Watson Family Thanksgiving Panache

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Mammam’s stuffing was richly textured, full of flavor, slightly spicy, and for Kansas City, quite exotic. Wild rice from granddad’s Minnesota hunting trips, raisins from Cousin Alma’s California vineyard, pecans from Aunt Becky’s Georgia farm, and giblets from her Sedalia, Missouri plantation’s chickens created a mélange as extraordinary as Mammam’s decorating.

But to the three Watson boys, her Thanksgiving stuffing was inedible—unless flooded with Bertha’s thick gravy. And Mammam’s decorating, a mixture of Jacobean gargoyles, Buddhist iconography, Tibetan screens, inherited 1850s plantation mahogany furniture and tufted Belter chairs was, for us boys, mildly nightmare inducing.

Were it not for granddad’s embracing warmth and wisdom along with Mammam’s enormous sense of humor, we might never have wanted to come for Thanksgiving dinner.

Looking back, though, both her decorating and her stuffing were extraordinary. And my grandmother’s design panache has inspired me to this day. Born in 1890 on a thriving plantation in Sedalia, my grandmother, Elizabeth Gentry Sturgeous, an only child, was accustomed to fine furniture, bone china, good silver and smooth bourbon. She married my grandfather, Searcy Ridge, an entrepreneur, who came from what they would call a “fine” family.

But Searcy’s civic volunteerism, generosity of spirit and attendance to the poor and disadvantaged did not contribute to his entrepreneurial success. So my grandmother, a style maven with a tight budget, cleverly sought out the advice and guidance from every young, new-to-town decorator that her short purse strings would allow.

Now one must remember that in the early 20th century, decorators, golfers and actors were not to be accepted in polite company and always raised an eyebrow or two. So, if they entered her home at all, they entered through the back door.

I’m pretty sure Mammam would now roll over in her grave if she knew her grandson, Marshall, had adopted decorating as his profession—much less my brother Tom, becoming a professional golfer! My brother Ridge’s profession, being that of a winemaker, might have been a bit more acceptable, given that she brewed her own bathtub gin. On a side note, Mammam’s gin was known to have inspired Mary Beth Rutledge, who was terrified of dogs, to sweep up into her arms Jane Thompson’s fluffy chow, Max, and then carry this load of frightened fur down 61st Street before depositing him on the Newhouse’s doorstep.

During the The Great Depression, besides brewing gin in her claw-foot tub, my industrious grandmother with an eye for a good real estate bargain chose to build a triplex out of the burned-out shell of a cut limestone mansion situated squarely opposite the Nelson Atkins Museum—Kansas City’s premiere museum with a formidable Chinese collection. This area had fallen on rough times but “nice folks” still lived there with a genteel, rather bohemian, air.

With the derelict property selling for a dollar, Mammam plowed hers and my grandfather’s meager funds into constructing three elegant apartments. Their own apartment, of course, was the premier space, with a first-floor black-and-white checked marble foyer and a pair of horseshoe-shaped stairs sweeping to a landing where the glassed-in conservatory greeted you. This beautiful light-filled room was called the “music room” because the grand piano and many other instruments lay about as my grandparents loved the Kansas City jazz scene and musicians were frequent callers.

The next double flight of stairs would take you into the austere entry hall with black moldings, black tortoiseshell wallpaper and a lit picture of “the Squaw.” The Squaw was our only family portrait—and she was menacing, ugly and terrifying—especially to children. Tom, who received a BB gun for Christmas one year, ended up shooting a hole through her gizzard-like neck.

Great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Gentry (who was the Squaw) had been a prairie woman and in 1850 at the age of 30 years, without a tooth in her head and a face so wrinkled it could hold a seven day rain, she sat for a portrait. The gilded frame was enormously elaborate.

As you can imagine, entering my grandmother’s black hall with that stern portrait of the Squaw was not for the faint of heart. Though it made you want to retrace your steps, I now relish the contrast and drama this room created, especially as you passed through it to the other, light-filled rooms. Foyers are pass-through rooms, not rooms in which you linger. They can afford the theatrical and sometimes, the terrifying.

Beyond that dramatic black hall, spread out Mammam and granddad’s living room with a sofa so deep and plush with down that babies were lost and never found again. A pair of magnificent Tibetan temple doors flanked a mirror on which was mounted an enormous carved Hindu goddess. Large hand-thrown Raku pots were made into lamps whose custom shades were swathed in Venetian marble papers.

My grandfather’s ebony wing chair was upholstered in gaufrage copper velvet alongside a late 18th-century secretary from the Sedalia plantation in which my great-grandfather’s law books were kept. The walls were hung in natural grass cloth—very outré in those days (what goes around comes around as grass cloths are so modish today)—and my grandmother’s chair was slipcovered in antique kimonos.

In deference to my grandfather’s love of fireplaces (and nowhere to put one), a Lincoln iron stove stood black, ornate and proud between two Palladian windows. Floors were covered with finely shorn wool carpets on which Orientals were loosely laid.

Over the years, the smell of my grandfather’s pipe suffused the apartment, as did the smoke’s amber patina. Though my own fading memory has left me with mostly sepia images, my grandmother’s living room is still a vivid and life-filled inspiration.

But the heart of Mamman and granddad’s home was always their dining room, where countless meals were shared. There was a huge oak carved table and a gargoyle-encrusted sideboard filled with silver tureens and chafing dishes steaming with curried mashed potatoes, spiced yams, bacon stewed collards and oyster casserole—the oyster casserole is a family recipe still—although inedible by my standards.

On the table, Great-Aunt Louise’s giant tablecloth with gray embroidered cutwork and stiffly starched matching napkins the size of bed sheets was spread forth. Upon this crisp linen sat Great-Grandfather Ridge’s Dresden chargers, hand painted with scenes from Wagner’s operas.

Our great-grandparents traveling in Germany bought 12 place settings for each of their sons. These plates were always a source of confusion to us because our families listened only to jazz! However, I grew into an opera lover and when they were bequeathed to us, my jazz aficionado brothers said, “You take them.”

Small silver baskets with cobalt glass inserts sat in for salt and pepper shakers with micro spoons to lift out the precious seasonings. Grandmother Gentry’s polished silver stood sentinel next to the Wagnerian plates and mom would always have to explain to us beforehand which utensils to use when, as the lineup was too confusing.

All the confusion aside, Mammam’s table setting on Thanksgiving luncheon (we always arrived for dinner at noon) was like waking up in Midas’s unplundered tomb! Her Thanksgiving centerpieces were always a source of amazement and conversation, as she greatly prided herself in surprising us every year. One year, the large wicker cornucopia spilled forth with a mixture of gourds and Japanese glass ball floats.

As souvenirs from whatever vacation they had taken would usually spill forth, that year, in California, they had collected the floats that washed ashore from Japanese fishermen’s nets. Another year, thanks to my grandfather’s successful hunting trip, stuffed feathered pheasant wings mixed with orange bittersweet spilled forth; pretty but a little strange.

Around that table I learned many things about my grandparents from stories usually told by my aunts and uncles and parents. My modest grandparents were quietly generous, never forgetting their own difficult times, nor those of others.

My mother told stories of the Depression when, yes, bathtub gin flowed, chows were swept up by the armful and jazz was king, but she also spoke of how men and women lined up at their back door in the alley after my grandparents’ dinner. My grandmother would quietly give each of them a meal and a dime, never turning anyone away. She told my mother and uncle to stay back because she was afraid that the children’s questioning eyes would hurt these people’s dignity.

In the 1950s, before Kansas City had shelters, my grandfather would walk the grounds of the Nelson Gallery in the late afternoon with the family dog, Samba. Every once in a while, they would find a homeless individual whom he would bring home for food, a shower and even a bed for the night by the Lincoln stove.

Though my grandmother’s design panache has informed my work throughout my career, something else inspired me foremost at my grandparents’ Thanksgiving gathering. Once I got past the portrait of the Squaw, their Thanksgiving was a richer experience—and it wasn’t just the fine bone china, the ancestral silver or the centerpiece surprise. It wasn’t the exotic food or even the excited laughing faces of my wonderful family, it was my grandparents’ underlying sense of gratitude for their own good fortune and their profound belief that they should share whatever they had with whoever had need.

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