Pat Quigley's Thanksgiving tablecloths have held a conversation since 1999.
Sweet, sad, occasionally sassy, and sometimes spiritual messages have been written on them in various colors, in cursive and block letters.
The inexpensive pieces of polyester-blend fabric have become a priceless part of the Quigley family's holiday celebration.
Miss you Mom I know you are still with us in spirit.
Hope I have a great wedding.
"Family and friends write their names and the date," explains Quigley, 60, of Mantua. "Along with something they're thankful for."
God, family and friends.
New job and good grades.
"You can't sit down," notes Quigley's mother, Rose, 82, "until you sign."
The assistant director of media and public relations at Rowan University, Pat Quigley told me about her Thanksgiving custom after she watched a Good Morning America segment about a Missouri family's similar holiday tradition.
"They're slackers," she jokes. "They've only been doing it since 2000."
Curious about where and when the idea originated, I reached out to American folkways experts at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress; neither is familiar with the practice. A 2011 story in the Allentown Morning Call described a local family whose members began signing their holiday tablecloths in 1990, while other anecdotal accounts credit Oprah Winfrey or craft magazines.
"My aunt Elsie Zeppa started the tradition of people in our family signing the Christmas tablecloth in 1953," says Nancy Zeppa, 53, of Burlington City.
"She would embroider [over the signatures] in white or green thread on a red Christmas tablecloth," adds Zeppa, who inherited and still treasures the heirloom. "If someone was new to the family or a child became old enough to sign, they would sign. My signature is there from the '70s."
For Audubon resident Susan Rusin, it started at Christmas 1993.
"We just got talking at the dinner table and decided to pull the Sharpie out," Rusin, 65, recalls. "By 2003, we were drawing cartoon characters. My father signed it 'the Grinch,' and drew a Grinch on it."
Pat Quigley, a devout Catholic, believes her inspiration came from "a realization I wasn't going to get people to do communal prayer."
In a way, the Quigley tablecloth "is a communal prayer," says her fiance, Brian Ayscue, 66, of Haddon Heights.
"It's also kind of like a diary," Pat observes. "A couple of years, there are things written that related to biopsies, one mine. . . . All it says that year is 'benign.' "
Over 17 years, Quigley's first tablecloth has been filled to the max with messages, and a second is filling up fast.
Marriages have begun, children have grown up, and folks have passed away.
As Zeppa says, "To see the names on the tablecloth sort of brings those people back."
After the death of Rusin's father and a very young family member, as well as a devastating house fire and a difficult divorce, the tradition ceased, seemingly forever. Too many painful memories.
"But there is enough distance between then and now [to] get it out and reuse it again" this Christmas, Rusin says.
Pat Quigley's Thanksgiving guests not only expect the tablecloth ritual, but the family's traditional dishes, which include canned green beans (or peas) and Crock-Pot ravioli.
Once seated, folks will ask for seconds of cousin Artie's dressing and Rose's candied sweet potato casserole.
And as they catch up with messages new and old, everyone will be together again.