker that we cooked all the turkeys on — my husband, my dad and my son would stay up and cook them all night long,” Carberry said. “My daughter-in-law got the bright idea the year before last: ‘Mom, let’s pass them out to friends and family and let them cook them.’ And it has worked every time.”
A MEAL FOR EVERYONE
The family has prepared as many as 50 turkeys to feed more than 300 people, Carberry said. On Thanksgiving morning, they arrive at the Christian Service Center between 6 and 7 to start the food.
George Grimes makes the stuffing, and everyone dives in to his or her assigned task. Everything is typically ready by noon, and food is served until the last person is fed. Carberry describes it as a “fine-oiled machine.”
“All my kids, my nieces and nephews, they all come in and help us do all the cooking, preparing, the serving — even as young as 5 years old up there serving the rolls,” she said. “All our families are together there — that’s why we gave up our Thanksgiving, because we all go up there together.”
Meals typically are served in a sit-down setting, but this year, it will be more of a grab-and-go format. In previous years, it was customary for family members to sit and have a chat with anyone who came to share Thanksgiving with them.
“That’s how my mom wanted it,” Carberry said. “She wanted it for anyone who wanted to share our family. The year that we did it at the seafood restaurant and previous years, my mother would sit out and talk to everybody. And if they had a problem that Mama could correct, (she) would correct it.”
Before Tera Grimes died, she suffered from dementia. But even so, that 5-foot-tall woman always was up there running the whole show.
One year, Tera Grimes had broken her hip and was in a wheelchair. George Grimes and Carberry’s son were preparing the dressing — but not to Tera Grimes’s liking.
“My oldest son is 6-foot-3, and she had him hold her up at the stove for her to make the turkey and rice, because nobody was making it to her expertise,” Carberry said with a laugh. “He held her up — she could not stand on her own. And we couldn’t have just regular turkey gravy. Every year, she made giblet gravy. My brother wasn’t making it how she wanted it, so my son held her up, and she stood there and made it, too.”
A FAMILY HEIRLOOM
Last year, Carberry lost her brother, Dewayne Grimes. He and Tera Grimes were instrumental in starting the tradition, so the family has double the reasons to keep it going this year.
Carberry said she has had some people tell her that their family tradition is like an heirloom passed down but isn’t worth anything. She begs to differ.
“I said, ‘Y’all don’t understand; it is, because it’s very heart-filling,’” Carbery said. “Being up there and getting to see these people from year to year, it fills your heart. It’s worth something to us. There’s people who come back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve missed y’all since last year, what’s going on?’ These people have the biggest hearts, and they’re so thankful.”
It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Carberry said there is one man who comes in each year and picks up dinners to take to the homeless camps for those who are scared to come to the Christian Service Center.
Then there are the people who come every year to share Thanksgiving with the Grimes and Carberry families. They quickly become family, too.
“I really wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said. “And (in the future), I look for the kids and the grandkids to still push to do it. (There’s) no doubt in my mind when something happens to us that our grandkids will continue to do it.”