I never had a master plan when we began Dinner with the Smileys in November 2011. In fact, the "project" didn't even have a name. Because it wasn't really a project. One night at dinner, the boys said it would be sad to see their father's empty seat at the table, and I reflexively said, "Then let's fill it!"
I didn't know it would become a "thing." I just knew that instead of counting down the days of this deployment, I wanted to fill up the time with interesting and meaningful memories for the boys.
I wrote about our first dinner, with Sen. Susan Collins, and I was shocked at the response. Yes, she's a U.S. Senator and all that, but what readers really loved was the simple idea of our family sitting at the dinner table with her. People were hungry (pardon the pun) for this return to the family dinner table. What seemed boring to me (inviting people to dinner) was hugely interesting to the public.
So the idea evolved and grew, and it took on a life of its own, mostly at the direction of you, the reader. Often I wondered, "How will I keep this interesting? I mean, it's just dinner." But readers didn't care. The normalcy of it all was the greatest appeal.
That, however, is only half the story.
For 32 weeks, we've been on a journey together. I've shared hints, photographs and anecdotes on Facebook and in my column. I've received your ideas for guests, and many times, those suggestions have taken us in new directions. I've shared snippets of what our guests have taught us, and I've stayed stubbornly mum about which is our favorite dinner.
These were the public journeys.
But there have been other, more private journeys. Like, for instance, how my oldest son has gone from bitter and angry about his dad being gone, to helpful, considerate and mature. In the early months, he refused to attend a certain dinner and formed an alliance with his younger brother. It was going to be just two Smileys (me and Lindell) at the table that night. I thought I had lost Ford forever to the pre-teen years.
There also has been Dustin's side of the story: how he feels about the dinners and what he misses most. There have been countless insights into motherhood and raising young boys alone. There have been painfully lonely times and happy moments as well.
Our guests, as different as they all have been, share one connection: they have changed us in ways that are only recognizable in hindsight. As the months pass, the boys glean and share unexpected things from past dinners. It's hard to predict what the boys will treasure. One guest, for instance, is forever known as "the one who ripped his pants jumping across two buildings." And former Maine Governor John Baldacci, after inspiring Lindell to be governor one day and then witnessing Lindell's horrible faux pas at dinner, made a lasting impact with his top-secret advice: "Remember not to do that when you are governor," he said.
These moments, and Baldacci's advice, have been unintentionally left out of the picture. You've seen the funny photograph of our dog Sparky sniffing the camera and the poignant ones of Lindell hugging Congressman Michaud, but the stories behind these moments cannot be contained in an 800-word column. It doesn't do them justice. Taken out of context -- out of the larger narrative -- these stories are just that: stories.
I haven't been able to share with you how fascinating it is to see high-profile politicians and people humbled by their participation in an ordinary family meal. I haven't been able to tell you why I cried all the way to basketball practice the day after a Dinner with the Smileys. I haven't been able to tell you about the dinner that never was, and what it taught the boys. All of these stories would be lost and disjointed outside of the larger story, which is really a story about family and community and what can happen when you put people around the family dinner table.
So I am thrilled to tell you that I've signed a deal with Hyperion to publish a book about our year of dinners. It is due to be released in time for Father's Day 2013. I hope that Dinner with the Smileys, the book, will inspire and encourage other families to invite someone unexpected to dinner. I also hope it will bring comfort and knowing nods from anyone who has ever raised children, lived alone, or wondered, "How do I matter to this community?"
It's been a fascinating year -- full of surprises, insights, disappointments -- for my family. I can't wait to put all of it into context, to tell the entire story, and to share with you 52 weeks of Dinner with the Smileys.