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Dinner with a Navy family: Meet the Smileys

We’re going down a different road with this post, but it’s for a look inside the most important part of a Sailor’s life… family. And not just any family, the Smiley family. Thus, we introduce you to Sarah Smiley, a Navy wife and a mother of 3 boys who wears these two hats with finesse, even though her husband is on a 1-year deployment. In fact, it is this deployment that prompted her to embark on a major endeavor.

This is is the first of many posts from her and we hope you enjoy getting to know this woman who is an extraordinary part of our Navy family.

Dinnertime is when my deployed husband’s absence is most present. Ask any military family and they’ll likely answer the same. Dinnertime and weekends: two of the loneliest times of all when your loved one is gone.

So I wasn’t surprised when my husband was leaving for a year-long assignment overseas and my kids – boys ages 11, 9 and 5 – said what they’d miss most was talking to their dad at dinner. Indeed, Dustin’s empty seat at the family table would be even harder to accept than his empty spot on the bleachers during a Little League game, or his empty chair beside me at the elementary school play.

“Then let’s not leave it vacant,” I told the boys. “Once a week, we’ll invite someone to have dinner with the Smileys.”

The boys created a wish list of guests. What started as “my teacher” and “a policeman” grew more ambitious. (Our first guest in January was Senator Susan Collins.) But we stayed – and continue to stay – mindful of our task. For the next 52 weeks, we will fill Dustin’s seat at the dinner table with interesting people in our community and beyond, even as we know that his place can’t truly be “filled” until the 53rd “Dinner With the Smileys,” when Dustin is home again.

Some of our past and future guests include: a U.S. Senator, an Olympic athlete, a draftee into the NHL, authors, politicians, school teachers, ministers, a judge, a police chief, a game warden and more.

Yes, even the dog gets in on the fun at Dinner with the Smileys. (Photo Courtesy of Andrea Hand Photography)

What began as an exercise to mark and fill the time has grown in ways I did not expect. I had not anticipated how this project would expose my boys to so many different role models in their dad’s absence. I had not anticipated how it would connect them with their community in a new and meaningful way. (Only when you’ve passed homemade lasagna to the mayor, or when a minister has helped your 5-year-old butter his bread, can you know these people in a way that goes beyond the small talk and pleasantries that usually fill our days.) And I could not have known how these dinners would be just as memorable and educational for our guests (gives new meaning to walking in a military family’s “shoes”). Plus, take heart! Reader response to “Dinner With the Smileys” reflects that Americans still care about the idea of a family dinnertime.

All this, and we still have more than 40 dinners to go!

Follow along at http://www.facebook.com/DinnerWithTheSmileys where you will find pictures of past dinners, hints about who’s next and favorite recipes from our meals.

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