published Sunday, August 12th, 2012

First Things First: Dinner guests pass time of dad's absence

Julie Baumgardner

In November 2011, Dustin Smiley was preparing to leave his family for a 13-month military deployment. Before he left, his three sons, Ford, Owen and Lindell, told their mom that they would be sad to see their dad's empty chair at the dinner table.

Having already made it through two of her husband's deployments in 2001 and 2003, Sarah Smiley, syndicated columnist and author, had an idea brewing to help her family get through her husband's absence. Knowing that dinnertime can be a tough time for the family, Mrs. Smiley decided that for the 52 weeks her husband would be away, she and the boys would fill her husband's seat at the dinner table with interesting people and unique role models for her sons.

The week before Christmas 2011, Dustin Smiley left for his yearlong deployment. One week later, Ford, their oldest son extended an invitation to Sen. Susan Collins to join his family for dinner.

"Hello, my name is Ford Smiley. I am 11 years old and in fifth grade. I have two younger brothers and, of course, my mom and dad. My dad is a U.S. Navy pilot, and he's on deployment for 13 months. He left the day before my 11th birthday and the week of Thanksgiving.

"My mom is letting us invite one person to dinner each week our dad is gone. We are wondering if you would like to come to dinner sometime this year (which is stretching it quite a bit, but my mom insisted that we be flexible)."

Collins accepted the invitation and was the Smiley's first dinner guest. She even brought homemade brownies.

Since Jan. 3, the Smileys have had an amazing lineup of guests, including: R2D2 (from "Star Wars"), Lindell's preschool teacher, the mayor of Bangor, the University of Maine's men's ice hockey team, former Maine Gov. John Baldacci and his wife, the chief of police, U.S. Marshal Noel Marsh, Franklin Park Zoo President John Lineham, the Maine Troop Greeters, K-Love's Scott and Kelli and many others.

Some weeks the boys have known who is joining them for dinner, and other weeks Mom has kept it a surprise. The week of July 16, the boys had no idea who was going to fill their Dad's seat at the dinner table. Imagine their surprise when the guest arrived, and it was their Dad home for a two-week respite.

An Aug. 2 post on their Facebook page (facebook.com/dinnerwiththeSmileys) states, "So it looks like one of our upcoming guests will have an Olympic gold medal with her." Can't wait to see who's coming for dinner.

Sarah Smiley insists that she is not a great cook, often serving spaghetti or lasagna, and that her house is never clean. The guests experience "real life" in the Smiley household.

What an amazing experience for this family. Having your dad and husband gone for 52 weeks is hard, but what a cool way to fill this difficult time. The Smileys have set a great example for turning a tough situation into something positive.

The special memories created at this family table will last forever.

Email Julie Baumgardner at julieb@firstthings.org.

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