When Mom and Dad moved to Southern California in 1954, just before I was born, they did so partly because my maternal grandmother, Lila, lived in Los Angeles. In that year, homes were being built in the biggest housing tract undertaking of its time in a suburb oddly named “Lakewood.” (No woods, no lake—just cow pastures and the Santa Ana River.) With lots of open space and a reasonable distance from downtown L.A., it was a great place to raise kids. Mom and Dad bought a brand new three bedroom bungalow—probably about 1,000 square feet—and they settled into the neighborhood just before I was born.
Frequently on the weekends, Grandma would ride in on the train and Dad would pick her up. She and Mom would be in the kitchen for hours on a Sunday, cooking dinner and talking woman talk. For Christmas, the hours were extended. Mom and Grandma would sit at the kitchen table and make cookies and fudge and dates stuffed with walnuts and rolled in sugar. When the treats were ready, they’d be placed on our large dining room table—which was covered by Mom’s holiday table cloth.
When I was a child, there were certain items that were pulled from the rafters of the garage—or out of the back of the linen cabinet—every year in the run-up to Christmas Eve. We had our favorite ornaments and decorations, including the little copper angels that hung from a mobile and spun slowly with the heat from candle flames below. And of course, our nativity.
I never thought much about the table cloth… until a few years ago when I was going through some of Mom’s things, and there it was. The unfolded cloth lying in my hands became a screen upon which a thousand memories materialized… my dad—before we knew he was dying—bringing in the boxes of Christmas decorations from the garage, then putting up the tree… my sister and I making holiday scenes on our windows with glass wax. (My loves, you would have to be over 50 to know what that is!) And, more vivid than any of the others, Mom and Grandma working tirelessly for days to make food and treats and wrap gifts and (clandestinely) fill stockings so that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would be special. Oh, the memories that table cloth has seen…. I put it away carefully, and last Christmas, with friends coming over, I spread it out on my humble little table, fresh and clean from the dryer and still showing a gravy stain from fifty years ago.
This year, when I went to the basement to retrieve my Christmas decorations (packed carefully and stored in a closed cabinet), I discovered mice had gotten into the boxes. In years past, Sug (and Boo, when he was still with me) has taken care of the mouse problem quite efficiently. But the whole of Mt. Baldy was plagued by rodents this past summer, and my little Sugar Plum just could not keep all of them away.
Opening one of the boxes, I carefully extracted Mom’s table cloth—and immediately saw holes chewed through the cotton material. Oh no. Oh my god, no. Was it ruined? Would I have to discard it? The cream-colored fabric bordered in snowflakes and pine boughs represented a gossamer connection to some of the few sweet memories of my childhood. Why hadn’t I stored it in a more secure place?
Bereft, I carried the cloth still folded to the washer and dropped it in, setting the machine for a long wash on hot. Later, I tossed it in the dryer without looking at it. I wasn’t yet prepared emotionally to uncover the extent of the damage.
This morning, I finally had the courage to pull out the table cloth and examine it. Except for those few small holes I saw initially in one corner of the border, the piece is still in good shape. The table cloth will once again grace my holiday table… and, for the days it is displayed, remind me of those brief years when the fabric of my family was still intact.