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Would You Try to Fill Your Servicemember’s Chair?

Dinnertime: It’s a time to gather around a table to share stories about daily happenings. It’s a time to relax with good company and no distractions after a busy day. It’s a time designated for family.

But for those families waiting on the homefront during a deployment, dinnertime turns into something else. It often becomes the loneliest time of the day.

That’s exactly why Navy wife Sarah Smiley started Dinner with the Smileys. Anticipating her husband’s yearlong deployment and a year’s worth of lonely dinners, Sarah came up with a plan. Once a week for 52 weeks, Sarah and her three sons eased their loneliness by inviting guests to fill that empty seat at the dinner table.

Dinner-with-the-Smileys-booIn her new book, “Dinner with the Smileys: One Military Family, One Year of Heroes, and Lessons for a Lifetime,” Sarah gives us an inside look at not only those 52 dinners and the lessons learned from each one, but also the brutal honesty about what goes on behind closed doors during a deployment.

“It’s the ordinary Sunday especially that you feel their absence so much,” Sarah told me when I chatted with her. “Everyone is busy with their own family. They’re not necessarily thinking of you. And you’re sitting around the dinner table with your kids and that’s when you really feel that your spouse is missing.”

By the time Sarah’s husband came home, the Smileys had shared a meal with nearly 250 people. From politicians to athletes to authors to the boys’ teachers, they all left a lasting impression. While Owen was feeding his curiosity about art with the graphic illustrator, Lindell was hamming it up with the comedian, and Ford was learning how to keep score of a baseball game with the baseball historian, the Smileys were learning larger lessons about life, love, compassion, loss and even the simple things like the art of going with the flow.

But the Smileys weren’t the only ones who walked away with newfound insight. Her guests were part of that learning process as well, especially those who had no affiliation with the military. In fact, it sometimes took some convincing on her part just to get them to sit in her husband’s chair because they were worried they couldn’t fill it.

“It was a very profound moment for them to realize ‘this man hasn’t been here with his family for a year, and I’m here with his family eating dinner and talking to his children. I’m doing things that he wished he could do.’ And I think that was a really important lesson for some of the civilians in our community.”

For the Smileys, the new guests that showed up every week helped a long deployment go by more quickly and made the loneliness a little more bearable. The year ended with life lessons, a new community of friends and, of course, the most important guest of all returning home to reclaim his chair.

I love this idea. I could see myself  hosting regular dinner guests as a way to fill that void during separations and to seek out role models for my children who are missing their dad. But for some families, the thought of someone else sitting in their servicemember’s chair while he or she is gone doesn’t work. As some of her guests expressed, how could someone else possibly fill that seat? That seat is saved until its rightful owner returns! Like my 9-year-old son said when I told him about the book, “I wouldn’t want anyone sitting in daddy’s seat. That’s his and nobody else’s.”

So what do you think of Sarah’s idea? Would you fill your deployed servicemember’s seat at the dinner table?

“Dinner with the Smileys: One Military Family, One Year of Heroes, and Lessons for a Lifetime,” hits the shelves May 7. Let us know what you think of it!

About Heather Sweeney

Heather Sweeney is a Navy wife, mother of two, military spouse blogger, canine caretaker and avid runner. She’s the blogger formerly known as Wife on the Roller Coaster and still checks in every now and then at her blog Riding the Roller Coaster.