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NJ Moms Share Holiday Meal, Tragic Bond

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – During one Thanksgiving, Andrea Bryant’s son playfully hid the turkey from his mom.

Varetta Shiggs’ son would always eat his mother’s freshly baked chocolate cake all by himself.

Cynthia Andrews’ son usually called ahead and asked her to save him a plate filled with his favorite macaroni and cheese.

All three had fond Thanksgiving memories of their boys. All three had also lost their sons much too soon.

The trio gathered with their families in Newark on Tuesday night to remember their sons at an annual Thanksgiving dinner thrown by an anti-violence group for people who lost loved ones to gun violence. They ate together, cried together, shared stories about their boys and about the struggles of finding justice for their children.

“It helps me to talk with other victims,” said Cynthia Andrews, 48, of Newark, whose macaroni and cheese-loving son, Mujaheed Andrews 28, was fatally shot in August while walking home from his girlfriend’s house.

“This was a beautiful Thanksgiving — you got a chance to think and be in the atmosphere of sharing and helping each other,” she said. “And it really made me think about things, like my son has two boys and some of the mothers don’t have any grandchildren, but at least my son has a chance to live on through his children.”

The organizer, Rev. Thomas Ellis, founder and president of Enough is Enough Coalition, said his hopes for the dinner is just that: bringing together families who have experienced similar losses to help them get through a sometimes difficult holiday.

“Many families may not want to have a Thanksgiving dinner after losing a child, but it’s a great healing process for them to know that someone else can understand their loss,” said Ellis.

For Monica Boyd, her Thanksgiving will never be complete.

Boyd, 50, of East Orange said ever since her 15-year-old son, Shafe Boyd-Cruz, was killed in 2006, there will always be one child missing, one empty seat at her dinner table.

“That’s one thing we can all identify with,” Boyd said of the other moms at the dinner. “We eat, we pray and we support each other and keep each other strong because we share a common bond.”

This year, Bryant said her son, Keith Calhoun Jr., 14, who was shot and killed in 2009, won’t be around to hide her turkey in the washroom like he did years before.

“Everyone tells you, they can imagine how you feel but when they tell you, they actually do,” she said of the other families.

This year, Bryant said she plans to cook Thanksgiving dinner and give thanks to God for a recent development — two men were arrested earlier this year and are facing charges in connection with the fatal shooting of her son.

And Shiggs, 53, of Newark is going to bake her son’s favorite chocolate cake. Her son, Nyheem Ali Shiggs, 25, who was killed by gunfire in June 2009, loved her cake and when she made it last year it took days before anyone in the family decided to take a piece.

“It’s still so sad and bittersweet,” said Shiggs’ daughter, Tyeisha, 30. “Especially during the holidays because he’s not here. You want to be happy and smile but it’s still hard to wrap your mind around it. You walk down the street and think you see him, and then realize it’s not him and it takes everything in you not to break down. It will never be the same.”

Losing her son was so fresh for Andrews that she cried at the start of the dinner when families were told to hug someone they didn’t know. She later exchanged phone numbers with Shiggs and talked about starting a support group for the moms.

As everyone began clearing out, Andrews reminisced about her son and how he would call ahead every Thanksgiving to remind her to stack his dinner plate high. And she said she will.

“People leave flowers,” she said of grave sites. “I can sure put him a plate on there.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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