Ford, 11, wrote the first round of invitations for Dinner with the Smileys (you can read his invitation on my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/sarah.is.smiley), so he wanted to set the table for our first guest, Sen. Susan Collins. I told him to Google “proper place setting” because I was busy making sure I didn’t burn the lasagna, a recipe passed down from a fellow military wife.
Plates and silverware banged together as Ford moved between the kitchen and table. I knew he was on the right track when he asked if I’d be serving a salad and whether he should include “the small forks.”
Owen and Lindell were in the living room watching their favorite SpongeBob episode… in reverse. They laughed hysterically at the way Patrick appears to spew soda, instead of inhaling it, when the DVR is on rewind. This is when I began to worry about our night. I regretted not making a bigger deal about table manners.
Owen came into the kitchen with his fake pack of gum, the one that smacks your finger if you try to pull out a piece. “Can I show this to the Senator?” he asked. I took the opportunity to tell the boys there would be no gags, no whoopie cushions and no potty humor.
Ford still worked at setting the table. I grew nervous that he might never finish. “The Senator will be here soon,” I said. “Let’s make sure the table is ready.”
“You can’t rush a good place setting,” Ford said. “That’s what the website says, at least.”
The Senator arrived promptly at 6:00 with the head of her Bangor office, Carol Woodcock. Owen and Lindell were surprised the women didn’t pull up in a limo. It seemed that the enormity of what was about to happen had finally hit them. They looked nervous.
But when Collins came into the house, she brought with her the same warmth and excitement of a favorite aunt. She hugged each of the boys and immediately found a spot on the couch by Lindell. My boys relaxed, which theoretically is a good thing, but there is a fine line between “relaxed” and, “Want to pull a piece of gum out of this pack?”
I held my breath.
The Senator presented Lindell with a gift bag, which he eagerly disassembled. Inside was a stuffed bear dressed like a U.S. pilot. Just like Lindell’s daddy.
Next Collins handed Ford and Owen a box. Inside was an American flag. Owen read the enclosed letter aloud: “This is to certify that the accompanying flag was flown over the United States Capitol at the request of Senator Susan Collins. It was flown for the The Smiley Family of Bangor, Maine.”
It would be several more days before I realized that by “flown,” the boys thought the Senator had pulled the flag over the capitol in an airplane.
Then, as if all this wasn’t enough, the Senator had made brownies. (More about the brownies later.)
At dinner, Collins asked the boys about their dad and our military-family lifestyle. Previously, through emails, Dustin had asked the boys to prepare a list of questions for the Senator. But he was thinking with his military brain that follows rank and order. And even Ford had told him that this wasn’t some kind of school project.
Collins, however, seemed to intuitively know that dinner had more to do with her learning about a local military family than us interviewing a Senator.
But Ford did have one question for the Senator: What does Maine mean to you? Her answer: “To me, Maine means ‘home,’ particularly after a long, hard week in Washington. It’s the place where I was born, where my family and friends are, and where the natural beauty renews my energy.”
You might find this hard to believe, but, although my respect for the Senator and her position was ever present, our time together at the dinner table felt a lot like visiting family. I blushed only slightly when Lindell told our guests that his favorite part of Maine is “eating lots of sugar.” And when all three boys picked apart the Senator’s brownies, leaving three separate piles of nuts in front of them at the table, I knew Collins would not be offended. In fact, it gave her a good laugh.
After dinner, we had a chance to Skype with Dustin overseas. Collins marveled at the way this relatively new technology can keep military families connected through deployments. Lindell climbed on the Senator’s lap as he jockeyed for position in front of the computer to tell his dad about the flying teddy bear. Ford and Owen proudly showed Dustin the flag.
Before she left, Collins asked three times to help with the dishes. “I come from a family of six children,” she said. “I can do dishes.” But I knew I had to stop while I was ahead. Given more time, the kids surely would have brought out the trick gum or light sabers.
The next day, I packed the boys’ school lunches with a special treat: leftover brownies baked especially for them by a U.S. Senator. That afternoon, three lunch boxes returned home with three separate piles of nuts in them.
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 email@example.com.