In November 2011, Sarah Smiley's husband, Dustin, was preparing to leave his family for a 13-month military deployment. Before he left, his three sons, Ford, 10, Owen, 8, and Lindell, 4, said they would be sad to see their dad's empty chair at the dinner table. As he was making preparations to leave, Dustin encouraged his wife to invite folks over for dinner periodically.
Having made it through two of her husband's deployments in 2001 and 2003, Smiley knew that dinner could be a lonely time for the family, and her husband was probably right about inviting people over. Yet she found herself questioning how she would add one more thing to her already full plate (no pun intended).
The idea of having to make sure the house was spotless, the boys were well-behaved, then cooking something great seemed overwhelming.
After several months of persistence from her husband, Sarah decided she would float the idea past her boys of inviting people over to fill her husband's seat at the table. During one of their Skype sessions, Dustin asked the boys who they would invite to dinner if their mom did weekly dinners.
"My teacher!" said Lindell.
"Maybe the mayor," said Owen.
Ford said he thought about asking Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, since the Smileys live in the state and he was studying government in class.
Ford extended an invitation to Collins to join his family for dinner and to their surprise, she accepted, marking the launch of Dinner with the Smileys, a year of weekly dinners with interesting people that ultimately led Sarah, who is a syndicated columnist and author to write the newly released book, "Dinner With the Smileys: One Military Family, One Year of Heroes, and Lessons for a Lifetime."
The book chronicles their experiences; Sarah holds nothing back and doesn't attempt to sugarcoat the year without her husband. You will find yourself laughing out loud one minute and a tear running down your cheek the next as she lets you in on the very real and sometimes messy moments that deployment brings.
For example, shortly after Ford extended the invitation to the senator, he decided that was a big mistake.
People started asking questions and, instead of feeling like this was going to be fun, it felt formal and full of expectations. Sarah was not going to renege on the invitation, however, she did decide the dinners would be on the boy's terms. This meant casual, no expectations, no pressure, no dress up.
There was also the time the basement flooded with raw sewage. She endured arguments with her tween son, tears from missing her husband and the joy of watching her boys do things they probably would not have done under different circumstances.
Although there were moments when Sarah questioned what she had gotten herself and the boys into, in the end, she was thankful she had put forth the effort. The boys will never forget the friendships that were formed and the memories made.
The lessons learned through this experience are too numerous to mention, but too rich not to share -- thus the book is a must-read.
Here's to all the moms out there who make it work, no matter the circumstances.
Happy Mother's Day!
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.