“Tablecloths represent the good experiences of sharing a meal with friends and family. It represents the idea that we are a community. Where does community get its start? It gets its start from family and groups of friends around a table.” — Leo Landis, State Curator, Museum & Historic Sites, curates more than 70 tablecloths in the Iowa collection.
“Decorative tablecloth of Iowa and Iowa symbols. Ca. 1950s. 44 x 51” White border with an outer decorative band of pink flowers. Inside the band of pink flowers is an outline illustrated map of the state of Iowa showing major cities, historic sites, parks, colleges, etc.” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Museum Object Catalog 2012.027.02, tablecloth stitched and hemmed by the women from the Iowa Federation of the Blind.
“Tablecloth, linen, handmade (spun and woven) by Mrs. W.W. Conklin in Fort Plain, New York in 1840. Brought by her to Fayette County, Iowa in 1864. Donated in 1901.” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Museum Object Catalog A 08607.
“Tablecloth, diamond pattern. Woven in the home of Hezekiah and Sarah Gilbert Gear from flax raised on their farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The weaving was done by an Indian woman who came each year to their place to do the necessary weaving for family uses. This table cloth was given to their daughter Angelica, for her household outfit at the time of her marriage to Charles Mason of Burlington, Iowa.” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Museum Object Catalog MF 051.
“The tablecloth was tattered and stained when I first saw it.”
Frances Graziano sits in her narrow office located just to the left of the meat counter where a butcher is weighing a mound of sausage. Her cell phone buzzes faintly. An adding machine awaits an arm’s length away. A computer is propped open and nearly cradled in her lap. Invoices and orders and notes cover her small desk. A clerk pokes his head in the door to remind her of a vendor visit.
Francis, with twinkling eyes, a broad smile and a bit of vibrato to her voice, continues.
“This is not just a material item. There is so much sentimental value, so much history, so much human emotion based on the material in the cloth.”
Graziano’s tablecloth is not why I’m here. Food is what got me here. Exhausted from eating turkey and ham and party potatoes, my family demanded pasta, cheese, olives and sausage. Italian food. Salt-of-the-earth food. Graziano-Brothers-Italian-Grocery food.
But, after entering the store and going through the swooning decompression of breathing one part oxygen and two parts Italian spices, I see a framed tablecloth.
“John Murano walked in with this tablecloth and told me this story.”
Frances pauses, lost in thought.
“He said when his mother, Rose Graziano, was young, she lost both her parents. Her last name happened to be Graziano, but she was no relationship to us. Being an Italian in Des Moines, you knew each other. That was a community. So my grandmother felt bad for this young girl, so she took her on as a godchild.”
By accepting Rose as a “godchild,” Frances’ grandmother agreed to care for and guide Rose as she grew into adulthood.
“When Rose married in 1939, my grandmother had the tablecloth made as a wedding present. Rose was so touched that someone not even related would do such a wonderful gesture, just like a mom or an aunt. Because of that gesture, Rose used that tablecloth every day for the rest of her life on her dining-room table.”
Really? The same tablecloth?
“When Rose passed away, her kids were cleaning up the estate and they all stopped when they got to the tablecloth. They thought it was of such high value to their mom they needed to do something with it — even though it was tattered and stained. Over 40 years of use, you know. But that tablecloth had a story. John gave it to us.”
An old tablecloth?
“We had to have it framed and hanging in the store because what I heard immediately from his story is that it represents a sense of community. No matter who you are, who you’re related to, you’re still family. We still take care of each other as a community.”
And with that, Frances goes back to work… and I drive home… to put a tablecloth on the table. ♦
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: