In 2012, my three sons and I hosted 52 weekly dinners to fill Dustin’s empty seat at the dinner table while he was on a yearlong deployment. In 2013, our story came out as the book Dinner with the Smileys (SITE: www.dinnerwiththesmileys.com). Last week, it was released in paperback.

While I traveled the northeast for a book tour, Dustin stayed home with the boys, and together they hosted their own Dinner with the Smileys, this time to fill my empty seat.

It was the first dinner without yours truly, and I felt like I was leaving an infant with the babysitter for the first time. How many times will I feel compelled to call home and check in? I wondered. Did I leave enough emergency contacts (like the pizza delivery man)? What if Dustin does it differently? And, most of all: Can Dinner with the Smileys survive without me?

I grew more concerned when it was dinnertime and I received this text from Ford: “Mom, I don’t think Dad understands how Dinner with the Smileys works.”

When Dustin was deployed and we filled his seat, we were all about keeping things casual. I gave Senator Susan Collins a paper towel to put in her lap for a napkin. Dustin, who is welltrained in protocol through the military, would not have approved if he were there.

Was he changing Dinner with the Smileys now that he was at the helm? Would my “baby” be different when I got home?

I did lose some sleep over this.

What follows is Dustin’s account of the dinner, and then my reaction.

Having watched “Dinner with the Smileys” from the outside, I thought I understood how Sarah and the boys did it. Still, I wasn’t crazy enough to volunteer myself as host. So Sarah did it for me, but the boys and I got to pick the guests: Chris Kilgour, CEO of C&L Aviation Group, and Brad Rand, our family dentist.

As Sarah prepared for her week on the road, my situation became more real.

“Don’t worry Dad, it’s not a big deal. We don’t even clean up the house,” Ford said.

The idea of leaving the house in its after-school state felt strange to me. Even more pressing, however, was the issue of food. I staked my confidence in our crockpot and the internet and decided to give chicken parmesan a try. After recovering from a brief smoke alarm scare and some panicstricken moments that could have been avoided by reading the directions FIRST, I felt my preparations were coming together. The boys wore their play clothes, because that’s what Sarah said they could do, but I changed into a button-up shirt.

Sarah had assured me that if I just relaxed and focused on being in the moment, everything would fall into place. She said the guests were coming for the conversation, not the food.

Turns out, she was right.

Right away, the boys noticed Chris’s Australian accent and everyone started asking questions:

“Are there polar bears there?” Lindell asked. “Does it stay light all night?”

No, that was Alaska Lindell was thinking of.

“Do the toilets really flush in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere?”

Chris nodded. Then he said light switches are ‘on the back of the wall,” too. I thought he was joking. Switches on the back of the wall? But that’s just the way Australians describe flipping switches down, instead of up, to turn on the lights.

Brad shared facts about teeth, from the very technical

(they are made primarily of hydroxylapatite) to the more practical (in at least one known case between teeth and an airplane, the airplane wins). Even though teeth seem hard, they are made of about 15-percent water.

Brad and Chris, both Mormons, also told us about their church. Brad said kids used to tease him for being Mormon, but eventually he realized his convictions meant more to him than anything those kids could say. When Brad was 20, he did a two-year mission in Belgium.

Chris told the boys that his oldest son is on a mission right now in Las Vegas. While on mission, the Mormon men cannot watch television or date. They have a very rigid schedule and standards… somewhat similar to the military. I wonder if they also would have felt strange hosting a dinner when the house was still a mess?

Overall, it was a great experience, and I feel like I know Chris and Brad in a different way, a way that wouldn’t have been possible except through dinner. – Dustin

Um, I didn’t know about the fire alarm until just now. But besides that, it sounds like Dinner with the Smileys did exactly what it was supposed to do, and what I always suspected it would, even in my absence: It brought people together through the great equalizer of the table and a shared meal.

You can see pictures of the dinner at www.Facebook.com/DinnerWithTheSmileys


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