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10 People You Should Invite to Dinner

dinnerWhen my Navy-pilot husband, Dustin, left for a yearlong deployment in 2011, I decided that for each week he was gone, I and our three sons — Ford, 11, Owen, 9, and Lindell, 4 — would fill his seat at the table.

The plan was for 52 different people to come into our home and help us have at least one less lonely meal. What happened was unexpected: Some of these people became mentors to my kids. When Dustin came home in December 2012, more than 70 past dinner guests were waiting with us at the airport to greet him.

Not only had we creatively filled our time during my husband’s absence, but we had also built a new community. The experience taught us to let others in. Here are 10 people from all walks of life your family should invite to the table.

Photography by Andrea Hand

To learn more about Sarah and her family’s story, check out her new book, Dinner with the Smileys, available wherever books are sold!

  • Let the Right Ones In 1 of 10
    let-the-right-ones-in

    10 people you should invite to dinner

  • A City Councilman 2 of 10
    Ben-Sprague

    Councilman Ben Sprague is a Harvard graduate, ambitious public servant, and former employee at Fenway Park. But I chose him as a dinner guest for another reason.

    "I've always been the geekiest, most awkward person in any setting," Ben said.

    With my oldest book- and history-loving son on the cusp of adolescence and all that that entails, I knew Ben could offer him hope for the future.

    Over hotdogs and soda at Fenway Park, Ben told Ford: "Sometimes people think it's not cool to be smart. So they think smart people are awkward. But it's not true. Don't believe it."

    From that day on, Ford and Ben embarked on a special friendship. Ford rode his bike to Ben's house to watch baseball and play board games. Ben convinced Ford to join the middle school youth group he was mentoring. "We'll be awkward together," Ben told him.

    Photography by Andrea Hand

  • An Elderly Neighbor 3 of 10
    Earle-Pierce

    During our meal with Earle, 94, his daughter, Jane, showed us a slideshow of pictures from his life. The boys watched with mouths open as the grainy black-and-white photographs of a much younger Earle sailing on a boat with his wife, who had died 13 years earlier, flickered on the screen. Earle shared stories about the history of our neighborhood, and my boys, usually restless and loud, sat patiently to listen.

    Seven months later, Earle passed away. It was the first funeral the boys had been to. They were nervous and scared, until they saw Earle peacefully lying at the altar with the same slideshow of his life playing in an adjoining room.

    Owen took my hand. "I'm glad we got to say goodbye, Mom," he said.

    Photography by Andrea Hand

  • An Athlete 4 of 10
    Ellie-Logan

    Earlier in the year, we invited a professional athlete who had to cancel last minute. This devastated the boys because not only were they looking forward to hearing all about the profession, they thought it was because the person didn't want to come. This led to a lot of talk about expectations, idols, and dealing with disappointments.

    Then, at the end of the year, we had the opportunity to invite Ellie Logan, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist in women's rowing. To my sports-loving boys, the Olympics represent the ultimate in physical achievement. Meanwhile I was glad that the first time they saw a gold medal up close, it happened to be around the neck of a female. With her tales of relentless training and finally crossing the finish line (twice!), Ellie taught the boys about persistence and dedication.

    Photography by Andrea Hand

  • A Volunteer 5 of 10
    Melissa-Huston

    Dinner with Good Shepherd Food Bank representative Melissa Huston did not begin well, and it was entirely my fault. Our pre-dinner tour of the food bank was scheduled right after school, and I was late picking up the boys. Also, I forgot after-school snacks and drinks, so the kids were tired and cranky. They moaned and complained in the backseat of our guest's minivan. I was so humiliated that I just wanted to sink into my chair.

    "You picked us up late. You didn't bring snacks. And now you want us to go into a warehouse full of food we can't eat," Ford yelled.

    I looked apologetically at Melissa. A mother of two grown children, she just smiled. "You know, this is actually a really great example of why food banks are necessary," she said. "It's hard to pay attention and learn when you're hungry. People get cranky — as we're witnessing now — and they misbehave."

    The older boys spent most of our dinner with Melissa in time out, but I used the memory and embarrassment to help them behave at future dinners: "Remember dinner at the food bank? Let's not go through that again."

    "Okay," Ford would say. "Then you help us by being on time and bringing snacks."

    We were all learning ways to cope together.

    Photography by Andrea Hand

  • A Police Officer 6 of 10
    Ron-Gastia

    Police cars and fire trucks: These are the things of little boys' dreams. So naturally, my sons were excited to invite the chief of police to dinner. They wanted to hear stories about catching the "bad guys." None of us realized how fresh those stories would be.

    Police Chief Ron Gastia was late to dinner and arrived in his uniform because he had just come from a bomb threat at the federal building downtown. He still had his gun in its holster on his belt. Lindell, 5, was not anticipating that, and as soon as Ron came into our living room, Lindell retreated behind the pillows on the couch. He kept a careful distance from Ron, making wide circles around the dinner table to eye the gun.

    Ron talked to the boys about gun safety, and he told us a story about chasing a thief through the woods. The boys listened carefully. After dinner, Ron took the boys for a ride in his cruiser. Afterward he said, "Now that's the last time I ever want to see any of you in the back of a police car."

    Photography by Andrea Hand

  • An Artist 7 of 10
    Scott-Nash

    While my husband was away, our middle son, Owen, developed an interest in cartoon drawings. I knew that Scott Nash, illustrator for the famous Flat Stanley book series, lived nearby in Maine, so we invited him to dinner and to see Owen's first art show at the mall. The goal was for Nash to be an example of someone who has made a living with their art.

    Nash arrived on a warm spring afternoon with a life-size Flat Stanley that he had drawn on cardboard the night before. He took the boys outside on our deck and let them use their imagination to paint Stanley.

    Several months later, when Owen was accepted into the school's gifted and talented program for art, the first person he wanted to share the news with was Scott Nash.

    Photography by Andrea Hand

  • A Teacher 8 of 10
    Mrs.-Kristin-Bragdon

    The second most important person in a child's life is his teacher. During the school year, Lindell spent more time with preschool teacher Mrs. Bragdon than he even did with me. So when she came to dinner, it was like the president himself was visiting. Lindell was so excited he could hardly sit still. He beamed up at Mrs. Bragdon when she talked and held her hand as he took her into his bedroom to see his fish.

    Interestingly enough, from Mrs. Bragdon we learned that Lindell — loud, funny, excitable Lindell who is not opposed to mooning people for a laugh — is exceptionally quiet and studious at school. I saw a different side of my son through his teacher's eyes, and Mrs. Bragdon left with a fuller, more complete picture of her student.

    Photography by Andrea Hand

  • A Member of Congress 9 of 10
    Rep.-Michaud

    It's always been important to me to honor Memorial Day. I'm bothered by mattress sales and parties that always seem to obscure the day's real meaning. So at the end of May, I wanted to find a guest who could help the boys better understand service and sacrifice. As it turned out, our congressman, Rep. Michael Michaud, was planning to deliver flags to veterans' graves at nearby Mt. Hope Cemetery right before the holiday weekend. He asked if we'd come along to help and then have an early dinner afterward.

    We were having so much fun with the congressman, we followed him the whole day: to an award ceremony at a nursing home and to his office. Lindell in particular bonded with him; he climbed in his lap and rode on his shoulders as if the politician was his grandfather.

    Photography by Andrea Hand

  • A Pilot … and a Senator 10 of 10
    Col.-Farnham

    I invited Col. Farnham and his wife, Nichi, because of their jobs. Col. Farnham flies KC-135s, a mid-air refueler, for the Air National Guard, and Nichi is a state senator. We planned to tour a KC-135 on base and then return to our house for dinner. It was a last-minute decision that Doug and Nichi would bring their three sons, ages 13, 18, and 22.

    When the Farnham boys got out of their parents' car and lined up on our front sidewalk, they stood like stair steps, shoulder-to-shoulder, directly across from my three boys, who were also standing youngest to oldest. It was like a mirror, or, perhaps more accurately, a glimpse at my future. Nichi looked small and delicate next to these grown-up boys with broad shoulders and big feet. I still towered over my young sons, one of whom can't even tie his shoes without my help.

    At this point in the year, I was struggling with Ford and his budding adolescence. Sometimes it seemed as if I had lost my baby boy for good. He was moody, opinionated, and resistant to my offers of help. But when I watched Nichi and her oldest son — the way she patted his shoulder and he didn't recoil, but rather smiled back at her — I knew that someday everything would be okay.

    Photography by Andrea Hand

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