By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
Who was at your Thanksgiving dinner 17 years ago? Five years ago? How about even last year?
Sharon Wright knows.
All she has to do is look at the cherished old sheet she turned into a beloved family tradition 17 years ago.
She found the idea in one of those holiday-themed magazines you find at the checkout stand at the grocery store. She remembers thinking how neat it would be to do that.
Only the article called for a tablecloth and she knew she’d need something much, much larger: a sheet.
“Many years ago at Thanksgiving, I put a new sheet on the table for a tablecloth and had everyone sign with a permanent marker,” she said.
“We always have large Thanksgiving dinners, so the tablecloth has gotten a lot of use through the years.
“Today, 17 years later, the tablecloth follows us, not only on Thanksgiving, but important events in our families’ lives.”
There are signatures of family members now deceased, handprints of new babies, and names of old and new girlfriends and boyfriends, ex-wives and ex-husbands, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Even Al Capone and fellow cohorts in crime.
“These are signed by a nephew who never signed his real name,” she said with a laugh. “He started that when he was 17. He’s 35 now.”
Another nephew was more direct in his signature.
“He signed it ‘I’m da bomb. And I’m still da bomb.’ Now he’s grown with kids and is embarrassed by this, but he’s still ‘da bomb.’
“Kids have gotten hold of the marker and drawn pictures on it and scribbled on it. I think now, after all this time, people only show up for dinner just to sign that sheet, look for their name from years before, and to read what other people have written.
“That old sheet has become a family heirloom and a tradition in our family. I can’t imagine a Thanksgiving without it.
“I knew in particular the kids would like the idea. Time passes so quickly and the kids grow so fast. If I used it time after time, the kids would enjoy it. It was mostly for the kids when I started it.
“I know how quickly time passes, so this would be a good idea for the family.”
Thanksgiving dinner was usually a family affair until the kids got older and moved out. So now she does a pre-Thanksgiving dinner the week before.
As many as 50 people can vie for that last spoonful of dressing or potatoes.
“Whoever wants to come gets to sign the sheet,” she said.
You can follow the family’s romantic past by looking at the signatures of old boyfriends and girlfriends and even (now) ex-spouses.
And, of course, current objects of affection.
“There are a lot of memories. We can look at it and say, ‘There’s so-and-so. Remember when ...?’”
The sheet has been used at other Thanksgivings and special events, she said, like the wedding reception for a niece and her newlywed military husband.
Or the renewal of her and husband Garry’s wedding vows.
And at the homecoming of a nephew who had been adopted as an infant, found and brought back to his family at age 20.
This sheet, as precious as it is to Wright and her family, isn’t treated like a delicate, fragile piece of fluff.
It’s washed and stored in plastic in the kitchen cupboard with the dishes, and taken down at the next special event.
In a way, it’s like a family. It’s seen some kerfuffles, like the time one of the red markers bled a little or when kids got hold of it and used it as a canvas.
It’s held up over the years — resilient, sturdy and strong — ready to take anything thrown at it. And isn’t that like how families are?
There’s plenty of room for more signatures, she said.
It’s also graced by some very special signatures, those of her late father and brother, and of a sister-in-law who passed away just the week before Thanksgiving dinner. These are kind of sad but in reading the names, memories come alive and the family can share and remember their loved ones all over again.
There are signatures of friends who have drifted out of the family’s lives, which happens all too often.
“It’s just a sheet,” she says.
“It’s a dumb thing but it’s turned into something I really value, and the kids and the grandkids value.”
But it’s also the one thing she’d save if the house were on fire.
“I can’t replace it. Anything else, I can,” she said.
Email Debra Minor Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.