Generations of This Family’s Holiday Gatherings Come to Life on a Cherished Tablecloth

Some make-do tablecloths become a cherished document of holiday dinners gone by.

Come the holidays, I feed a lot of people.

I have five sisters, they went out and got five husbands, the begetting began, those kiddos grew up and brought home new people, and soon we needed a valet to park the cars for a family dinner.

My grandmother’s table takes five leaves and seats 12 if I tuck a piano bench under each end, but that’s not the half of us, so I had folding legs screwed onto wooden doors and, voila! More tables.

Back in the day, four matching white brocade tablecloths were a budget strain, so I hit a discount store for polyester. Cheesy-looking, but I figured I’d use them once a year and they’d be nearly invisible under dishes and food. Instead, they are closely inspected annually, have turned into family heirlooms, and are my near-constant companions.

Inspired by Lord-knows-what, that first year of the Big Dinner I set permanent markers on the tables and told everyone to sign in, right on the tablecloth. It took some coaxing, but eventually they warmed to the task. I now possess four intricately inscribed tapestries covered with a history of signatures, sketches and complaints, looping scrawls colliding with labored printing and goofy cartoons.

There is time travel, right there in the ink stains. Baby handprints turn into middle-school drawings and mature into college signatures. An enormous scribble by my infant niece is next door to the name of her fiancé. My grandson is registered there before he was born, my daughter-in-law drawing an arrow toward where her pregnant stomach pushed against the table. My father, gone two years now, still shows up for dinner in his drawings of horses (a classic entertainment he drew for his daughters when we were children). My son’s girlfriends, the names changing annually and requiring the subterfuge of strategically placed butter dishes when the next girl appeared, linger in perpetuity.

Then, a catastrophe. As I set the big table with the blue-and-white china and the long table with the china painted with red roses and the extra table with the gold-edged plates, I noticed that markers are actually not so permanent. Names were fading. I decided to preserve them in needlework. But not having been raised in an 18th-century drawing room, first I had to teach myself to embroider.

My early efforts made bumpy tabletop terrain that toppled water glasses, but eventually I figured out how to put needle to thread. Corner by corner, all along the edges, winter to winter, I moved the stretching hoop and threaded the needle to trace what people had written for more than 20 years. Embroidering, I discovered little notes and sentiments that I had missed in the bustle. A circled wine stain with a written confession by the perpetrator. “Dateless again,” from my sister, years ago. The year I experimented serving squash bisque: “No soup for me!” The year my son was diagnosed with MS: “It was great in 2008 … sorta.” Strays with no family in town came to dinner one year and stayed with us in handwriting forever. I embroidered a lengthy quote from some person named Stacy, whom no one remembers inviting to anything.

Last year was the last year. I downsized and moved to smaller digs. The Big Dinner cannot fit in my small dining room. My daughter has the table, my son took the wine cabinet and my seven-year-old grandson asked for my dessert plates. His mother raised an eyebrow, but he got them.

The tablecloths are still with me, too gigantic for any table I now own. Most nights, I take one out to work on while I watch a movie or Skype with the kids.

For the first year in a long, long time, no new names will be added this holiday season. I might even finish one of these days. ◆

‘Writing on the Table’ appears in the December 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Pamela Hill Nettleton is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.