"It's not about the food. It's about being together. Nobody should have to eat Thanksgiving dinner alone," Scott Macaulay tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
November 23, 2017 09:00 AM
Courtesy Melrose Free Press

In 1985, faced with his first Thanksgiving alone after his parents divorced, Scott Macaulay of Melrose, Massachusetts, suddenly had a wild and wonderful idea. Rather than eat a frozen turkey dinner in front of the television, why not invite other lonely people facing the same predicament?

So Macaulay, who runs a vacuum shop, took out an ad in the Melrose Free Press, asking 12 strangers to join him for Thanksgiving dinner.

“I bought all the stuff and made everything myself at my church,” he tells PEOPLE, “and it was such a great Thanksgiving that I made a decision right there to keep it up.”

Thirty-two years later, Macaulay, 56, is preparing once again for his annual feast, now serving 70 people every year at Melrose’s Green Street Baptist Church.

“The whole idea of this is to replicate somebody’s home,” he says. “I bring in sofas, oriental rugs and fake fireplaces so that everyone will feel like they’re in somebody’s living room. Then, I put myself in charge of the cooking and some of the guests chip in to serve dinner and clean up.”

“One year, a man who’d just lost his wife put on her apron and helped do the dishes,” Macaulay tells PEOPLE. “That’s what this is all about. It’s not about the food. It’s about being together. Nobody should have to eat Thanksgiving dinner alone.”

Scott Macaulay with one of his “faux” fireplaces ahead of this year’s dinner.
Courtesy Pat Fish

Divorced with one son, Walter, 21, who pitches in every year, Macaulay has Thanksgiving dinner down to the precision of an Army mess hall, only with much more panache. The food isn’t bad, either. He’s in the chapel kitchen by 5 a.m. to roast four large turkeys, boil and mash the potatoes and bake several trays of butternut squash. Pies are ordered out, with Hershey’s frozen “sundae” pie the runaway favorite.

“We use cloth napkins, tablecloths and candlelight — it’s as classy as it can be,” he says.

One year, his ex-wife showed up with her new husband and played the piano for everyone for an hour.

“She told me that she wanted $100, and I told her, ‘You can quit playing now,’ ” recalls Macaulay with a laugh. “It was probably payback for the one time we held the dinner at our house when we were married. She got out her best crystal and china, and a lady’s elbow knocked over six goblets at $76 apiece.”

One of Macaulay’s favorite memories is of a woman who hadn’t been out of her nursing home in seven years, but decided to pay $200 for an ambulance to take her to his Thanksgiving feast after she saw his annual newspaper ad.

“They brought her in on a hospital bed, all decked out, and she cried when the dinner was over,” he recalls. “She didn’t want to go home.”

Every year, before the meal, Macaulay has a tradition of asking his guests to write down what they’re thankful for and contemplate the good in their lives.

“I save all of their submissions because it’s sentimental,” he tells PEOPLE. “Most people are thankful for their health, while others are thankful for things like, ‘My son is now speaking to me.’ Everything always comes from the heart.”

A particularly memorable Thanksgiving was the year his mother, who was dying from breast cancer, came to the church and rested on one of the sofas.

“I looked over and there was my dad, who had also shown up and was sitting on the couch, holding her hand,” says Macaulay. “I can still picture them sitting there together. Thanksgiving memories don’t get any better than that.”