02:33 - Source: CNN
VIPs dine with kids while dad's deployed

Story highlights

Sarah Smiley is a writer and mom whose Navy husband is deployed for 13 months

Sarah suggested that her sons invite special guests to fill Dad's place at the dinner table

The Smileys have hosted a Maine senator, a police chief and a cancer survivor

CNN  — 

One day before the unofficial “Star Wars” holiday in May, an R2-D2 replica wheeled through the front door of the Smiley family home in Bangor, Maine, to the delight of the three young “Star Wars” fans in the house.

“May the fourth be with you!” exclaimed 5-year-old Lindell Smiley, decked out in full Luke Skywalker gear. In a house filled with excited shouts, it wasn’t apparent that a very important person was missing from the packed dinner table. But R2-D2 had a special surprise. The robot projected a video of deployed Navy pilot Dustin Smiley, father to Ford, Owen, and Lindell. His sons were shocked into momentary silence as they watched. In the video, Dustin Smiley told his family that he loved them and implored his boys to congratulate their mother on her graduation from a master’s program at the University of Maine.

Welcome to “Dinner with the Smileys.” Sarah Smiley is a Navy wife, syndicated columnist and author. She has already made it through two of her husband’s deployments, first in 2001 and again in 2003. His current 13-month stint overseas, which began in November, is his longest yet.

She used to mark his absence by the number of times that she had to take out the trash. “But that ends up not being a good way to count, because I take out the trash when he’s home, too,” she smiled.

Her sons Ford, Owen, and Lindell are now ages 11, 9, and 5, respectively, and she wanted to mark their dad’s absence with something special that would fill up their time while he was overseas.

Dinner can be a lonely time when he is away, she said. Before Dustin Smiley left, the children told their mom that they would be sad to see their dad’s empty chair at the dinner table. She told them that they could fill his seat with family and friends.

“It just kind of grew from there,” she said. So, now the Smileys each take a turn inviting a special guest to dinner every week for 52 weeks until dad returns. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, was the first official guest in January, and she talked to the deployed dad by video chat. It was 11-year-old son Ford’s idea to send the invitation to Collins. Now it’s off to the races: “My kids got it in their head that they could invite anybody they wanted, if a senator came,” Sarah Smiley said.

News of the Smileys’ project spread all the way to Washington through her column and her Facebook page. “The White House contacted us and said that they loved this project and they’d love to be a part of it,” she said. “So my son sent a letter to the president and the vice president and invited them to dinner.”

The standing rule is one special guest per dinner (the invited guest gets a “plus one”), but when it comes to the highest office in the land, the kids will make a few concessions. “My son said in the letter, ‘Usually we invite one guest and tell them they can bring a guest, but we’ll make an exception if you would like to bring your wives and your children,” Sarah Smiley said. Jill Biden even responded to the invitation with a thank you note.

Sarah Smiley won’t reveal the identities of future guests to the public, but she drops hints on their Facebook page. “As much as I want to tell people who’s coming next, I know it’s been a fun thing for people in the community to guess so I have to keep my mouth shut,” she said.

Sarah Smiley did indicate that they have some exciting guests who are “involved with professional sports” lined up this summer. “It’s just killing [Dustin] that he’s not here for those dinners,” she said. She plans to invite all of their guests back to a big celebration once he’s had a chance to settle back in after his return in December.

Often, the family has lower-profile but just as meaningful guests over. When 5-year-old Lindell’s turn came to pick whom to invite, he selected his preschool teacher. His teacher initially hesitated, unsure about living up to the star power of other visitors, but Sarah Smiley insisted that she would make a wonderful guest.

“To my son, having his preschool teacher was pretty much like having Elvis or the president. He thought that was just amazing,” she said.

They’ve also met with neighbors, the town’s police chief, members of the University of Maine hockey team and a cancer survivor. All of the visits are photographed by Andrea Hand and chronicled on the “Dinner with the Smileys” Facebook page.

Sarah Smiley is always asked how she can possibly arrange a dinner party every week. “I’m not a cook … I’m serving people lasagna, spaghetti. There are a couple of times that we’ve gone out to restaurants. So there’s nothing fancy at all and my house is never clean,” she said. “It’s truly real life, exactly as we would be eating dinner if we didn’t have someone there.”

She said that people worry too much about presenting a perfect home and miss out on important opportunities to share memories with friends and family.

“I’ve never apologized to our guests,” she said, but then backtracked. “We had our minister to dinner. The kids truly had a knock-down, drag-out wrestling match on the living room floor. I did apologize that night.”

The entire family feels her husband’s absence. “I think it’s hardest on my oldest son because he’s right at the preteen years,” said Sarah Smiley. “My middle son just got on the little league team. So there’s a lot of ways that for the older boys they really need their dad right now.”

She said that the boys’ emotions about their dad come out in different, and subtle, ways: “You look back in hindsight and you say, ‘That wasn’t like him, and I wonder if it’s because his dad is gone.’”

Sarah and Dustin Smiley met when their fathers flew together in the same Navy squadron. She was born while her father was deployed, so she said that she actually met her husband, while they were babies, before she met her father.

Despite all of the unique guests and experiences the Smileys have had, the guest that the family looks forward to most is the one they’ll have at their table on the 53rd week. That’s when Dustin Smiley comes home.