Shirley Erbsmehl and the ‘Famous Tablecloth’

Shirley Erbsmehl displays the plain white tablecloth that is almost completely filled with hundreds of signatures and distinctive drawings placed there by people who have dined at their home since 1978.

Dinner guests have signed in for nearly 40 years


Lifestyles Correspondent

November is a month when giving thanks comes naturally. We have Veterans Day first, and then Thanksgiving, so people are accustomed to thinking about the things for which they are grateful, and then responding appropriately.

In many families, Thanksgiving also means family gatherings around a large table, often with a tablecloth that inspires memories from past celebrations. That is certainly true at the Erbsmehls in Fredonia. Shirley Erbsmehl and her husband Chuck have a plain white tablecloth that is almost completely filled with hundreds of signatures and distinctive drawings placed there by people who have dined at their home. It is their signature tablecloth which dates back to Jan. 30, 1978.

According to their daughter, Barb Faxlanger, “People will date their signatures, and some draw pictures which attach meaning, sometimes describing their relationship with my parents (playing cards evoking memories of fun they shared for years playing pinochle), some having something to do with their jobs (e.g. French horn for a music teacher), and some of pets (my great Aunt Fran, Uncle Aloys, and their Sheltie Brucie — none of whom are alive anymore). My paternal grandmother, an avid gardener, signed hers with an iris, her favorite flower.”

Barb continued, “When my children, Andy and Emily were very little, we traced their hands and wrote their ages in their hands. My maternal Grandma, “Haze” for Hazel, wrote ‘alias Grandmore, Grandmutter,’ the names my cousin and I had for her when we were so little we couldn’t say “Grandma” correctly. My exchange student from France, Sylvain, signed his name in 1996 at Christmas, and in June 2013 he brought his wife, Hannah, and their two little girls, Esther and Madeleine, to Fredonia, so their names were added to his. My aunt signed hers “Dolly ate here — it was good! 1/30/78” and my Grandpa Miller signed his ‘PAPA, H.G. Miller, 1978.'”

Dear old friends, Dick Watt and his late wife Lettie of the White Horse restaurant, signed the tablecloth many years ago, with a lightbulb (Watt) illustrating their signatures. Dick and Chuck go back to high school days in Hawthorne, New York and they’ve all been friends ever since.

Barb’s husband, Joe, and his daughters, Lisa, Kelly, and Tricia, are embroidered right near her signature, “dear daughter Barbie.”

“They drew stick figures, and Tricia had not yet learned how to write her name in cursive. All in all, there are two church ministers, two SUNY Fredonia college presidents, and many family members and friends from all walks of life — church, music, quilting (mom’s also a quilter) — and who are all parts of my parents’ lives. At last count, 189 different people have signed the tablecloth,” related Barb.

Though some of these people are no longer here, the tablecloth brings much joy to this family as they reminisce and recall stories.

“This tablecloth is a treasure far beyond any value that could be placed on it. As an only child, I look forward to the day this tablecloth will be passed on to me,” said Barb, otherwise known as “Dear Daughter Barbie” by her mom.

Guests are handed a quilting pencil to sign their names and add a quick drawing if they wish. Shirley removes the tablecloth and uses two or three strands of embroidery thread to make the visitors’ signatures permanent before washing the tablecloth and putting it back. The quilting pencil lines are erased in the wash, and the many colors of thread bring the people and the events to life for the Erbsmehls.

Said Shirley, “When I look at each name on the tablecloth, a face comes into my mind’s eye, and so many memories are restored. The tablecloth helps us recall the food, the friendship, and the fun we have had over the course of our lives.”

When a visitor sees this tablecloth, it is easy to envision how much entertaining and cooking has gone on in this house. I asked Shirley if she had any “go-to” menus for their company dinners, and she replied, “No, not really. I love to cook from scratch and to try new recipes, so I’m always finding new dishes to serve to our guests.”

Since 2008, when they moved into the house they are in now, Shirley started to record the menus for each company meal.

“I cook what people like and/or can eat, and I try to avoid those foods that would be a problem to my guests. It’s amazing how many food allergies and sensitivities now exist for so many people,” she stated.

When I asked where she comes up with the recipes, she told me about using ones she finds in magazines and in cookbooks, and then about the recipe book that was created as part of the celebration for her church’s bicentennial.

“I challenged all those in my church to try each of the 440 recipes, and I made it my personal goal to cook them all. In one year, I made all 440, but I’m the only one who did. It was a bit like the book, ‘Julie and Julia,’ a young woman tried all the recipes in Julia Child’s ‘The Art of French Cooking’ but fortunately not all of the bicentennial recipes are as complicated as many of Julia’s.”

Shirley’s other needlework skills are visible in the Erbsmehl’s home in the quilts that adorn many walls in the house. Shirley is a member of the Westfield Quilters’ Guild and is a master quilter. If the reader is like me, when the word “quilt” is said, a certain image of this craft emerges that contains geometric cloth shapes in many colors placed in a pattern. Not so with many of Shirley’s quilts! Her quilts depict flowers that look like oil paintings from a distance, or events in people’s lives that contain photos on cloth, or memories of a vacation location, all made in cloth and stitched together, but all unique in the craft called quilting.

Right now, there are 47 quilts on display in the Erbsmehl’s large home. Many are seasonal in nature and will be changed as the seasons do, or as holidays come up on the calendar.

Her husband Chuck said, “Over the years, Shirley has made over 1,000 quilts. She has a scrapbook with a photo of each one, so her quilting is chronicled for us.”

She also has friends who have given her their quilts when they no longer wish to keep them.

“Some are truly historic and genuine heirlooms, yet my friend wanted me to have them,” Shirley said. “She knew that if I had them I would treasure them and take good care of them.”

I could see that she is doing just that.

When I first called Shirley to arrange to see the tablecloth, she was on a mission trip with her church and other Methodists from around the county. The United Methodist Church supports a very small town in rural Kentucky where they help people with construction and maintenance efforts, and where they subsidize a school. On this trip, Shirley helped rip up flooring and unload a semi-tractor trailer filled with donated house-hold goods destined for the residents of the town. Each participant on the mission trips also helps with clean-up after the meals, so these volunteer workers have long days.

She told me that her very first mission trip was to Shannondale, Missouri, where she picked pickles during the summer she was 18 years old.

“The other young volunteers and I lived in a place with no running water and no electricity. Thankfully, during the mission trips to Kentucky we are housed in a building with all of those conveniences,” exclaimed Shirley.

When Shirley is not quilting, or cooking, or entertaining, or reading — another favorite hobby — she might be found teaching the AARP course on Driver Safety.

“I still love to teach, so this is my outlet for that passion.”

She taught fifth grade in the Lancaster Central School District for 32 years, retiring in 1991, and then supervised student teachers for SUNY Fredonia for another three years. I guess you could say that teaching is in her blood too!

It was an incredible treat to be able to visit with this amazing couple. Age does not define them in any way, and Shirley told me that she plans to live to be 106.

“I have such a closetful of fabric waiting to become quilts that I don’t have time to die now. Besides, there is so much left to see and do, and so many more people to write on our tablecloth that I will have to live many more years,” said Shirley. We can all hope she does!