May 24, 2018
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Finding ‘family’ for the holidays

By Sarah Smiley

A common thread among all military families, regardless of the individual branch of service, is the fact that they seldom live near their relatives. With our constant relocating, only the most nomadic parents and grandparents could keep up. Therefore, we don’t usually have built-in parent-baby sitters living down the street. No aunts and uncles on the bleachers at a soccer game. No extra set of hands to help with birthday parties.

For much of the military’s history, this was a phenomenon largely unique to the families of the armed forces. Indeed, sometimes we have felt that we have the “monopoly” on suffering when it comes to being moved around and away from family. As our lives grow more global, however, this has changed. Few families, military or not, are lucky enough to live in the same town — or even the same state — as their relatives. It seems that we are all living more distant lives from the people who share our family tree.

Of course, military couples endure more separations between husband and wife than do people in most other professions, which only compounds the problem. It’s one thing to be separated from Mom and Dad, quite another to have your children’s father in another time zone for months at a time. Yet, in either case, the hardest time to be “alone” is on long weekends and holidays.

Since August, my Navy husband, Dustin, and I have been living apart while he finishes his tour as a flight instructor in Pensacola, Fla., and I am getting the kids settled at our new duty station here in Bangor. Granted, three months apart is nowhere near as difficult as the times Dustin was deployed overseas, but this “brief” separation brings back old memories of living as what we military wives sometimes call a “deployment widow”: when you are living like a single mother with a ring on her finger and no parents nearby to help.

Halloween was the first special occasion I encountered alone this time. While last year I had already decorated the front porch and carved three pumpkins by the second week of October, this year I didn’t feel in the mood. I was in a holding pattern waiting for my husband to get home in mid-November, and for us all to be a family again.

“Why don’t we have any Halloween decorations up?” Ford, 7, asked.

“Aren’t we going to carve pumpkins?” Owen, 5, wanted to know.

I avoided their constant pestering until Oct. 30. That’s when Ford said, “It just doesn’t feel much like Halloween.”

I’m not sure how Halloween is supposed to “feel” because I’ve never been a fan of the day, but in that moment, I knew I had dropped the ball for my family. Grandparents, husband, aunts and uncles or not, my kids want their lives to remain as normal as possible. They don’t want to stay in a holding pattern. So even though it was a school night, we piled into the car and drove around in search of pumpkins. Then we came home and carved them and danced to “The Monster Mash,” and the boys went to bed very, very late.

On Saturday, I started thinking about Thanksgiving. Even though Dustin will be home with us again by then, our families will not be able to come to Maine. Cooking a turkey, it seems, makes little sense.

The kids don’t even eat turkey. In fact, the kids don’t eat anything that isn’t pizza and chicken nuggets. But Thanksgiving is about family, and we are a family, even if our whole extended family can’t be with us. Besides, 32 years as a military dependent has taught me how to improvise (my mom and I once hung our stockings from a hat rack at the Ritz Carlton while my dad was deployed overseas). I know how to be creative, and I know that “family” isn’t always defined by who shares your DNA.

That’s why this Thanksgiving, the Smiley family won’t be alone. We will spend the day, the day set aside to celebrate America’s first settlers and their first plentiful harvest, with our new friends the Henrys — who are Canadian.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Smiley’s new book, “I’m Just Saying … ,” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at

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