Clara's Last Supper

Dallas' ailing soul-food queen longs for one more turn in the kitchen

A year ago, Clara Miles lay in her bed in a gray hospital room, a dreaded place filled with bottles that led to tubes that led to needles that led to her arms, where they threaded into tired veins.

She had lost everything--her health, her money, and Clara's Kitchen, the business that had been her life. She had sunk into a depression that had made her a virtual hermit inside her home for two years.

And now, the woman they called "Miss Clara" was dying. Her 30-year-old daughter, Robyn Miles, had dragged her to the Baylor hospital emergency room, frightened by her mother's constant sleeping spells and shortness of breath. It seemed a fitting end for Miss Clara to die there from emphysema, a disease that mirrored her misery, taking time to build, spread, and ruin.

The doctors--whom Miss Clara hated--told Robyn that her mother wouldn't make it through the night; say your prayers and make your peace, they advised.

But Robyn knew her mother better than that. Even though Miss Clara was low sick, she still had things to do. Her workaholic spirit wouldn't let her go like that, wasted and whimpering.

That day, Robyn stepped into her mother's room alone. For a moment, she watched the machines that forced her mother's heart to beat and lungs to breathe, keeping alive a body that had smoked 65 of its 70 years. (She started smoking at 5, sneaking cigarette butts from under the house.) Then Robyn hunched down, bent toward her mother's ear, and spoke.

"Get your ass up!" she said, her voice shaking. "You know damn well you didn't even want to come to this hospital! You know you want to get your ass up and open a restaurant. You'd better get up and take care of business."

Robyn railed at her mother for nearly an hour--her words interrupted only by tears. Later, she brought in the rest of Miss Clara's family. They all held hands and prayed over the old woman.

And that very night, the doctors noticed changes. Miss Clara hung on through the evening hours. By morning, she had turned the corner: She was creeping back toward health.

Within a week, she was able to breathe on her own. It should have been a time for thanksgiving. But as Miss Clara slowly regained her strength, she surveyed her environs--the grim walls, the tubes and needles--and found within herself something less than gratitude.

God had saved her, she agreed.
But for what?
oday, Clara Miles spends most of her days in a single room in a house on Morgan Street in South Oak Cliff. It is a large, lived-in space. On one end is the public space, with a television and a dresser, and on the other is her private place--with a whirlpool bath and a queen-size bed.

She has done most of her living for the past two years in this bed and this room. Necessities surround her: Bottles of pills for her heart and lungs sit on a bedside shelf, and oxygen tanks are lined along the wall. The room is a metaphor for Miss Clara's life: reduced in size and grandeur, with glimmers of what she's lost.

For nearly 20 years, Clara Miles was the queen of soul food in Dallas. The restaurant she and her husband Tommie Miles ran, Clara's Kitchen, was the place to go for down-home cooking. At its peak in the 1980s, the restaurant boasted yearly receipts of more than $700,000. It was routinely packed with power brokers, famous entertainers, and ordinary folks rubbing shoulders. It wasn't uncommon to see someone like former Gov. Ann Richards order meat loaf, or the chauffeur for Sammy Davis Jr. run in to fetch an order of pig's feet for the entertainer. They all came for taste.

Along the way, Miss Clara became famous, too. She was written up in newspapers and magazines. She developed a familial rapport with her employees, and with black Dallas. Her generosity and gregariousness earned her the title Miss Clara--a woman who dispensed comfort, either through eating or listening.

"Oh God, I miss the cooking," she says today. "Sho'nuf miss not being around."

She hasn't ventured into a kitchen since the loss of her restaurant in 1994, and is burdened by her slowed physical state and the memories of what used to be. People remember her as a kind and trusting woman--someone who, as she says herself, "never did dirt to nobody."

"My life has been a big ol' hunk of heart," Miss Clara says. "I've been this way all my life."

But dirt was done to her, betraying her trust and deflating her hopes. In the year before its closing, many people knew that Clara's Kitchen had fallen on hard times. Its slide was documented in this newspaper and others--the hard scramble to make ends meet, the slow winnowing away of sales, self, and soul in the final days.

But there was a story people didn't know: about the many folks who promised to help her, only to sputter out when the cameras had gone. Or how--on the very last day of Clara's Kitchen--the gas was cut off in the middle of the lunch rush. Or that she still lives with the man whom many blame for the restaurant's demise. She lives with him because she can't afford not to, in the house they bought together during happier times.

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