If, God forbid, we had a house fire, I would try to save the tablecloth.
In 1951, someone, probably my maternal grandmother, decided to create a family heirloom. She was a needlewoman, my grandmother; my mother occasionally observed that Jenny managed to be embroidering while everybody else worked around her which was reasonably fair. Anyway, Jenny embroidered ‘Merry Xmas 1951’ in the middle of a tablecloth and then, I imagine – it was six years before I was born – all present signed their name on it, and Jenny, at her leisure – for another year would pass before anyone saw it again – embroidered over their signatures, thus capturing them there for eternity. Or at least until the house fire.
Give her her due, this is a nice tradition and as a little boy I was fascinated by these names. When Jenny got too old to host our Christmas, the tablecloth travelled with her to my parents’ house, for my mother, rather unwillingly, took on the duty of having Christmas lunch. This particular feast at Corstorphine – in the bungalow for which my mother had pined over decades in Kirkliston – was a speedy affair, because she basically just couldn’t be arsed, she really just wanted to get back to the telly. Plus, of course, Jenny came to stay, which my mother found exasperating. At my parents’ house, Christmas lunch started early and was over immediately. One year my friend Stephanie phoned to wish us all a good Christmas. She was, she said, still in her pyjamas; her father was mixing them all a champagne cocktail. God, I said, that sounded good. What were we doing, she enquired? We had, in fact, just finished lunch. I had arrived at 11.30 as bidden and had immediately begun to eat. Soup, turkey, Christmas pudding. A very strong gin poured beforehand and drunk in an instant, then some Asti Spumante with the meal. I felt like an enormous, very tired and bleary balloon. Then Stephanie phoned. It was 12.28 pm and Christmas was over in Corstorphine. This is not a joke.
Eventually, I could take these 58 minute celebrations no longer, so I suggested, much to my mother’s joy and – I suspect – disbelief, that I would host the following year on the clear understanding that they would come at 12.30 and eating would commence no earlier than 1.00 pm. And thus it has been since – though my parents and Jenny (who lived to 102) are gone – and thus the tablecloth came to me and is still used and still collects signatures of those new to Christmases with Wyllies.
Today, the cloth is hanging in my newly refurbished dining-room; I say ‘hanging’ because it was traditionally placed on the table until an incident with some spiced parsnip soup in about 1998, so now it hangs. There are 32 names on the cloth, including all four of my grandparents, my two great-aunts, my brother, his wife and two of their children, Mr F and several friends of ours. There are three names whose owners I cannot identify, much as I would like to know. Betty? Who were you, Betty? Alex? Where did you come in, Alex? And then there are two Georges, one of whom is my father, and the other of whom has a virtually identical signature. Did he just forget, and sign twice? Don’t expect so, for the two signatures lie very close together, and my dad didn’t drink.
And then there is Peggy.
My great-aunt, Lizzie, was a very good woman, a kind, hard-working, church-going widow. There is a whole Catherine Cookson novel in Lizzie’s life and maybe one day I will write it. It is, in essence, a sad story, but she was a happy person and she was good to other people. So, one year, when I was about six, Peggy appeared at our Christmas table, ate her lunch, gave and received some tiny presents, then duly signed her name. Auntie Lizzie had found Peggy, I suspect at the Kirk, and had brought her to Christmas. Peggy Thomson. ‘Poor Peggy,’ she confided to my mother; in Lizzie’s rich Doric ‘poor’ was not ‘puir’ but quite definitely ‘pair’. ‘Pair Peggy’s on her own and she’s auld. It’s a shame’. She shook her head, grateful to be with her sister, her niece, her great-nephews, etc. Pair Peggy, it seemed, had no family, and did not keep well.
Peggy was a tiny, gentle soul, with bright blue eyes. She was like a bird. She did not speak unless spoken to and then spoke briefly but kindly. She brought a present for each of us; one year she gave my mother a tin of lavender scented talcum powder called ‘Here’s My Heart’. It lay in the bathroom cabinet in Kirkliston for twenty years, unused. I really wanted it (do you think I might have been gay?) So pair Peggy was immortalised in the tablecloth, and, somewhere in the back of our minds, I expect we thought that each year of Christmas at Jenny’s would be her last, auld and unweill as she was. As these things go, of course, she outlived Lizzie easily and continued to sit, Sphinx like, doing no harm, while huge Christmas bustle happened around her.
Jenny’s tablecloth is 70 this year. Every year I take it out and pin it up. I wrote my own name on it in big letters when I was, I suppose, about 5 or 6. Every year it makes me think about Jenny and Lizzie and Meg and Jeannie and Jimmy and Joe…and Peggy…all long dead, sitting sweltering in front of a huge fire and watching me, always the youngest, opening my presents first. There are worse traditions than a Christmas tablecloth – I commend it to you.