Sarah Smiley grew up the daughter of an admiral. The wife of Dustin, a U.S. Navy pilot who has just been deployed to Africa for 13 months, she is certainly used to military life and knows that being a single parent to her three young sons will not be easy. She is left alone with her boys, a dog, a household to run, a job and grad school responsibilities --- quite a heavy load for any young woman. And she never claims to be on time, efficient, or a great cook. But she has other outstanding qualities: energy, compassion, humor and warmth.
Sarah and the boys dislike seeing Dustin's chair empty at mealtime, a stark reminder that he is far, far away. Though no one can replace him, the Smileys decide to invite a variety of people, many of them total strangers, to their home for Sunday dinner. What starts out as perhaps a slightly vague idea morphs into a yearlong family project not without complications. This weekly dinner will help the boys count down the months until Dustin returns and introduce them to a variety of excellent role models, giving them social confidence and an informed perspective on how other people live. The Sunday dinners are informal, often serving turkey lasagna or pizza, with folded paper towels for napkins. The boys don't even have to dress up, which is a huge relief for them, and the guests bring dessert so there is always a sweet surprise to end each meal.
"Sarah Smiley writes in such a very intimate and frank style that the reader feels like a fly on the wall in the Smiley home. Her humor is quiet and wry, and at times she is painfully honest."
Sarah reminds the boys to be polite and respectful to their guests, which means good table manners and no bathroom humor. U.S. Senator Susan Collins is their first guest. She puts the Smileys at ease --- as much as a family can be at ease when they are entertaining a U.S. Senator, a VIP, and a total stranger. The boys quietly eat the dessert the Senator brings but have picked out all the walnuts from the brownies and left little piles of them along with crumbs on the table, much to Sarah's dismay.
The Smileys end up hosting a variety of folks in their home --- an Olympic gold medalist, the boys' teachers, a graphic artist, a police chief, an author, and former Maine Governor John Baldacci, whom five-year-old Lindell moons. Some of the meals occur at outdoor venues and include adventures like rock climbing, kayaking, and attending baseball games.
During this year of dinners with the Smileys, life at the Smiley household goes on --- busy, noisy and unpredictable --- as is typical for most families. Ford, the oldest boy, is suffering the growing pains of pre-adolescence and resents his father being so far away. Owen, the middle child and peacekeeper, misses having Dad there to help him learn the ropes of Little League. And Lindell follows his older brothers around, taking cues from them and trying to make sense of things by clowning around. Sarah certainly has her hands full as she is also juggling a job and completing her master's thesis. She misses Dustin, too, and at times is tearful and overwhelmed.
All the Smileys miss Dustin a great deal. But as his deployment progresses, they indeed learn how to cope, having made many new friends and gathered support along the way.
Sarah Smiley writes in such a very intimate and frank style that the reader feels like a fly on the wall in the Smiley home. Her humor is quiet and wry, and at times she is painfully honest. Any parent can easily relate to the daily events and dramas that Sarah describes so deftly. This memoir gives an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the many sacrifices that military families make on a daily basis. We close the book, glad to have "attended" dinner with the Smileys.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on May 17, 2013
Dinner with the Smileys: One Military Family, One Year of Heroes, and Lessons for a Lifetime