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Dinner with the Smileys
11/26/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon
The Smiley's Dinner Table

It's been almost a year since Sarah Smiley's husband was deployed to the Middle East. A Navy pilot, he'll be returning home to Bangor this month. But in his absence his family has undertaken a unique project to mark the time he's been away. Sarah and her three young sons have invited at least one guest a week to fill his empty seat at the dinner table. And they've learned a lot about breaking bread with strangers and made some lasting friendships along the way.

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Sarah Smiley in her kitchen preparing a "Dinner with the Smileys"

A syndicated newspaper columnist, Sarah Smiley said the idea came to her during a conversation with her husband just before he went away. It was to be his third deployment in their 13-year marriage. And Smiley said she got to thinking about how lonely dinnertime can be.

"That's when families who are together retreat into their homes and sit around the dinner table. And they have dinner but you are alone" Smiley said. "And I was worried about feeling isolated and everything and so it just sort of evolved. I said, You know, I'm going to make a commitment to invite people over and not be lonely while you're gone. And he said, Yeah, you and should invite lots of different people that the kids can get to know."

And over the past year that's exactly what 12-year-old Ford, 10-year-old Owen and five-year-old Lindell have done. They made a dinner guest wish list and started inviting people. Before long the project took on a life of its own in Sarah's newspaper column and on Facebook. "Dinner with the Smileys" has even turned into a book that will be published early next year.

"Whenever people ask me, What's your favorite dinner? I have no answer because every single one of 'em has been different for different reasons," she said.

For example, Senator-elect Angus King (I) spontaneously joined in a fake sword fight with the boys, pulling out a bagette from a bakery bag as they jumped over the bushes and attacked him on his way in the door. When Gov. John Baldacci (D) came for dinner he played catch with the boys in their backyard and later allowed their dog, Sparky, to sit on the couch in his lap, something that's a no-no in the Smiley household except when a former governor gives it the okay. Owen Smiley said one of his favorite dinners was at the Blaine House with Governor Paul LePage (R) and his wife, Ann. They had chicken parmesan for dinner, played hide and go seek and listened to a few of the governor's stories.

The Smiley boys at the table"Apparantly, he ran away from home so we talked about that. He was 11," Owen Smiley said. "A lot of people disliked us, though, for going there because alot of people don't like the governor politically. I don't know why."

Dinner, as you can hear, is not necessarily a quiet time in the Smiley household. The boys are engaging and curious and not always on their best behavior. Sarah Smiley said that's something Gov. Baldacci learned first-hand during his visit. There was an incident. She said Governor Baldacci took it well...but Smiley is saving the details for her book. Still, she said there's a lesson to be learned from all that comes with having kids and adult strangers interact around the dinner table.

"I think what it's shown and shown other people is that when you invite someone to come for dinner they're coming because they want to spend time with you, not because they want to see how clean your house is or how well-behaved your children are," she said. "You'll see that tonight."

Recently the Smileys sat down to their 51st dinner of the year with several of the boys' teachers and principal. Smiley made a taco ring, one of about five standard recipes she shares with her guests. They began the meal with a question: What does Maine mean to you?

Owen Smiley: "What Lindell thinks Maine is to him is, should I said it? It's sugar. Lindell Smiley: "Yeah, it's sugar, now, your turn." Kristi Dube: "Let's see. Maine means home, family, potatoes because I'm from Aroostook County."

The Smiley Taco RingAnd there have been some sad moments as well, their elderly neighbor unexpectedly died before they could arrange to have dinner with her. Instead, the boys decided to visit a nursing home, and dine with an elderly man with dementia and his wife.

"[The man] was talking to me about missing his wife but she was right there," Sarah Smiley said. "And I was talking about missing my husband who was not there, you know? So, he and I talked about the fact that there's lots of different forms of being lonely. She didn't even remember that they'd been married 60 years."

"The only thing she remembered is that he was her best friend," said Ford Smiley.

The Smileys said they've made a lot of friends during the past year from several Red Sox players, to police and firefighters and a city councilman who continues to come over for regular visits. Above all, they said, what they've gotten out of these meals is that it doesn't matter what you cook, it just matters that you connect. And they'll be doing that in a big way when Dustin Smiley returns home from his deployment to take his seat at the table on Saturday.

Photos by Susan Sharon.


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