June 18, 2018
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Answering Michelle Obama’s call to help

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

Last week I told you about my plan for 2012: to host 52 separate dinner guests, one for each week that my husband, Dustin, is deployed overseas.

For us, this project is intended to be more of a distraction than it is a measurement of time. And we know that Dustin’s seat at the dinner table cannot be truly filled until he returns for the 53rd dinner. But in a broader sense, our “Dinner with the Smileys” project is about something else, too.

According to Joining Forces — a campaign for military families headed by First Lady Michelle Obama and the vice president’s wife, Dr. Biden — military service members account for just 1 percent of the American population. They are the real “1 percent.” And although the other 99 percent wants to help or show their appreciation, often they don’t know where to begin.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when Americans got behind the military and their families by taking up jobs in factories left vacant by deployed troops. Soldiers were welcomed home with parades. And anyone could send any soldier a care package without red tape.

Things aren’t so simple today. Still, I honestly believe that most Americans would “share the burden,” if you will, if they only knew how.

Coincidentally, most military families — busy with careers and lives that don’t stand still while their loved one is deployed — just want not to be forgotten.

This is what Dinner with the Smileys is about.

As someone who has dealt with military deployments my entire life (I was born while my dad was deployed and didn’t meet him until I was 7 months old), I can tell you that the worst, loneliest time is dinnertime. And especially, dinnertime on weekends and holidays. These are the times when families are supposed to be together, when neighbors, with families intact, retreat to their living rooms. These are the times when it’s easy to forget that thousands of military families are separated.

In 2012, my boys and I will share that time with 52 guests.

At Serve.gov there is this statement: “It is vital that American communities better understand what our troops and their families are facing — and use that knowledge to simply, positively and productively help those families address the challenges that service to our country has imposed upon them.”

At the Joining Forces website, First Lady Michelle Obama writes that, “Joining Forces will ask all Americans to take action, because each of us has a role to play in reconnecting with military families in our communities.”

Indeed, in numerous speeches, Michelle Obama has offered simple but effective ways to show support to military families: help with carpools, baby-sit or make dinner.

I’m taking all of this one step further. Or rather, I’m turning it inside out.

Don’t make me dinner; come instead and sit in my husband’s chair to share in the experience of a family meal when he is deployed. Talk to him through Skype with us. And after dinner, write a note for us to include in his monthly care package. Don’t just do for us; share with us.

As planning for “Dinner with the Smileys” continues, our guest list grows longer and more ambitious (Yes, Mrs. Obama will receive her invitation soon). Recently, when I said that I’d like to send an invitation to Martha Stewart, I thought my mom — a former Navy wife herself — would faint.

She looked around at my living room littered with toys and wondered out loud if that was a good idea. “What would you even cook for someone like that?” she said. And then, “I don’t know about this, Sarah.”

But it’s not about impressing Martha Stewart. It’s not about showing off my (nonexistent) cooking skills. And it certainly is not about highlighting my children’s table manners (crossing fingers that no one slurps their spaghetti).

This is about giving influential people in our community an accurate picture of what it’s like to be a military family when a service member is deployed.

My house is 1,500 square-feet. I don’t have a maid. I have two Pyrex baking dishes and an assortment of drinking glasses with various squadron emblems engraved on them. Some of my dinner plates are chipped. So a friend asked, “Are you getting nervous about the first guest? What are you doing to prepare? Do you need recipes?”

I smiled and politely declined. My husband is deployed. I have three young kids. I’m in the last phase of getting my graduate degree. I don’t have time to impress anyone. I’m sure our guests will understand.

Note: When I read this column aloud to my first editors — Ford, 11, and Owen, 9 — they simultaneously wrinkled their noses. Owen said, “Where’s the funny? When are you going to bring the funny back?” Ford wanted to know if my next 52 columns will “always be all about these dinners.” He said, “I think you’ll lose a lot of readers.”

Ford is very wise.

But fear not. Some guests have already asked not to be included in a column, and often I will combine multiple dinners into one column. Which leaves plenty of room to one day tell you what Lindell did at church Christmas Eve. But first, there’s next week and our first guest: Senator Susan Collins.

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. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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