Grace: A tablecloth full of names and personality -
Published Monday, November 25, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 11:42 pm
Grace: A tablecloth full of names and personality

ATLANTIC, IOWA — The names were stashed away like old yearbooks and good china.

Then came time for the family reunion. And Dorleen Westering dug out the tablecloth, unfolded it and saw with new eyes what her mother had done.

The tablecloth is thin as a bedsheet. It is green as a chalkboard. It measures 8 feet by 4½ feet and is made of cotton.

But on this cloth are names, dozens of them. The names were signed in ballpoint pen and embroidered on with colorful thread.

Each signature is in its name bearer's hand, revealing some personality and age. You can rub your finger over the names of people who once gathered around Doreen's family table. You can feel the names of Dagmar Anderson, her Danish grandmother, and Brayden Haack, her cousin's step-grandson.

The only name missing is the tablecloth's creator, Dorleen's mother, Madalyn.

In Madalyn Anderson's quest for some permanence, she left herself out.

The tablecloth came to be in 1953.

Dorleen was 9 then and the oldest of four Anderson children. They were in their third home in their third Midwestern city, and Madalyn Anderson had just sewn a new tablecloth.

Madalyn sewed everything her children wore and everything their dolls wore. She would eventually sew Dorleen's wedding dress.

When she completed the latest creation, Madalyn handed her husband, Ben, a ballpoint pen and told him to write their name big, right there in the middle.

So Ben Anderson, whose job at meatpacking giant Armour and Co. was the reason for the constant moves, carefully wrote in loopy, perfect cursive: The Ben Andersons. Then Dorleen and her younger siblings — Neil, 6, Jeanine, 5, and Brent, 2 — placed their hands around the name and traced the outlines with the same pen.

Later, Madalyn fetched her embroidery tin and followed the ink lines with heavy, colorful embroidery thread.

This is how dozens of names appeared on that tablecloth. Over the years, in places from Chicago to Omaha, neighbors and friends, school chums and cousins, grandparents and bridge partners would sign it. Madalyn would get that embroidery tin and trace the ink, following the lines of her guests' tight cursive or illegible chicken scratch or the blocky, sometimes backwards, letters of a child.

In this way, Madalyn could stitch together an uprooted life.

When Armour said move, they went, pulling up stakes after five years in St. Joseph, Mo., five years in La Grange, Ill., nine years in Omaha and several more in Aurora, Ill.

The tablecloth was proof they had lived in those places, had created lives there and were part of this tight fabric of people.

Plus it captured moments in time — like Jeanine's birthday party when friends Cheryl and Peggy, with a backward P, signed their names.

And it captured personalities.

A guy named Jim Burke included his age, 57, but put quotation marks around it, leaving one to wonder if Jim Burke was really 57, or just wished he was.

A woman named Kathryn Eggenberger had signed for herself, son John and daughter Annie, calling the trio “the three eggs.” The tablecloth shows a picture of a smiling egg.

Bernice and Joe Morrissey, in case you didn't know this, were Irish. A shamrock is embroidered by their names. Tom Holster included the date he signed: 4-30-66.

The tablecloth tells what was: bearing the names of both Dorleen's grandparents

The tablecloth also tells what came to be. Flanking Dorleen's hand outline are those of sons Todd, then 2½, and Devin, then 1½.

“That was our babysitter,” Dorleen says, pointing to the name Jule McCarthy. “She was an old maid. She lived with her brother about two blocks from us in La Grange. I thought she was ancient!”

Jule McCarthy was probably 70, said Dorleen, who will turn 70 in a few weeks.

The tablecloth was used for casual get-togethers and taken out mostly to collect autographs. Dorleen's mother wouldn't have dreamed of setting her Thanksgiving or Christmas tables with it.

Those occasions called for the good china and the sterling silver and the good linen tablecloth.

This one was for fun. Sometime in the 1970s, Dorleen guesses, the tablecloth was put away. Her father Ben, of The Ben Andersons, died suddenly in 1972. Her mother Madalyn moved to Omaha and eventually remarried a man named Fred E. Pfaff. Fred E. Pfaff's name is stitched into the green cloth, too.

Fred died. Madalyn moved into assisted living and then, in 2002, she died. She was 89.

The tablecloth went to Dorleen, and it got put away.

In 2011, Dorleen's family was planning a big reunion in Colorado, where siblings Neil, Jeanine and Brent all live.

She remembered that old tablecloth and went to her linen closet.

She spread it out in her Atlantic home and pored over the names, over the memories.

It made her both happy and wistful, nostalgic about the many good times she'd had growing up, the many connections to people, many now gone or moved on.

That year new names were added, including three great-grandchildren of The Ben Andersons (there are now six). Dorleen pulled out her mother's embroidery kit to make those names permanent.

This year, the tablecloth will go to Virginia for Christmas with Dorleen and husband Dennis, whose name is stitched in purple thread into the thumb of Dorleen's 9-year-old hand.

This is the season, of course, when we think about tables and tablecloths and the people who mean the most to us.

We will dutifully record all of this and dutifully post it on Facebook and dutifully “like” other people's photos.

But what will we have to hang on a wall or pack into a buffet drawer? What treasures will we have kept from these always fleeting moments to create a history for the future?

We live in a time of impermanence, of pixels that turn into pixie dust. Click. Post. Poof, gone.

I drove to Atlantic on a quest for something real, something to hold in my hands, something I'd like to re-create for my family.

This would be easy enough to do with fabric pens. But I want to be able to feel the names, as The Ben Andersons have for generations.

“I don't know how to embroider,” I tell Dorleen.

She promises to teach me.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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