It was the month of love, and despite Dustin’s absence, the boys and I weren’t short of it. From dinner with a favorite teacher to a night out with close military friends, “Dinner with the Smileys” had us feeling loved indeed this February.

Star Wars with the Mazzeis

It often goes unrecognized (or, at least, underrecognized) that an important aspect of military support is getting military kids together with other military kids. I know this because I was a military brat from the day I was born until I married Dustin 22 years later. I remember many squadron and Navy-related picnics, barbecues and Christmas parties, experiences that stand out mostly because I was with other military dependents, and no one said things such as, “So your dad is gone for, like, most of the year, or what?”

That’s why our first February dinner was so special. Our guests: longtime military acquaintances and close family friends, Lincoln and Morgan Mazzei and their children — Dustin and Lincoln worked together in Pensacola, Fla.

Our night started with the premiere of “Star Wars Episode I” in 3D because we haven’t watched Anakin whine enough in 2D at home. The kids were especially excited about Mrs. Mazzei’s participation in the night because they know she is an actress and all “theatery” (their word). On our way into the movie theater, Owen said, “I cannot wait to see Mrs. Mazzei dressed up as Padme.”

Morgan had actually gone the Princess Leia route, but she got bonus points for wearing a vest and Leia braids and telling the boys she had just come from Hoth.

Back home, it was the easiest dinner of all — the kind where your guests know where to look for a drinking glass, and they help themselves to drinks in the fridge. Lincoln, who was deployed last year, was an important presence for the boys: Military dads go away, then they come back. Things become normal again. And it’s like it never even happened.

Chief of police

Bangor’s chief of police was our eighth dinner guest. The gun in his holster proved to be an ever-present, if scary, fascination for the boys. Lindell, who guards his seat next to Dustin’s with everything from temper tantrums to flying juice boxes, for the first time in five years gave up his spot at the table because it would have placed him “too close to the gun.”

The boys had an endless supply of interesting questions for the chief (“When policemen are on patrol, do they follow a map?” “When will I learn all the laws so I don’t get arrested?”), which led to this dinner being the longest that all three boys stayed at the table engaged in conversation.

The chief entertained the boys with stories of the city’s history, lessons about right and wrong, working with police dogs and why our dog, who barked like crazy when the chief arrived, is the best kind of dog to have.

After dinner, the chief took us for a ride in his police car. The boys’ eyes grew big when they heard the police scanner and saw the rifle in the trunk. Their eyes grew even wider when their mother, in the front seat, asked, “So what do criminals do when they are handcuffed and have to, um, er, use the bathroom?”

Owen smiled with delight and said, “Mom totally just took this down the path of inappropriate.”

Ford’s teacher, Joe Bennett

He sang “God Bless America” at Fenway. He wears red shoes. He breaks out in song in the middle of class.

He is the kind of mentor everyone wishes they had — the kind who comes to local basketball games (even on his vacation) and announces kids’ names as they go to bat at Little League.

He is Ford’s fifth grade teacher, Joe Bennett.

For me, the best part of the dinner was the way photographer Andrea Hand’s pictures revealed a genuinely happy Ford. Now entering the preteen years, Ford rarely gives me glimpses of that boyish grin, the one that echoes a toothless baby I once knew, the one with a half-moon smile.

After dinner, teacher and student played guitar together and sang silly songs in the living room. (Mr. Bennett always has a guitar, and he writes his own songs about science, dinosaurs, animals and friendship.) Lindell danced around the sofa, and Owen yelled out guesses to the riddles and rhymes in the songs. Ford made requests for songs he remembers singing in class, like the one about vertebrae and the one about Columbus discovering America.

Teachers like Joe are true standouts, the ones students never forget. For a boy missing his dad, that is priceless. I’m glad Owen and Lindell got the chance to know Mr. Bennett, too.

Having teachers participate in “Dinner with the Smileys” has been such a wonderful experience, we have decided to invite one each month. Next month: Owen’s 3rd grade teacher.

As always, you can follow along, see pictures and get clues about upcoming guests by going to

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at