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Dinner with the Smileys
One Military Family, One Year of Heroes, and Lessons for a Lifetime
By Sarah Smiley
HyperionCopyright © 2013 Sarah Smiley
All rights reserved.
An Old Farm Table
I don't like to cook, and I hate small talk. When I host a dinner party, there is a moment right before the guests show up when I wish I could disappear to the basement. The first few minutes of a party—with one or two early guests and awkward conversation—are the worst. I smile and struggle to talk about the weather, but inside I'm thinking, Why did I think this was a good idea? My natural tendency is to want to be alone. I constantly resist the urge, and I've trained myself to be sociable. It doesn't always work: I forget to offer our guests drinks. I leave too many silent pauses. And I eat too many appetizers.
So why did I volunteer to host fifty-two weekly dinners in a year? The answer lies in a warm spring day in 2011.
The snow was gone, and the muck of mud season had retreated into the soil. I was in the kitchen boiling noodles for dinner. Steam rose from the pot and left a wet trail across the stainless steel hood. Our old, yellowed wood floors creaked beneath my feet as I moved from the refrigerator to the stove. Despite the cooler (high fifties) weather, all the windows in the house were open. In Maine, in the spring, fifty degrees is warm. The new seasonal air moved through the house, carrying with it the smell of neighbors' barbecues, burning charcoal, and the dusty wire of the window screens. Through the front windows, I heard echoes of neighborhood children laughing up and down the sidewalk. They had each grown at least two inches since I last saw them at the sledding hill on Thirteenth Street back in November.
Through the back patio door, just outside the kitchen, my husband, Dustin, and our three boys, ages eleven, nine, and four, were quiet. The only sound was the rhythmic thump of a baseball going from glove to glove. This wasn't completely unusual. Dustin and Ford are often quiet when they play ball. They don't need to talk; they just throw and catch. And Owen doesn't talk when he thinks his older brother might. He'll stop midsentence if Ford interrupts. But Lindell, the youngest, is seldom quiet. The absence of his laugh, which is always one slight annoyance away from being a mad scream, made the new spring day seem as empty and cold as January.
Without looking, I knew Owen was not playing catch. He would be off to the side, kicking a soccer ball. Lindell would be crouched in the garden, with his knees bent against his ears, and poking sticks at earthworms and spiders. Owen would never interfere with Ford's time with their dad, and so far Lindell has little interest in baseball. Dustin never intended it to be this way. He invites Owen to play catch, and he sets up the tee for Lindell. But Lindell would rather play in the dirt, or chase birds, or bark at the neighbor's dog, and Owen will only play catch until Ford picks up his glove. It's as if he opens the show for his brother to warm up the crowd. Perhaps this is because Owen, like me, has also seen the way Ford and Dustin communicate across a baseball field, using only subtle nods and silent thumbs-up. Or maybe he is just the middle child.
The noodles on the stove bubbled to the surface of the water. I turned down the flame, and a breeze blew out the pilot light. The stove made a clicking sound until I turned it off. Gradually, the noodles settled to the bottom of the pot. I went to the door to call Dustin and the boys in for dinner.
Just before I slid open the screen, and against the background music of robins chirping from trees budding new leaves, I heard this:
"So will you be able to call us, Dad?"
"No, not on a telephone. But we should be able to talk through the computer. Depends on the connection."
The baseball thumped into a glove.
"Will we ever see you again?" Lindell said.
"After I do my job, which is going to feel like a long time."
A squirrel ran across the pickets of our chipped and peeling white fence. A neighbor in the distance started his lawn mower.
"How long is thirteen months?" Lindell asked.
Ford sighed as he drew back his arm and threw the ball to Dustin. "It's thirteen months, Lindell."
More silence. More sounds of the ball hitting the thick leather of a glove.
And then Owen said, "Will you be here when I try out for Little League next spring, Dad?"
"No, I'm going to miss that, Owen."
"Will you be here when I go to kindergarten?" Lindell asked.
"No, I'll miss that, too."
Ford, speaking in his deeper, authoritative voice—the voice of a firstborn son—said, "I'll help get you ready, buddy."
Ford was a baby the first time Dustin deployed. The second time, in 2002, Ford was two years old and Owen was six weeks old. Back then, the boys never understood—not in a concrete way—that their dad was missing. Back then, my young children primarily needed their mom—for nursing and kisses on scraped knees. Back then, there wasn't Little League or kindergarten or junior high school. There wasn't looming adolescence.
Owen saw me standing in the doorway and came to the screen. "When's dinner, Mom?" His shoulders looked like the edges of a coat hanger beneath his shirt. His legs had grown an inch or more in length over the winter, but they were still thin.
"It will be ready in just a minute," I said, turning to go back to the kitchen.
"But, Mom, we've been waiting for like an hour!" Owen slid open the screen door and followed behind me.
Owen survives on a diet of peanut butter and bread. Yet, he's always anxious for dinnertime. One day, after he had been pestering me for several minutes, I turned around and said, "Why do you care when dinner will be ready? You're not going to eat it anyway!"
Owen had looked up at me through his long, straight hair hanging too far past his eyebrows and said, "I just want to sit together at the table."
At a different time, I told Lindell that we were eating leftovers for dinner but that he could have cold cereal or a grilled cheese instead.
Lindell said, "I like the nights when we all sit down and eat the same food, Mom."
Apparently dinnertime is about more than just eating.
I went past Owen with a bowl of spaghetti sauce. Steam followed in a trail behind me.
I set the bowl on the table and said, "You can call your brothers and Dad in now." Soon, feet pounded on the wood deck. Ford threw his ball and glove on the ground. Dustin told him to put it where it belongs: "What if it rains tonight, Ford? You can't leave your glove out in the rain."
Lindell came into the kitchen and grabbed my legs. "What's for dinner, Momma?" His hands were covered in powdery, gray dirt.
"Everyone needs to go wash their hands," I called out over his head. "But hurry. The spaghetti will get cold."
Dustin took Lindell's hand and led him to the hall bathroom, where Ford and Owen already had the water running and were eagerly scrubbing their hands in between yelling about giving each other more room. I knew that dribbles of dirty water would be slung across the pedestal sink and the floor by the time all four of them had finished.
I took my place at the table and waited.
One by one, the boys and Dustin came to their seats, hands still dripping with water. Ford had a large, round wet spot on the front of his shirt, and he was dragging his left hand across his chest.
Our dinner table is a five-foot-long wooden farm table passed down from my parents. From the time I was a baby until I left to marry Dustin, I ate at the same table with my two older brothers, my mom, and my dad. We each had our own place. Dad sat at the head of the table, and I was on his left. Mom was across from me and next to my brother Van. My brother Will was beside me. No matter how many people we had to dinner—whether it was just us, or my grandparents, too, or a whole other family of five—Mom always squeezed everyone in at the table. There was no balancing plastic plates in your lap in Mom's house. The dinner table was the center of our house. I sat there to do puzzles or homework, Paint by Number, play Monopoly, or bake brownies in my Easy-Bake Oven. The wood was soft, and nothing got past it without leaving a mark. Where I sat, the top was marred with indents from my spelling words, letters to my friends, and the leftover swirls from the Spirograph I got one Christmas. When sunlight came through the bay window of the kitchen, every dent and every shadow of a math problem was highlighted in the grain.
When Dustin and I moved to Maine, my parents gave us the family dinner table. Dad spent hours sanding it down, erasing all the marks and words, and then he stained and varnished it. In the kitchen of our white, weathered cape, it looked like a brand-new table. Nearly forty years of raising a family had vanished from its top. Of course, my boys wasted no time putting new marks in the wood. When Lindell was still a baby, he liked to bang his fork, tine-side down, against the table. His place looks like it has chicken pox. Ford's place (next to me) is tattooed with lists ("Favorite Star Wars Characters," "Best Book Characters," etc.) and pie charts ("How I Spend My Day" and "The Smiley Family's Favorite Movies"). Owen's place has the shadow of cartoon drawings and the beginning of a letter he wrote to a friend: Dear Caleb ...
In the beginning, I asked the boys to keep something under their paper. "You'll dent the wood if you don't," I told them. "And Pop just refinished this for us." But it was a losing battle. Letters and homework and drawings crept onto the wood, evidence of a table raising three new children.
Nothing was or is formal about our time spent at the dinner table. The kids reach across one another. Lindell leaves his seat and sits on the floor. Ford presses his knees against the edge of the table and rocks his seat backward. Spoons and forks clatter against chipped plates, and souvenir drinking glasses drip water into puddles that run toward the seams where the table's eaves fold down. Our napkins are folded paper towels.
Just as the five of us got settled around the table that night, a neighbor boy came to the front porch and asked to play. Ford said, "After dinner," and the boy left, our glass front door slamming closed behind him. The row of plates hanging on the wall beside our kitchen table vibrated on their springs. I dished out spaghetti and Dustin buttered Lindell's bread. Once everyone's plates and mouths were full, Dustin asked the usual question: "What did you learn at school today?"
Owen looked up at Ford, waiting for the answer.
Ford just shrugged. The tail of a noodle slipped between his lips.
"I don't go to school, Daddy," Lindell said, eager to be part of the conversation. He was holding a green plastic cup with both hands. His lips were ringed with red juice.
"But did you learn anything here with Mom today?" Dustin asked.
"Not really." Lindell set down his cup and picked at noodles with his fingers.
Dustin looked at Ford and Owen. "How about you guys?"
Owen looked up at Ford again.
"Dad, I don't learn anything at school," Ford said.
"Oh, you must have learned something."
Owen pushed pasta around his plate with a fork. He looked up again, first at Ford, and then at Dustin. Then he said, "Dad, when you go, where will you be?"
"I'll be on a base on the other side of the world," he said.
"Like in China?" Lindell asked.
"No, not China. Africa."
Lindell's dark brown eyes widened. He got on his knees and leaned toward Dustin's place at the table. "You mean like with lions and giraffes?"
Dustin laughed. "I might see some of those."
"What will you be doing there?" Ford asked. "Navy stuff?"
"Will you fly your helicopter?" Lindell asked.
"No, I won't be flying this time," Dustin said. "I'll be working with our navy and a lot of other navies from other countries, too."
There were a few minutes of quiet, except for forks and knives scraping plates.
Then Owen said, "It will be weird to not have you here at the table."
"But you've got Mom and Ford and Lindell, so I know you will be okay. And I'm going to miss you guys, too."
Dustin had made it sound better, but Owen was right: Dinnertime is usually the most difficult time for families separated by a military deployment. The service member's empty seat makes the absence that much more vivid. The rituals everyone has grown accustomed to—Dad asking, "How was school?" every night, for instance—are off balance. There are empty pauses—places where the service member might have spoken.
This loneliness is not military families' alone. It's shared by widows and widowers, divorcees, singles, and even people in unhappy marriages. Every night, thousands of people eat alone. I have always thought that if houses and apartments were like dollhouses, with one exterior wall removed, we'd see plenty of people eating alone, their faces highlighted by the blue-green glow of a television. I was one of those people during Dustin's first two deployments. That wouldn't be me again.
"We don't have to be lonely," I said, looking around at each of the boys. "We'll invite friends over for dinner. Shoot, we can invite someone every week if you want."
"Even our teachers?" Owen asked.
"I get to invite Mr. Bennett first!" Ford said. He was raising his hand, as if he were in school.
"I wanna invite my teacher, too," Lindell whined.
"You don't have a teacher," Owen said.
"But he will have one in the fall, when he goes to preschool," Dustin said.
Lindell was standing in his chair now, dancing with excitement. "Can we invite the president? Or the mayor?"
We all laughed. "I suppose," I said. "Why not?"
The neighbor boy appeared on the front porch again.
Ford hurried to eat the last of his pasta. "We'll be out in a minute," he yelled.
The room was quiet again as the older boys rushed to finish. Lindell was sitting in his chair again, but he wasn't eating. He was looking at Dustin.
"Daddy, will you die?" he said.
Dustin swallowed and cleared his throat. He took a sip of water and looked at me over the rim of his glass.
"It's not like in the movies," Ford said, rolling his eyes at Lindell.
"Well, sometimes—" Dustin began.
"Yeah, Dad will be fine," Owen said.
Dustin set the glass back down on the table and turned toward Lindell. "I'll do everything I can to come back home to you," he said.
Owen dropped his fork on the plate. "Done!" he said. "Can I please be excused?"
Ford, still chewing a mouthful of bread, got up from the table and said, "Let's go, Owen." He called over his shoulder, "See ya guys!"
Lindell slid out of his chair and went to the living room to finish a puzzle on the floor. The glass front door slammed closed behind Ford and Owen.
The kitchen was quiet again. I looked at Dustin. The muscles in his square jaw rippled under the skin as he chewed. He grinned at me and stared back.
"When you're gone," I said, "it will just be me sitting here finishing dinner by myself."
Dustin squeezed my hand beside my plate.
Dustin usually came home from work at 5:00 or 5:30—the perks of living in a small town and thousands of miles away from the heartbeat of the navy: Norfolk, Virginia. He was stationed at a Navy Operational Support Center (or, NOSC) in Bangor, Maine, where he was commander of navy reservists in the state. During the three-year tour, we had been lulled into pseudocivilian life. Sometimes I could almost believe we weren't military at all.
In the absence of a major military base, I shopped at civilian grocery stores, not the commissary. Living on base was not an option in Bangor. And there wasn't a spouse group like I had grown accustomed to in San Diego and Pensacola, Florida. Most of my local friends had no military background, so few of them knew what IA (Individual Augmentation) meant when I told them that Dustin was being sent on a yearlong one. It would be the first time Dustin deployed from a mostly civilian community, and secretly I worried about what that meant for me.
Would we have support? Would people understand? Would we be forgotten?
Now that it was spring, it was still light outside when Dustin pulled our blue Ford Freestyle into the cracked and crumpling driveway. I could hear the car door slam shut through the kitchen window screen. Then I'd hear Dustin call out hello to our neighbor Gloria, who was eighty-seven and living alone. Dustin would come through the front door, drop his bags on the porch, and then, after giving me a quick hello, grab a water from the refrigerator and say, "The boys out back? I think I'll go play some catch with them" (meaning with Ford).
Excerpted from Dinner with the Smileys by Sarah Smiley. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
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