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Clara's Last Supper

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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."

But Clara didn't like the idea. "I didn't want to go into business. That is a fact," she says.

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Kaylois Henry