Clara's Last Supper
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.
She's happiest today when talking about cooking, explaining the tastes, textures, and techniques that make a good Southern meal. Cooking is like breathing, she'll say; as easy as walking. "You know, I'm a damn good cook," she says. "But at Southern cooking, honey, I am out there."
A few weeks ago, Miss Clara was clinging to a slender lifeline: The man who was running a restaurant in her old building on Grand Avenue had asked her to come back and help. She had a few meetings with him, but wasn't overly optimistic. Too many hopes had been shot down for her to trust anything until it happened.
But she still hopes that someone will take another chance on her. "I pray to the Lord," she says. "I have everyone laughing because I talk to God so. I said, Lord, I know you can solve all my needs. My needs are being met. But God, you also said you would make my heart happy, too. I want my heart happy.
"I want my cafe back."
"First thing I learned to make was biscuits. I'm not a measurement person. You take your flour, baking powder, soda, and buttermilk. A little sugar. Shortening. You work your shortening stuff in the biscuit first, after you put the dry ingredients in. Then you put your milk in there. You don't put all your milk in at once, you work it in there. You can feel the consistency. Once it's dry enough, put it on a board and knead it a little bit, with a little flour, enough so that it don't stick on the board. M'dear--my second mother--taught me how to make them. She showed me how not to overwork them. A dash of this and a cup of that, and take my finger to taste it."
For as long as she has known herself, Miss Clara has loved to cook. M'dear, the woman who watched little Clara Mack when her mother was away, taught her to bake biscuits. By 8 1/2, Clara "could make biscuits better than any grown person," she says.
She'd peep in the screen door of the restaurant that abutted her home in Memphis. There she'd watch as Thelma, the cook, kneaded, sprinkled, crimped, and dashed. Then one day, Miss Thelma invited 9-year-old Clara to help.
"She knew I wanted to cook," Clara says. "It was helping her and building up my ego, too. Here I was, a little kid cooking."
Clara helped so much that Miss Thelma eventually got the store owner to pay the young girl. Thelma set up a milk crate in the kitchen for Clara to stand on so she could reach the sink to peel potatoes, add dashes and pinches of spices to meals, and wash dishes.
Clara learned about hard work early, finding all sorts of odd jobs to help her mother make ends meet. She walked dogs for 25 cents a hound. And she often ran errands for the prostitutes in her neighborhood, who returned the favor by passing her leftovers from the meals they cooked for their johns and pimps. Growing up, Clara says she felt well cared-for, despite going to work at an early age.
"Everybody adopted me when I was little," she says. "I was smart. I could cook, and I could clean. I could wash and, honey, I could iron. Ooooh, I could iron. I could do anything."
One thing she couldn't do was stay in school. Clara says she never really took to school and dropped out after the seventh grade. She found her calling in others' kitchens, and dreamt small dreams: She would marry a Pullman porter, have two children, and settle in a nice house.
But it didn't happen that way. Instead, when Clara turned 13, she married a factory worker. They soon moved from Memphis to Chicago, where they raised two sons. And she worked--as a maid in Chicago's storied Palmer House, a famous hotel, and as a taxi driver, a short-order cook, and a garment-factory worker. She doesn't say much about this marriage except that after 18 years of it, she left. She divorced her husband and, in 1957, hopped into a car with some friends of her landlord. They were heading for Dallas, and she thought she'd go along for the ride.
Her looks--honey-colored skin with ruddy undertones--earned her the nickname "Red" among her friends. And her light skin earned the ire of some women. Miss Clara chuckles now when she recalls how women used to accuse her of all kinds of nefarious designs on their husbands. But while Clara liked to have a good time, she didn't like to do it with other women's men.
"At the time, I was what they called pretty foxy," she says, laughing. "I was. I was a nice-looking lady. You should have seen me."
She lived in a boarding house that first year in Dallas. It was there that she met Tommie Miles, who would become her second husband. Miles and Clara lived there, along with another woman, Delores Green. They were all close friends--taking turns cooking, running errands, and doing chores. Miles even let Clara drive his black 1953 Chrysler New Yorker.
One day, Delores Green told Clara that Miles had more than a friendly interest in her.
"You know Tommie likes you," she said.
"Oh no, he doesn't treat me any different than you," Clara said.
"Yeah, but he don't let me drive his car."
Miles soon told Clara himself that he was sweet on her. One day, she was about to go out with a cab driver she'd met. Clara was dressed to the nines, and Miles saw her as she left her room.
"Red, can I kiss you?" he asked.
Clara was shocked. Until then, she thought Delores had been joking about Miles. She let him kiss her--a long, passionate kiss. "Red, wake me up when you get home," he said.
Clara went out that night, but when she got home, she tapped on Miles' door. The two stayed up talking the whole night. That's how it all began.
A few months later, the couple were lying in bed, talking as they often did, when Miles received a disturbing phone call from his first wife about their children. The call put him in a pensive mood. He and Clara talked about the children some, and then, he popped the question.
"Red, would you marry me?"
The question caught her off guard. He might have been asking her about the weather, for all of his nonchalance.
"Yeah," she said, but she didn't think anything would come of it.
Their liaison, however, was too much for the woman who owned the boarding house. She took to not speaking to Clara. Eventually, the couple moved out of the house and found a small garage apartment to live in. They married in 1958.
Miles wasn't a Pullman porter, but a laborer who later became a minister. And Clara still worked. Early on in Dallas, she found lucrative work outside of the kitchen. At one point, she was taking home $101 a week--great money during the '50s--for cleaning, pressing, and reassembling men's dress shirts.
Clara did all kinds of work in Dallas: candy-making, cleaning, factory work. She blamed her constant toil on a desire to have a little money in her pocket.
Her daughter Robyn, her only child from her marriage to Tommie Miles, sees it differently. Her mother's need to work was borne of an insecurity planted in her heart by her husband. "Six months after he married her, he told her, 'You knew when I married you that I couldn't afford you,'" Robyn says. "That did something to her. She's been a workaholic ever since."
Growing up, Robyn had four nannies. Her mother missed out on all of her firsts: crawl, step, word. "She didn't mean to leave me alone," Robyn says. "But she couldn't help it."
No matter where she worked, though, Clara's steps eventually led back to the kitchen. "That's just me, honey," she says.
Her last two jobs before starting Clara's Kitchen were cooking jobs. For 12 years, she worked in the cafeteria of the now-defunct Bishop College. After that, she worked for Red Coleman liquor stores, preparing hot food for the deli counter. It was while working there that her husband hit upon an idea.
"You're making all this money making food for other folks. Why not make your own self money?" he said. "Clara," he continued, "be your own boss. Open a restaurant."
Miles says today that his reason for wanting to open the restaurant was simple: "I like money."
Her boss at Red Coleman was equally reluctant to let her go. He offered to hire a cook to work at her new restaurant just to keep her cooking for him. But Miles was persuasive, and Clara relented.
A tiny shop front had opened up at 5506 Lamar St., and the couple opted to rent it. So, equipped with only a single steam table and a small counter space, the first Clara's Kitchen opened. That was in 1977.
"Ground meat is a filler. Everybody want it cheap because you can do a whole lot with it. But to make a meat loaf with it, I think you ought to have your vegetables in there, where you can really get that taste. I put them all in there--onions, green pepper, and all that. I put them in there in a bowl big enough for you to get in there and lay down. I used crackers instead of bread...because bread don't taste. I mix it together and then I take my finger and taste it. I can tell from that--from the seasoning--if all the flavors are gonna bust out in the oven."
During her first days in business, Clara cooked up what she figured people would want to have in their own homes: greens, cabbage, pork chops, chicken-fried steak. Miles kept his job as a janitor with Red Coleman during those first few years, using his paychecks to keep the small storefront restaurant afloat. Things were slow at first. The shop lacked a sign, and they didn't advertise much. Clara also thought the industrial location put people off.
"It wasn't too cool to come to that part of town in them days," she says.
Miles soon began to spend a bit of money on advertising, running spots on local radio and handing out fliers. More people came, and when they did, they ate. Customers seemed to have a special love for Miss Clara's meat loaf.
Meat loaf is a much-maligned food, shunted aside with disdain, cooked merely for convenience's sake. But that is in the hands of the dilettante. In Clara's Kitchen, the ordinary was elevated. She would routinely mix up 40 pounds of ground beef, crackers, vegetables, and spices in a huge bowl. The mixture was then laid in bread pans and baked. Once done, the loaves were sliced, laid on steam trays, and ladled with a spicy tomato sauce.
"Can't find nobody make meat loaf like me," she says. (Then Miss Clara adds in a conspiratorial whisper: "You know, my daughter brought me a plate the other day. I'm not going to name the place, because I don't want to tell on nobody. It had oxtails in it. The oxtail taste all right, but I got a double order of squash, got some okra, got some beans, corn bread." She pauses. "The beans had just a little taste to them. And the corn bread, well, it was Jiffy.")
Taste buds got to talking, and word spread of the storefront kitchen with good food. Soon, Clara's Kitchen was doing a swift walk-in trade, which turned into a traffic jam. Lines went out the door and spilled over into the street. Home cooking, particularly daily doses of meat loaf and chitlins, helped her reputation grow. Customers wanted more: They wanted to be able to sit and chat while they enjoyed their food.
Clara and Miles looked for another location. They soon found one, a 90-seat dine-in restaurant at 341 Exposition, across from Fair Park. In 1980, the second Clara's Kitchen was opened.
Food became a lifeline for Clara. She loved to come out of the kitchen and chat with customers about recipes and life. "Everything I did was from my heart. Sitting and talking to people, that was just my life," she says.
Her customers weren't the only ones to benefit from Miss Clara's generosity. Former employees say working at the restaurant was like working with family, with Miss Clara and Miles as Momma and Poppa.
Wilma Johnson worked at Clara's Kitchen for seven years, beginning in 1987. To say she was dedicated to Miss Clara would be an understatement: She worked seven years without a vacation or break, often putting in 80-hour weeks to make sure the place continued to run. Why? Because seven years ago, Miss Clara took a chance on a perfect stranger.
Johnson showed up at the restaurant one day needing a job. She filled out an application and waited for four hours for Miss Clara to show up and interview her. Miss Clara asked her if she had any restaurant experience. Johnson did not. Miss Clara looked at her and said it didn't matter, and hired her on the spot.
Johnson arrived at the restaurant with suitcase in hand. Her former husband had thrown her out of the house, and she had no place to live. Miss Clara talked to the owner of some nearby apartments and got Johnson a place to stay rent-free until she was on her feet.
"I was real dedicated to her," Johnson says. "She was a good lady to all the employees. A person like that is rare."
Unfortunately, lease problems were not rare for Miss Clara's restaurants. Twice, her locations shut down because landlords, seeing how well the storefront shops were doing, decided they wanted to run the business themselves.
Miss Clara found her final location in an unlikely place: a building at 3126 Grand Ave., a cavernous old warehouse that in no way resembled a restaurant. But Miss Clara says that when she squinted and prayed, she saw what it would become. Miles didn't like it, however, and even tried to get back the money Clara had put down as a deposit, she says.
The couple sunk $86,000 of their own money into renovating the building. They added a second floor, put in a kitchen and carpets, painted the walls, and added tables and windows in the front. When they were done, they had a restaurant that could seat 300, with space for two steam-table lines. In 1986, the new Clara's Kitchen opened.
The first week in the new location cemented its success. A national convention of black Baptist ministers was in town, and word had spread that Clara's was a soul-food heaven on earth. The restaurant was swamped. "It was like a whole lot of bees swarming," Clara says. "It was the most money I made in my life."
With success came fame. Clara made the papers, and her advice was sought by television recipe shows.
Her success bred some stress. Miles acknowledges that he was a little jealous of all the attention Miss Clara got. The restaurant was his idea, and he was the one in charge of it, he says. But he let it ride. "I didn't want to hurt Clara," he says.
The restaurant became a mixing bowl where the rich and famous met the poor and ordinary. Clara had pictures of celebrities who came through: Eartha Kitt, Stephanie Mills, Barbara Jordan. Love of cooking and people created a winning cake. Miss Clara was living in the icing.
"I was flying high," she says.
"Cobbler dough has to be a little bit breadier...a biscuit-type thing. You make it from the same recipe, but you add a little bit more water, a little bit of baking powder. Use fresh or canned peaches, nutmeg, butter, and lemon juice. Lemon juice makes it come out: It makes the canned peaches taste fresh; it gives it enough tartness. When you go with fruit, if you don't get the tartness, it don't taste. It just taste flat."
It fell apart in snatches, like secret bites taken from a pie sitting in a window to cool.
Clara's Kitchen was threatened once again with moving. Her marriage, which had been the foundation of the restaurant, was cracking and shifting.
The man who owned the building had defaulted on a loan, so Miss Clara was left wondering about her future. She didn't want to move again, not after sinking so much money into the building. So she approached the new owners for help.
The owners were the newly created Southern Dallas Development Corporation, a nonprofit entity funded in part by the city of Dallas, created to help revitalize the city's southern sector. The group was just beginning a new loan program, offering loans to expand successful small businesses in southern Dallas, and in Clara's they saw a good prospect. They could loan money to a South Dallas icon, boosting the program's profile. So in 1991, the SDDC loaned Clara's $300,000 to purchase not just her restaurant, but the club beside it.
The SDDC promised help and aid to Miss Clara and her husband if they needed it. The restaurant was not required to submit a business plan for the loan. All the couple had to do was show they could meet monthly mortgage payments, and submit annual financial reports, SDDC executive director Jim Reid says. "We couldn't hold her hand and make her run her business correctly," he says today.
But at the same time the restaurant was securing the loan, Miss Clara was pulling out of the restaurant herself.
Things had become acrimonious between Miss Clara and Miles. She won't talk much about it today. She'd told some people that she had to leave the kitchen because she was too fat to cook. But that wasn't true. Truth was that she and her husband were having trouble. He'd brought in the children from his earlier marriage to run a second restaurant. And--according to his daughter Robyn--he had been having an affair. It was too much for Miss Clara to take. It got harder and harder to come to the restaurant and remain happy and upbeat for her customers. So she left--just walked away. She and Miles separated in 1991.
"The reason I didn't want to break it [the restaurant] up was that it was the best thing that ever happened to black folks," she says. "A husband and wife get mad, divorce, and tear up something, and I didn't want to divorce and tear it up. I didn't. That's the reason why...I just left him."
Miles wouldn't comment on whether he had an affair. He did say that having his children run the second restaurant caused a "disturbance of the peace" between him and Clara.
Her loss at Clara's Kitchen was noticed. Wilma Johnson, who was now working in the office, says the food wasn't as good as when Miss Clara cooked. Miles began cooking himself, and didn't take the care or the time that his wife did, she adds. The customers noticed, and many stopped coming.
"It didn't look good," Johnson says of the food. "The freshness of it had left. It was just the 'oomph' had gone out of it."
Johnson, who had access to the books, says Miles also became more extravagant with spending. He made sure the restaurant wanted for nothing, but in doing so, he drove it further into debt, she says. "It took a great toll. The more he bought, the more we kept going under. We weren't making any profit. The only thing we were doing was breaking even, and some days not even breaking even."
But the restaurant persevered. Miss Clara visited at least once a week to peek in and see how things were going. She still drew a paycheck from the business.
Word filtered back to Miss Clara about the drop in business, her daughter Robyn says. People begged her to come back, and she eventually did.
By then it was too late.
Signs of the end appeared rather innocently during one of Miss Clara's nightly visits to the restaurant. A woman approached her. "Are you Clara Miles?" she asked. "IRS," she said, flashing a badge. "Is there some place we can go and talk?"
She and Miss Clara went to a booth and sat. It seemed no one had paid payroll taxes for the restaurant since the late 1980s, the woman said. With fines, Miss Clara owed more than $200,000 in back taxes. Did she have $50,000 with her right now to begin payment? the woman asked. If not, she had the power to padlock the doors and shut the place down right then and there.
Miss Clara cried. Years ago, she'd ceded financial control of the company to her husband, who said that he could handle the books better than her. She remembered her accountant telling her a few times that he was not getting payroll-tax information, but when she asked her husband about that, he said he'd taken care of it.
"I was crying," Miss Clara recalls. "I didn't handle the money. I really did not pay the bills, and it's hard for you to tell Uncle Sam that."
Miles won't say how the duties were divided between himself and Clara. He does say that he was the boss of the restaurant. He blames the closing and the tax troubles on "lack of knowledge on business matters." He says there was confusion with the bookkeeper about the coupons used to keep track of the taxes, but he will not elaborate.
"We were hustling to make it, paying bills," Miles says. "We could have made it out. But they blamed it all on me."
The tax problems turned the slow downward spiral into a whirlpool. Miss Clara did her best to slow things down.
She took back control. Her husband "retired" from active service in the restaurant. But there was a long way to get back on top. The back taxes on the restaurant had been negotiated down to $166,000. But Miss Clara had no savings left: All her money had been sunk into her husband's ill-advised expansion to a second site. And her loyal customer base had dropped to near nothing during her absence.
Robyn remembers watching her mother struggle. Her days were spent trying to cook good-tasting food with scanty, less-than-choice supplies. There were "all hog days--neck bones, pigs feet, and pork chops," Miss Clara recalls. "People would come in and turn right back around."
At the end of the day, she'd pull cash from the register to cover her bills--utilities, suppliers, salaries, taxes.
Her mortgage holder, the SDDC, which had become aware of the restaurant's predicament when it received a late financial statement, made its own demands. She was to hire a professional manager for the restaurant. The SDDC placed a moratorium on her loan payments for a year until she dug herself out, and even set aside $20,000 in an escrow account to help her meet some bills, Jim Reid of the SDDC says. But "it was too much" for her to overcome, he adds.
What followed was a succession of splashy efforts to save Clara's Kitchen. There was the professional manager the SDDC found for Miss Clara--Billy Joe Gardner--who had experience as a hotel chef. He came in pledging "110 percent" to make the restaurant run smoothly.
Then there was the rescue attempt by a group of local attorneys and businessmen--led by Clarence Glover, now with the Dallas Independent School District, and Brooks Fitch of the Greater Dallas Chamber--who said they were putting their heads together to devise a plan to save Clara's Kitchen. They even held a rally at the restaurant, collecting money in the parking lot.
But Miss Clara says they all betrayed her in one way or another. She says she never did see a penny of the money the businessmen had raised. (Clarence Glover told the Dallas Observer he "couldn't remember" any details about his efforts to help Clara's Kitchen. Brooks Fitch, who is no longer with the Greater Dallas Chamber, could not be reached for comment.)
The SDDC, Clara says, promised to help her by paying off her taxes. She says the SDDC led her to believe, for 22 months, that the organization was "just around the corner" from clearing up her tax problem.
"In the end, they didn't want to have nothing more to do with me," she says.
Reid of the SDDC, however, says that isn't true. He says the company did a great deal for her, holding off on demanding payments, and offering advice. But, he adds, "We couldn't run their business for them."
Clara says Gardner, the professional manager, stabbed her in the back. According to former employees, Gardner drove the restaurant further into debt. He ordered high-priced food. And, she says, he used her name and her food to start his own little lunch-counter business after quitting in a huff a few months after starting.
The coalition of black business owners let her down, too. Nothing more was done after their initial drive.
"They just turned out to be...well, they were in it for their own selves," she says. "They were nothing but a bummer."
The end of Clara's Kitchen came with a flick of a switch, on the morning of April 20, 1994. The 12 remaining employees had cooked and set up a steam table for that day, hoping to make enough money to cover the electric bill and a payment to the IRS collector, who came by daily.
Then the gas got cut off. Johnson, who worked that last day, remembers: "We got real still. We informed Clara. The only thing that we could do was try to save the rest of the food. We sold it until it was gone.
"And then it was over."
"I didn't just boil cabbage or steam it. You start with salt joel [a salted meat]. We'd fry it and get all the grease and stuff in there. Then add a little water, pepper, and whatever was going in there. Then add cabbage and cook the lot of it. Have to have a certain amount of fat in there to make the seasoning right. You drink it with some Kool-Aid. It's so tasty and so good."
These days, Miss Clara's days are filled with sameness and remembrance.
She doesn't get out much. After the closing of Clara's Kitchen, she took to her room and didn't leave until her near-death experience. She struggles today with emphysema and a heart condition; she needs a walker or three-wheel scooter to get from place to place. She hasn't so much as cooked an egg in more than a year.
"I just went home and stayed," she says. "I can't move around without oxygen. I have my walker to walk anywhere. I don't do nothing. I didn't even take baths for a while. I just went to the bathroom and went back to bed."
She lost everything, and had to move back into the home that she shares today with her estranged husband. She is virtually penniless, living on Social Security checks and the kindness of her family and friends. Her daughter Robyn lives there, too, providing some comfort. Robyn admits it is hard.
"I cook for her, I bathe her, I pamper her as best I can," Robyn says. "But in some ways, I'm like my father. I do like to be gone all the time."
Being cocooned has given Miss Clara time to think. She has played and replayed the last days of her cafe in her mind to glean some meaning. And she believes she knows now where she went wrong: She trusted people too much; she allowed too many things to get out of her own hands. If she had to do it all again, she would take a more cynical view of life.
"I think I would get some toughness in my heart," she says. "I would have stood up more."
Recently, she had a chance at resurrection. The owner of her former restaurant, now called Rosalee's, called her, asking her to consult with them on cooking. Clara was hesitant about the offer, but listened. Her hopes rose a bit, yet she held off on a final answer.
A few weeks later, she found out that new restaurant had shut down.
At 70, she knows her health as well as her age would preclude her from finding a job like she used to have. But she can teach what she knows, she says. "I may not work another eight hours all day, honey, but I can get on that stool in there and turn out some food, baby. It's all a matter of knowing what you're doing."
And that is her wish: for one more chance in the kitchen. "Wouldn't it be nice to be working and have your heart's desire, too?" she asks. "I hope--oh, I hope the Lord don't take me before I can do that again.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.