Bangor resident and Bangor Daily News columnist Sarah Smiley became a lasagna expert last year. On nearly 50 occasions she and her sons cooked her signature dish for an array of eclectic guests in her eat-in kitchen, set in her cozy home on Bangor’s west side.
By the end of the year, she was a pro — though she says cooking lasagna for someone such as former Gov. John Baldacci, who comes from a long line of excellent Italian cooks, was nerve-wracking.
Smiley, whose nationally syndicated column runs Mondays in the BDN, didn’t have fancy formal dinners for her guests, however. They were just coming over to share the table with the family.
“It’s not about the lasagna … I don’t pretend to be a great cook, because I’m not,” Smiley said. “It’s about sitting down with people, face to face, and having a conversation.”
Her book documenting the experience, “Dinner With the Smileys,” came out this week and has garnered national media attention. Smiley will be featured on the cover of the Mother’s Day edition of Parade magazine and also will appear this month on Katie Couric’s “Katie” on ABC.
As readers of Smiley’s column already know, her husband, Dustin, is a helicopter pilot and flight instructor in the Navy and is deployed regularly, leaving her to take care of Ford, 12, Owen, 9, and Lindell, 6. Her column deals with the day-to-day realities of military spouses and military families, from the bouts of loneliness to the swells of pride, from the stresses of solo parenting to the joy of reunion when Dustin returns home.
When her husband left on a yearlong deployment in December 2011, the Smiley family spent a few weeks dining with an empty chair at the table. Dinnertime is sacred for the Smileys — no phones or video games — just the company of each other and conversation. That empty chair left a gaping hole, Smiley said.
“We didn’t want to replace Dustin, but we did want something to fill that hole,” she said. “[Dinner is] very much a ritual for us … I knew from his previous deployments that dinnertime is the hardest time. It’s the ordinary Sunday when you’re sitting down to dinner and you realize you’re missing a person.”
On a whim, her oldest son sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins inviting her to dinner. To the family’s surprise and delight, she said yes, and thus began the year of “Dinner With the Smileys.”
The Smileys invited everyone they could think of — from Ron Gastia, Bangor’s police chief at the time, to Lucas Richman, music director and conductor for the Bangor Symphony Orchestra; from teachers at the boys’ schools to then-candidate, now U.S. Sen. Angus King. There were professional athletes, including Major League Baseball player and former Bangor resident Matt Stairs, and a bluegrass band that performed in the dining room. A few times they had a moveable feast, dining at the Blaine House with Gov. Paul LePage and enjoying takeout at Briar Patch Books in downtown Bangor, inspired by the movie “Night at the Museum.”
“A lot of our guests, when they sat down, said they felt uncomfortable sitting in Dustin’s seat,” said Smiley. “I think sometimes when he’s gone I feel like we’re in a holding pattern, and that we’re just waiting, waiting for him to come home. This time, I said, ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to put my life on hold. We’re going to do Christmas and Sunday dinner and we’re going to have people here to share those things with us.”
This edible odyssey is told with Smiley’s trademark humor and down-to-earth attitude. She was frank about her emotions, never put on airs for guests and maintained a casual attitude, offering juice boxes for the kids and paper towel napkins for all.
She recounts fondly when U.S. Rep Mike Michaud played tic-tac-toe with the boys as they waited for their food at Geaghan’s Restaurant. A touching dinner with local elderly couple Frank and Anita, the latter of whom has Alzheimer’s disease, was poignant and powerful.
From each guest the Smiley family learned a different, valuable lesson. Topics ranged from community service, careers, music, television or sports. Love, family and friendship were always present.
Though most families might not invite guests over every week, reserving dinner as a time to talk, laugh and learn is a ritual that enriched and brightened her life, and the lives of others.
When Dustin returned from deployment last year, his sons had countless stories to tell.
“So many times people say, ‘Let’s have the kids do dinner and get them out of the way, and then the grownups can talk,’” said Smiley. “Through this my boys have learned how to make conversation with adults. They know how to answer questions and look people in the eye. And a lot of our guests are still a big part of our lives. It’s hard to remember who we didn’t know before the dinner, because now they’re friends.”
Sarah Smiley’s column runs each Monday in the Bangor Daily News. Her book is $22.99 and is available in stores nationwide, as an eBook, and on Amazon.com. She is holding a book signing 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at the Briar Patch, 27 Central St. in Bangor. For information, visit sarahsmiley.com. She appears on cover of the May 11 edition of Parade Magazine, and on Monday, May 27, she will appear on Katie Couric’s “Katie” show on ABC.