ST. PETERSBURG — Rosa Jackson's free Thanksgiving feast is back after a year's absence.
Darryl Jones, grandson of the retired dietary worker who started the annual tradition in 1973, says he is well enough to continue his grandmother's legacy. Last year's gathering at the Campbell Park Recreation Center was canceled because of his battle with colon cancer.
"I know that I'm sick on the inside, but as far as my ability, I feel good that I can do it,'' said the former cook, now battling cancer of the lung and liver.
Jones, 49, who lives in Apopka and will travel to St. Petersburg this week to begin preparing the holiday meal, plans his usual marathon of frying, smoking and grilling turkeys in his mother's back yard. He'll also prepare hams, whip up ready-made mashed potatoes and open cans of corn and string beans.
"I'll stretch it out so I don't get too tired,'' he said. "My mom, she will be monitoring me."
When she started her dinners in the early 1970s, Rosa Jackson told family members that she was doing what God had told her to do. The retiree had been inviting friends and family to her home and then extended her invitation to those who were lonely and needy.
When her modest Eighth Avenue S home became too small for her growing list of guests, she moved the feast to Campbell Park Recreation Center. At its height, the dinner drew as many as 300 people, along with volunteers and donations of food and money.
Jones vowed to carry on his grandmother's commitment after her death in 1996. Each year since, a candle burns in her memory during the Thanksgiving gathering. Canceling last year's feast was difficult.
"I felt up to it last year, but my mother felt I shouldn't try to do it," Jones said.
He thinks he's better prepared this holiday.
"I'm going to skip the chemotherapy going into Thanksgiving week. I'll be in St. Pete the whole week,'' he said, his voice hoarse and a little faint over the telephone.
His mother, Eloise Jones, 73, will hover.
"He has discussed it with his doctor and the doctor says it's okay as long as he felt he could do it,'' she said. "Last year he was much worse.'
"I don't want him to overdo it. I really would like him to just fight his battle."
The cancellation last Thanksgiving shocked and disappointed many people, but the Wildwood Heights Neighborhood Association organized a replacement holiday meal at another location, Eloise Jones said.
"Darryl and I and his wife, we attended,'' she said.
Her son is looking forward to returning to Campbell Park.
"It's just the promise that I made to my grandma,'' he said, his voice breaking.
"I know that people at this time of year just need somebody to give a handout to them. I just feel I can do it.
"Mentally, I know my position with the cancer, but I am not going to let it get me down. I'm asking God to give me the strength to do it, not just this year, but the years to come."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.