I began this column more than 16 years ago, when Ford was just a baby and Owen was on the way. I was very young, and, when I read my first columns, also extraordinarily naive. But it was a simple column back then, sprung from my desire to detail life as a Navy wife. And because not many people were writing candidly at that time about life as a military spouse, it caught on quickly.
In less than two years, my column was syndicated across the country — including to Brunswick, Maine (thanks, James McCarthy!). Each week, I appeared in papers from Florida to Texas and Colorado to Washington, and each week, like clockwork, I sat at my cheap desk just outside Ford’s and Owen’s nursery and wrote 800 words about our lives.
Soon, my regular columns about military life were interspersed with ones about Ford starting preschool or Owen’s inability to talk until he was almost 3 years old. I let readers in, gave them a periscope into our lives, and I never really thought about how much people enjoyed following along until they started coming up to me in the grocery store, always after they heard the name “Ford.”
“Ford,” I’d snap, “quit hanging off the back of the shopping cart,” and some nice lady would peek her head around the cold cereal display and say, “Are you the Sarah Smiley who writes for the newspaper?”
This is when I wish I could say I quit going to the grocery store in sweatpants, but those of you who have seen me there would know that’s a lie.
In 2007, my readers helped me welcome a new son, Lindell, as I literally wrote a column from my hospital bed in Labor and Delivery.
We were in a rhythm in Florida, me writing in my then-new “fancy” home office and the kids learning to understand when “mom has a column idea in her head,” and I’d run to the computer.
Then, in 2008, at the same time that I was publishing my first collection of columns, I’m Just Saying …, the Navy sent us to Bangor, Maine, for our next duty station. Before the movers had unloaded our boxes, I asked Mark Woodward, then executive editor of the BDN, if he’d consider publishing my column in my new home city as well. My first column in the BDN (about Owen’s first week of kindergarten) appeared exactly 10 years ago.
Bangor was a smaller community than our previous locations, and readers got to know me and the boys much faster. We were on a first-name basis at the grocery store and the post office, local restaurants, doctor’s office, and, sometimes, at surprising places like the air show in Brunswick, Maine.
Readers followed along as Ford grew up, became a teenager and learned to drive. They worried when Owen didn’t appear in a column (his request after the frozen waffles incident) for nearly two years straight. They delighted in little Lindell’s relationship with our dog, Sparky, or his determination at making Little League. And they shook their heads in sympathy as I told them all the sad stories of Dustin’s coffee mug collection.
Everywhere the boys went, people asked, “Are you the boys I read about in the paper?” And each Monday, before I hit “send” on a column, I sat in the living room and read it aloud to the boys.
Our community embraced us during Dustin’s yearlong deployment in 2012, which, of course, led to the book, “Dinner with the Smileys,” and our community surprised us all again with the most amazing turnout for the release of my second book that is a collection of columns: Got Here As Soon As I Could.
But for all the years that I have candidly shared my family with you, my print life and my real life have become more and more incongruous recently as the boys mature. Ford will turn 18 soon. Owen is almost 16. Lindell will soon be a teenager. Their stories are no longer mine to tell. Some (not the boys, mind you) might say their stories never were mine to tell. Still, I am grateful for the almost two decades that they let me chronicle our lives in a format that they can save, cherish and share with their own children someday.
As my role as “mother of young boys” slowly comes to an end, I find myself less excited about what adventure I’ll write about next and more excited about what my boys will do with their lives. Which means it is the natural time for this forum to come to an end, after nearly 900 columns and 720,000 words.
Of course, my desire to “tell the story” and to make a difference with words has not gone away. It’s just changed. I’ll be looking for new writing challenges and ways to communicate.
But I will miss you, my beloved readers who have watched this all unfold, and have given me words of wisdom and, yes, criticism along the way. I have learned much from you, and I hope you will continue to follow us on Facebook and Instagram as I document our lives in new ways.
Thank you for reading. And, please, say hi in the grocery store.
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