Memorial Day Tribute: Dinner With The Smileys

Sun, May 26, 2013


This Memorial Day, hopefully we all take time to reflect on the sacrifices our military and their families have made for over 200 years.  Usually we focus on those of the soldiers, however this year I want to share a story about the challenges the families face back at home when a loved one is deployed.

smileys, navy, dinner, guest

Sarah Smiley with her three boys (from left), Owen, Ford, and Lindell, at their home in Maine. (Photo by Peter Frank Edwards)

My wife found this story in our local paper as part of a national weekly publication.  It was actually published on Mother’s Day weekend, but I felt it was appropriate for Memorial Day.  I challenge you to not only share this story, but to read it with dry eyes.  I failed on the dry eyes part!

When Sarah Smiley’s husband deployed overseas for a yearlong tour, an entire community stepped in to fill his empty seat at the table, keeping Sarah and her three young boys company over weekly servings of salad and lasagna. From the local police chief to a US Senator, this story will remind us that the American spirit of Faith, Hope and Charity still exists.
Jason Roberts


Even after 14 years as a navy wife, I still forget which part of Dustin’s leaving will be hardest. At first I think it’ll be our last hug at the airport, or when he kneels down to say goodbye to our boys, one at a time. Then I imagine it will be returning to our house, where I’ll find Dustin’s still-wet toothbrush on the bathroom sink and his running shoes strewn across the mudroom floor—reminders that he was just here, and now he’s not. H But the hardest part is actually sitting down to dinner without him. Breakfast and lunch aren’t so bad; the boys and I eat in shifts, with TV noise in the background, before we rush off to school and work. At dinnertime, though, when we gather around our wooden farm table, there are pauses he used to fill (“What did you learn at school today?”—his favorite question) and too much food in the pan. Dustin’s empty chair makes his absence that much more present.

Before my husband left for his latest deployment—a 13-month tour in Djibouti, Africa, starting in November 2011—our middle son, Owen, who was 8 at the time, said to his dad, “It will be weird not to have you at the table.”

I froze, surprised that Owen had put words to my exact feelings. “Then let’s fill Dad’s seat,” I said reflexively, not sure yet what I meant. “We’ll invite people over for dinner. Shoot, we can invite someone every week if you want.”

Dustin and the boys shot each other sideways glances. They know me too well: I’m not a cook. I hate small talk. Our “china” is a mismatched set of chipped plates, and our downstairs bathroom is never clean. Whenever I host a party, there’s a moment right before the guests arrive when I wish I could disappear into the basement.

But I couldn’t bear the idea of facing Dustin’s empty chair for an entire year. “Like, we can even invite our teachers?” Owen asked.

Let’s fill Dad’s seat … We’ll invite people over for dinner. Shoot, we can invite someone every week if you want.
“I get to invite Mr. Bennett first!” said 10-year-old Ford, his hand in the air. “Can we invite the president?” Lindell, our soon-to-be preschooler, shouted as he danced excitedly in his chair. “Or the mayor?”

Everyone laughed. “Why not?” I said.

Soon after Dustin deployed, we began brainstorming a wish list of invitees from our community in Bangor, Maine. The boys decided to take turns inviting a new guest each week. Ford was up first. Because he was learning about government in school, he chose one of Maine’s U.S. senators, Susan Collins, who has a home on the east side of town. In his letter, addressed to her office in Washington, D.C., he wrote: “We are wondering if you would like to come to dinner some time this year (which is stretching it quite a bit but my mom insisted that we be flexible).”

Read the rest of the story at

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