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Why this family's scribbled-on tablecloth is a tradition you will want to steal

As teens, her kids thought signing their Thanksgiving tablecloth was "crazy." Now they believe it is irreplaceable.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Most mothers try desperately (and often in vain) to keep their children from writing on the walls and the tables.

But in 2000, Deb Mills had an idea to start a tradition for her blended family with husband David: she asked their five children, then teenagers, to sign their Thanksgiving tablecloth with a special fabric marker with ink that disappears when it is washed. Later that winter, she embroidered the names, leaving a visual memory of the family's holiday.

"Our teenagers thought I was crazy when I asked them to sign the tablecloth," Mills told TODAY Parents 16 years later of her Clinton, Missouri family. "That year there were seven of us. This year, there will be 19 around our table."

Mills has embroidered the signatures on the tablecloth in a different color for each year, sometimes with a special meaning. One year, the signatures were embroidered in royal blue in honor of the Kansas City Royals' World Series championship team.

"It is fun to watch how the grandchildren's signatures change year after year, but I have to admit that it may have been crazy to teach them to scribble on the tablecloth," Mills said.

Thanksgiving tablecloth tradition
Her children thought the idea was "crazy" at first, but now the whole family, including her 10 grandchildren, believe their Thanksgiving tablecloth is "very special."Deb Mills / Deb Mills

Sometimes, the signatures on the tablecloth can get tricky. "Early on, the kids asked me if they broke up with their high school sweethearts, would I take out the stitching of their names? I told them no, that they had to be very careful who they invited to Thanksgiving dinner," said Mills. "We have joked about strategically placing the gravy boat over a few names."

But other names on the tablecloth have only grown more precious to the family over time. "It has become very special to us to have the signatures of those that have been dear to us through the years that are no longer with us," said Mills.

The couple lost daughter Mary very suddenly at age 44 due to a ruptured aortic aneurysm. "The signatures that we have of those who have left us are irreplaceable. To have my mom’s signature and David’s dad’s signature as well as Mary’s is very special to us," said Mills.

Thanksgiving tablecloth tradition
The signatures of those the Mills family has lost - like their daughter Mary, who passed away suddenly a few years ago - are irreplaceable now.Deb Mills / Deb Mills

"It is very special to pull the tablecloth out each Thanksgiving and there is Mary’s name on it, and somehow it feels like she is still among us."

Mills posted a picture of her Thanksgiving tablecloth on her Facebook page. It was posted on the Love What Matters Facebook page, and immediately, the story of the tablecloth went viral. It got over 90,000 likes and 67,000 shares on Facebook in less than a week, leaving Mills "amazed."

Her kids might have thought she was "crazy" when she began the tradition, but now the Thanksgiving tablecloth is special to the entire family, Mills said. Besides the scribbles and names, there are other milestones captured in the fabric, including a graduation cap, a footprint of a newborn grandchild, and a few handprints.

"Last year, when I sat down to embroider, I found a message from our then 8-year-old grandson. It read, 'I love Grammy and Papa.' So of course, I embroidered it, too," said Mills.

Mills's oldest granddaughter sent her a text thanking her for creating the family tradition. Mills said that family connection is what it's all about for her: "Making memories that will last and creating lasting treasures for the next generation."

This article was originally published Nov. 21, 2016 and has been updated.