Elizabeth and I met while in line to get our books signed at a Molly Wizenberg reading. She is one of my only Twitter friends that I met in person before meeting online. We discovered that we are both passionate about food, writing, and friendship. In a world of missed connections, it was such a gift to meet her, and to get to keep her as a friend. I know you'll enjoy this lovely de(tale). It just might make you cry (as it did me).
Several years after my Oma’s death, my mom gave me one of her mother’s tablecloths. My authentic-as-you-could-get German grandmother had many of them, but I remembered this one well because it doubled as a guest book. Before friends arrived at Oma’s small home and sat in her cozy kitchen, she set the table with a white linen cloth patterned with cheerful flowers. Before guests left, she handed them a pen to sign and date an open space. Later that day or week, she carefully embroidered over the names to create a lasting account of her visitors that would survive the wash. Counting them now, there are easily more than a hundred of them.
The tablecloth was as much a testament to her gift of embroidery as it was to her hospitality and desire for friendship in building a new life: after her husband died, she packed up the house they shared in for 40 years and headed west, from Chicago to Boise, at age 72, to live near her children. That’s when the tablecloth began. When she felt lonely and sorry for herself, she told us, she baked some kuchen and knocked on a neighbor’s door. A handful of their names are stitched across the flowers - Lenore and Barney, from next door, and George and Martha, from across the street. There’s the signature of the young man, Richard, whom she invited for coffee after noticing that he sat alone at church. Next to that, the couple who joined us for Christmas dinner during their first year in Boise, having no family within 500 miles. My name is there, too, in my 4-year-old handwriting, as are those of my siblings and parents, my cousins, uncle and aunt. And here are the names of all the women with whom she played Sunday afternoon card games. Among dozens and dozens of others.
Looking at this tablecloth, I see so much effort in every inch. So many friendships, so many planned and impromptu invitations, so much embroidery. This tablecloth was a painstaking and visual presentation of connection, a display of extended family, and a poignant reminder that though she lived alone, Oma’s life was full.
I’d never really thought much about the effort until I tried to start one of these things for my own table – though because I couldn’t imagine filling a whole tablecloth, I opted for just a table runner. I christened it at a dinner party a few years ago and had each of the six guests sign it at the end of the evening. I took about a week to start embroidering any of it, and have yet to embroider the few names I’ve gotten since. Either way, it looks sparse. If anything, it looks like someone got bored and started doodling on the linen. And because the people I invite over are often the ones who have already signed it, I usually forget to take it out at all.
As the dates on the signatures venture into the late 1990s, I see the change in Oma’s embroidery as her eyesight became worse, and a number of signatures that were left unstitched. These memories turn bittersweet as I remember our last moments with her in her nursing home, in a room without a table to which she could invite her friends. There, we gathered around her.
When my mom mailed me the shoebox with the tablecloth folded neatly inside, my eyes welled up when I saw Oma’s needle and thread still pierced through the fabric of her ever-unfinished project, threaded with the red floss she began using to indicate with an “x” those of her friends who had since passed.
I left the coziness of her tiny kitchen long ago, but in so many ways I never left that table. My name, stitched alongside these hundreds of others, represents a small point in an intentionally woven network, with stories of joy and hardship connecting us. We need each other. We thrive in fellowship. When I think about reasons to gather friends together and excuses not to, I remind myself that one of the greatest convictions in life may not just be that we are loved, as Victor Hugo said, but that we’re not alone.
The table is set – or maybe it’s not. But the invitations are within me. These are the moments to be bolder. I take up my needle and stitch, knowing it takes time to build, knowing it is worth the effort, knowing I will never finish.
Raised in the high desert of Southern Idaho, Elizabeth Strauch is a higher-ed marketer and writer in Spokane, Wash., where she works for her alma mater, Whitworth University. As a freelancer, she’s worked on commemorative books for your coffee table and reviews of bands and bars for alt-weeklies. Her blog Harpsichordian has been her creative space to document recipe testing, travel experiences, craft projects and photography.