For years I’ve said that people bond around food, and now a military wife is proving it in a big way.
Leave it to a family named “Smiley” to make the best of a year-long deployment. Since January, I’ve enjoyed reading about “Dinner with the Smileys,” a project begun by Navy wife Sarah Smiley and her three sons, Ford (11), Owen (9), and Lindell (5). While their dad, Dustin, is deployed for thirteen months, they’re inviting a new guest from their community in Maine to join them for dinner once a week.
The boys drew up a “dream team” guest list, which included Stephen King, President Obama, and Jill Biden, wife of the vice-president (who regretted with a hand-written note). The inaugural guest of “Dinner with the Smileys” was their senator, Susan Collins (R-Maine), who brought brownies for dessert.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) with the Smiley Family. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Collins’ office.)
Soon after, the weekly parade of guests included their minister, the mayor of Bangor, the police chief, and the coach and two members of the University of Maine hockey team. The plan is to host a teacher once a month, and so far they’ve had all of the boys’ teachers over for dinner.
Ice cream sundaes with Owen’s third-grade teacher. (Photo courtesy of www.AndreaHand.com.)
They’ve also dined with a cancer survivor and the director of the local soup kitchen, who gave them a tour of the facility beforehand. Sarah hopes to engage her sons in the community in enriching ways.
“Another goal is to provide role models for my sons,” said Sarah. “Each week, through the dinners, the boys are introduced to someone new in the community. That ’someone’ is a person who can help them while their dad is away. By building one-on-one connections between my children and other adults around them, I’ve created a caring community in the absence of their dad.”
Take a look at the most recent dinner with Congressman Mike Michaud, and you can see the touching bonds that develop between guests and the Smiley boys. They accompanied the Congressman to a local veterans’ cemetery to place flags on the headstones for Memorial Day.
Two of the Smiley boys with Congressman Mike Michaud (D-Maine). (Photo courtesy of www.AndreaHand.com.)
Sarah says dinners are casual with dishes such as lasagna, tacos, baked chicken, or spaghetti served family style.
When I asked her about the most surprising thing, she said, “Each dinner is absolutely different from the one before it. I worried that things would become monotonous. Quite the opposite! Each dinner has its very own ‘feel’ to it. Some are serious and full of questions and learning. Some are funny, with laughs and jokes. Some are full of games and music and fun. I never know what to expect. And that is part of the fun.”
To record the fun, Sarah teamed up with talented local photographer Andrea Hand, although it’s more appropriate to call Ms. Hand a photojournalist because she’s a visual storyteller. Her candid photographs radiate the personality of the event, as well as capture the calm mother at the emotional heart of it all. I’d say Andrea Hand has a touch of the divine in her lens.
Peek-a-boo with the Police Chief. (Photo courtesy of www.AndreaHand.com.)
I applaud Sarah for pulling off this ambitious effort with such grace. During deployments, I was famous for swinging through Taco Bell or picking up the $5 pizza from Domino’s for dinner, anything to make it easier to get through that difficult time. Not only is it lonely, but you’re frazzled at the end of the day from finishing up soccer/piano/scouts, and you still have to fix dinner, eat, clean up, supervise homework, baths, reading, and tuck-ins. It’s exhausting. I was in survival mode. Sarah has transformed what could be a perfunctory, lets-get-through-this ordeal into a rich, meaningful, and memory-making event.
Although I’ve never met Sarah in person, it feels like we’ve been friends a long time via our email exchanges and shared experiences. She writes the syndicated column “Shore Duty,” and is also the author of two books, Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife and I’m Just Saying, a compilation of her columns. She was kind enough to submit a story for Household Baggage Handlers, the anthology of stories by military wives which I edited.
Visit her website, www.SarahSmiley.com, to learn more. You can follow “Dinner With the Smileys” and see the wonderful photographs by “liking” their Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/DinnerWithTheSmileys. There are also plans to shape this project into a book.
The Smiley family has inspired others to start their own “Smiley Project” by inviting people over for dinner. For my take on this, visit GreatGetTogethers.com.