Old Lady Comforts and other stories from Friendship, Arkansas
Lisa Jarrett in conversation with Miley Jarrett, edited for length and clarity
[Excerpts from this interview were included in The “Old Lady Comforts” Reading Group, a workshop project presented at PICA, TBA: 2020 and Fringe Arts in connection with artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s project American Chameleon: The Living Installments.]
On September 16, 2020 I interviewed my mother, Miley Jarrett, about her mother and grandmothers. I had just re-read Alice Walker’s seminal 1972 essay In Search of our Mothers' Gardens to develop a workshop experience to facilitate and activate artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s Syllabus for Peace. The title of Walker’s essay is striking. It still defines so much of my art practice and the writing itself clarified so many ideas that I did not have language for when I first encountered it. It was a grounding (and groundbreaking) read to me but for some reason I had not read the piece in years. So, when I saw that it was listed on Jaamil’s syllabus, I jumped at the chance to engage with it again. After reading it this time something new occurred to me about my own learning, or lack thereof. There was so much I didn’t/don't know and couldn’t/can't imagine about my grandmothers lives and the only person still alive to tell me about any of it is my mother. I wondered why I hadn’t thought to ask her before 2020, considering that so much of my practice addresses ancestry. I am grateful to Jaamil’s work and to my mom for helping me, as she says, pull these stories back up into her mind. Old Lady Comforts are what she called the shoes that my Great-grandmothers wore and Friendship, Arkansas is where she grew up.
LISA: Hi, Mom. How are you?
MILEY: I'm really good. This is exciting. Thank you for interviewing me.
LISA: I'm really excited to have this conversation too. What are you doing right now?
MILEY: Right now I am just resting, because I was cooking. I didn't sleep very good last night, so I was very tired after working so hard today.
LISA: Oh, are you feeling rested now?
MILEY: Yes, and I feel like talking. I'm so glad you called me.
LISA: Like I was mentioning before, I wanted to talk to you after reading an essay written in 1972 by Alice Walker. It's called In Search of our Mothers' Gardens. I was thinking I'd like ask you a few questions about your mom, my Grandma Martha, and also both of your grandmothers. I know about Grandma Ella Jones, who is your dad's mom. Can you tell me the name of your maternal grandmother?
MILEY: Lizzie Dooley. Her name was Elizabeth, but everybody called her Lizzie. Lizzie Dooley. I call her Grandma Dooley.
LISA: Then how about your Grandma Ella Jones? What did you call her?
MILEY: Grandma Jones, because that was her last name. That was my father's mother. So I always called her Grandma Jones or sometimes Big Momma.
LISA: So first I want to ask you about your mom. Can you tell me her full name too?
MILEY: Martha Louella Kemp. Actually, I shouldn't say Kemp. I have to take that back. She was named after her grandmother, but her name was Martha Louella Dooley. I don't know why I said Kemp. I guess because it's the same name to me.
LISA: Where did she grow up? Where was she from?
MILEY: She grew up in Arkansas, as far as I know. In Friendship, Arkansas. The name of the little town is Friendship.
LISA: Do you know what her life was like growing up? Was that something that she talked about?
MILEY: Actually, she never talked about it. I think she worked a lot in the fields, because they had a lot of farms in those days. I think she worked a lot in the field, but she didn't talk much about it. I just remember her talking about the long walk they had going to school.
LISA: What did she say?
MILEY: She just said it was a long walk, because they didn't have a bus to take them there. So they would always go to school, walk to school through the woods, these little paths that they would take through the woods to get to school.
LISA: What are some things that you remember talking to your mom about, some things that stand out?
MILEY: Hmm. I remember talking to her about these chores I had to do, and I never wanted to do them, because I was a kid. She would say, "You got to go milk the cow in the morning before you go to school." So I had to do that, and I had to go milk the cow after I came home from school too, which I never wanted to do, but I did, and I learned it. It was really interesting how you have to milk a cow, because it's not as easy as it looks. You have to really have a certain technique to do it.
Then I remember having another chore, churning the milk to make the butter, because we used to have cattle. We would get the milk from the cows, save the milk in these big containers, and then if we wanted to have butter, it was my job to churn the milk to make the butter come to the top of the milk. So that's how you get skim milk, because you bring all the butterfat to the top. Then you can take the butter, put it in the dish after you churn it for maybe an hour. You use this certain jar with a little lever on it that you work up and down. You churn it so long, and then you get butter, and then you put it in the dish, you stir it around with a little bit of salt, and you get butter. I remember that was always my job, and I hated doing that. Now when I think back, it was not a hard job. I was the youngest. I had all these little jobs to do.
LISA: Did your mom teach you how to churn the butter and milk the cow?
MILEY: Actually, my father taught me how to milk the cow, not my mother.
LISA: What about the butter churning?
MILEY: The churning, yeah, she had to show me, I'm sure, a few times. So I had to do that, and I also had another job where I had to plant seeds in the garden, because my mother used to grow these vegetable gardens. We would have peas, and tomatoes, and cabbage, and green peppers. So I would always have to plant these little seeds in these little rows. Then it was fun, because you could watch the vegetables grow, and we actually got so many vegetables from these gardens that we could put some in a bag and freeze it for the winter. When I think about it, I guess it was really pretty good, because I really learned a lot, and I think that's why I never really liked vegetables from the store or anything, we always grew our own.
LISA: I remember we were talking recently, and you were mentioned you wanted to start a garden with your granddaughter, Alexa. What made you think to do that? Is it related?
MILEY: Probably. I thought about doing that, especially since I have a lot of time on my hands because of COVID-19, and I thought it would be something fun to do, but because she's going to school and being exposed to so many people, I actually haven't started doing that yet, but we might do it later, I don't know.
LISA: What do you think that your mom did for fun?
MILEY: A good question. We didn't really talk too much about that. Probably going to visit relatives and just hanging out with other people her age. We didn't talk a lot about what she did for fun. Isn't that something? Probably when you're a kid, and you're growing up, your mom is your mom, she doesn't talk so much about what she did as a kid for fun. Did I ever talk to you about what I did as a kid to have fun? Probably not, right?
LISA: Not that I can think of actually, but if you were to think about what she would do with her time as a grownup, even if you didn't talk about it, are there things you can think of that she did just for her own pleasure that didn't have to do with anything else?
MILEY: Probably shopping. I remember her telling me about buying a pair of these boots with tassels on them. So she probably liked to shop for clothes, when she had a little extra money, that's what I'm thinking. She probably did that for fun and just hung out with the other people her age, and they probably went to visit each other. They went to church a lot. They did a lot of churchgoing.
LISA: Shopping for boots and clothes sounds like that passed down pretty good. We all love to shop for boots and clothes. You, me, and Rachel.
MILEY: Yeah, right. So that's what I'm thinking. She probably shopped for clothes because she did a lot of going out. They went to a lot of church functions and things like that. So she probably got a chance to wear a lot of different clothing, and she would sew a lot, too. In those days, I think, that was part of learning how to be an adult, sewing and cooking and cleaning. You had to learn that.
LISA: You also used to talk about her quilting, I know we have one of her quilts. I never got to meet my Grandma Martha because she died when you were really young and the house that [Grand]Papa Jones built burned down, and so I never got to see the house that you grew up in, but there's that one quilt that you have still. Then I think I remember that Auntie Willie recently gave you another unfinished quilt that was Grandma Martha’s, right?
MILEY: Yes. That's what they used to do. They used to get together as young adults after they had kids. I remember this part, because I was a little kid then. They used to do quilting bees. They would call it a quilting bee and get together with women in the neighborhood and do a quilt topper together. Let's do Martha's quilt today. Let's do Louise's quilt next week. Let's do this person's quilt, etc. I used to love going in the room, because I would crawl under the–it looked like a big table, where they'd put the topper, and then they would put the lining, and then they would put cotton down, and then they'd put that topper on it, and they'd sew in these different designs. I used to crawl underneath that little area, because it was so much fun to hide out under there while they were quilting, talking, and gossiping.
LISA: How old do you think you were about that time?
MILEY: I was probably about seven or eight. That's what I think. I had to be a little kid. Why else would I be crawling under there like that?
LISA: Because it was fun. That sounds fun! It sounds like quilting was for work, but also for fun. How did they design the topper? If they were working on Grandma Martha's quilt, for example, how would they decide? Where did the fabric come from, and how would they decide what it would look like?
MILEY: They used to have patterns. I remember they would do a pattern that looked like a ring. They would sew little pieces of scraps together. They would get it from where they would go to a factory and get scraps that they would just throw away, bags of scraps. Then they would cut them out into little and patterns, sew them together and then make a topper. So they must have gotten the scraps from the dress factory, where they had leftover pieces of fabric, then they would sew all these different little designs, and they would make the topper. I just remember the wedding ring design, and I think they had patterns, too, right? They must've had patterns, because where'd they get that wedding ring design, it must've been a pattern they had somewhere.
LISA: Maybe so, or a passed down pattern. Mm-hmm.
MILEY: Yes. See, because I was so young, I didn't pay a lot of attention to all that stuff. I should have paid more attention to that.
LISA: Talk more about what you remember. Do you remember who would come to the quilting bees? Do you remember who any of the other women were that would come?
MILEY: For my mom's quilt it would be about six of them. My two cousins I know would come. Cousin Shane and Cousin [inaudible]. Well, Bessie's three cousins would come too, and maybe the other people in the community. I don't remember all the faces of the people that came, but I know they used to come over and sit until all the sewing was done, making that topper and then putting it together as a quilt. They would do it until they finished it. First you had to sew the topper, and then put down the cotton on top of the lining, and then sew it together. I don't know if you've ever seen a quilt being made.
LISA: I've never been to a quilting bee. They sewed the quilts by hand, not with a sewing machine?
MILEY: All by hand. Yep, it was all by hand.
LISA: Would your Grandma Dooley or Grandma Jones ever come?
MILEY: No, I think they must have died before that time, because they never would come to that, or they just felt like they didn't want to participate or something. I don't recall them being there or involved at all.
LISA: Can you tell me the story about Grandma Ella's shoes, what you remember about that? Grandma Jones, I guess you would call her.
MILEY: Grandma Jones, right. I would go over there and help her with her shoes. That was my job, to help to put on her stockings and shoes, because it was hard to reach down. I just remember her having these black lace up shoes, and they would be so soft, soft, and they'd be a biscuit toe, but the heels would be a big thick stack, looking like a square heel, about two inches, and it would lace up, and she used to wear these cotton stockings with it. So, I had to help her put on the stockings, and help her put on the shoes, and then lace them up. I don't see those shoes around anymore.
LISA: What were they called? What was that style of the shoes called?
MILEY: We used to call them old lady comforts, but I don't know if that was the actual name of them or not. They're just really comfortable shoes. They're just soft shoes.
MILEY: I was also going to say, I remember when I was about eight years old that my older sister, your Auntie Candy, used to make me stand on a stool in the kitchen to make breakfast every day. I would make the biscuits from scratch and make oats and make eggs and stuff, but I was so little, I had to stand on a little stool to do it, and I just wanted to do it so much. She was like, "Okay, do it." I used to do that in the morning too.
LISA: Oh, so you made breakfast in the morning and milked the cow?
MILEY: Mm-hmm. Did all that before school.
LISA: Then you'd come back home from school, and you'd milk the cow again, and then help with dinner or whatever else.
MILEY: Wash the dishes.
LISA: I understand so much more about my childhood chores. Ha!
MILEY: Yeah, because I had so many chores. That's nothing, I also used to do laundry. We used to have an old fashioned washer with an agitator in it, and you'd have to feed the clothes through this ringer, the ringer you turn, you feed the clothes in it to wring the water out. Now, they have the spinning cycle, but not back then.
LISA: You did all that by hand?
MILEY: Yes. I remember I would do that once a week. Basically, growing up I did a lot of work, because when you grow up on a farm, you do a lot of work. It's all about work. Then we'd go out and play.
LISA: What did you do for fun? What was your playtime like when you were a kid?
MILEY: We would go out and run around the house, play hide-and-go-seek, and just play games with each other. It was mainly hide-and-go-seek. I remember that one. Then we used to sit out under the walnut tree, because the walnut tree would drop all these walnuts. We used to have these big rocks, and we'd crack the walnuts and eat them. We thought that was so much fun. We had a walnut picker and stuff like that, but mainly we used to chase each other, run around a lot. That's what I remember, because you couldn't ride a bicycle. There was nowhere to ride a bicycle to, there were so many rocks.
LISA: Is this all happing in Friendship, Arkansas? Is that where you grew up? I thought you grew up in Morrilton.
MILEY: This is in Friendship, Arkansas. My mother grew up in the same place where I lived too. This is still Friendship, Arkansas. Morrilton is a little town that we used to go to shop, but Friendship was the name of our little community. Then we used to have Center Ridge. It was Friendship, Center Ridge, and Morrilton. Those were the little towns that we used to always go to. I was born in the Morrilton Hospital, but the name of our little community was Friendship. Morrilton was considered a big city. You see what I'm saying?
LISA: I see. That makes sense. How far is Morrilton from Little Rock? Little Rock is the city in Arkansas most people are familiar with.
MILEY: Oh, Morrilton is about two hours North of Little Rock and about an hour south of Friendship. Little Rock was a big, big, big, big city for us.
LISA: What do you think that your mom would have wanted you to remember the most about her?
MILEY: Huh? Maybe the fact that she was such a God-fearing woman. She used to always read the Bible and the scriptures to us. She was so God-fearing, and she was a good person. She didn't tell a lot of lies. She never lied. She told us how bad lying was, just that she was such a good person. I think she would want us to remember that and to try to imitate being like that.
LISA: If you could ask her anything now, if she were still alive and you could ask her a question that you just never got a chance to, what would you ask her?
MILEY: Wow. That's a hard one, because there's so many things. I guess one question would be: What is it like to be a wife and a mother for so long, and keep your integrity for a long length of time like that? Because my mother did, it seemed like. That's a really tough question.
LISA: Yeah. I was wondering what you would say because I often think about the questions we don't ask each other. After having this conversation, I realized that you and I have never really just sat down and spent time talking about your mom, or your grandma, or just what their lives were like, or what your life was like. Just hearing these stories makes me laugh. It also makes me sad, because I'm like, "Oh, I almost never would have asked these questions. I wouldn't know these stories."
MILEY: That's right.
LISA: This might be an easier question. It's still hard, but what's one of your favorite memories of your mother or your Grandmothers?
MILEY: Hmm. Favorite memory? Hmm. Let me think. Of my mother, I just remember her always making dinners and making sure that they were good, and planting in her garden, always freezing and canning. Before we got a freezer, she used to always can, and she used to do so many things as far as cooking. I remember that. Those are some of my favorite memories of her. I always tried to cook and be like her in the sense that I would try to make dinners for my family.
My grandmothers, Grandma Dooley and Grandma Jones, they were always so loving. It's like you just knew you could do no wrong when you were with your grandparents, because no matter what you did, they thought it was wonderful.
LISA: Yeah, to your grandmas, you're perfect all the time. Do you think about that more now that you have your own grandbabies?
MILEY: No, I really don't. It's so true what the scripture says, when someone is dead your memory of them fades. I only think about them now that you're making me remember, it pulls it back up into my mind. Yeah.
LISA: Is that a good thing or do you wish that I wasn't asking you about any of this?
MILEY: Oh, no! This is a good thing. It's fun to think about this kind of stuff, because I've never really given it a lot of thought. You know that it's that all the things that you do growing up, if you could contain them in a book, the book would be too big. It's like when Jesus was on earth. They say all the things that happened in his life are not written down, because no book could ever contain it.
That's true of all of our lives, too. So many little things happen that you could never really record it. As I'm talking to you, I'm thinking about when I went to high school, it was a whole other life, as far as me being with my niece, Velva, and my girlfriends. We were always laughing, and running around, liking boys, and stuff like that. So that's a whole other thing. It would be me and Velva talking and laughing about stuff like that. That's another part of my life that I just forget about, but that happened too. We used to spend the night with each other and talk about boys and stuff and laugh and giggle. Those are memories that you never forget.
LISA: You and Velva still act like that. You giggle, and laugh, and talk about boys!
MILEY: We do?!
LISA: Yes, you like to talk about Denzel and laugh about all kinds of other things.
MILEY: That's true, that's true. We talk about so much stuff.
LISA: It's so funny to watch.
MILEY: Velva called me the other day. She called me, she says, "Oh, I can't believe how fine Barack Obama is." Then she says, "I love to see him walk. I don't care what he stands for. Just watch him walk." I was like, "Watch him walk? Okay." She's too crazy. I was like, "Okay, I'll watch him walk." Now every time I see him, I think of that.
LISA: I'm probably never going to be able to think about anything else again.
MILEY: I also remember when I was a little girl, I used to have to bring water out to everybody that was in the field, picking cucumbers or picking potatoes, because we used to grow cucumbers and potatoes. The rest of the family—Uncle Johnny will tell you this—they would say, "Miley doesn't do anything. She goes for water and never comes back." I would go in and get the water to bring out to them, and I would take my time. They were like, "She's so spoiled. She doesn't do anything. She's supposed to be bringing water out to us. Where is she?" But I couldn't really work out there because I would get sores on my legs. I was so allergic to the vine. I remember I was a little girl doing that too. There are just so many segments of life that you just don't even think about talking about.
LISA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
MILEY: I also remember before we got a freezer. When we did get one we got one of those big lay down type freezers you put a lot of food in. It would freeze meat, freeze vegetables and all that. Before we got that Mom used to can vegetables, and I was the one that was designated to wash the jars, because we had all those Mason jars from the previous year. They had to be washed out, and I had the small hands. So it was my job to wash the jars in the soapy water and rinse them with the warm water. Then she would put the jars in a pressure cooker, after she put the food in there and pressurize it, and can it. It was fun, but it was a lot of work.
LISA: In this Alice Walker essay that I was telling you about there's a question that Walker asks the reader. She asks, "What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother's time?" How would you answer that question, Mom?
MILEY: I would say that when you think of the quilting, that was a type of artwork, but if a person was just wanting to be an artist, I don't know if they would get a lot of work in that time. I don't know where they would exhibit it. I don't know how that would really work out. From what I know, I just don't think working outside the house, being an artist (or in any other type of job), that you would have a lot of success in that time when they grew up. The opportunities were just not there for black women or black men either. I really don't think so.
LISA: Do you think they even thought about that? That word ‘artist’? Do you think that it meant anything to them?
MILEY: I never heard my mother refer to an artist, so I don't know. I don't see that she would have, not in her situation. There could have been other families that had more artistic abilities. I look at your dad’s aunts, and they are very artistic. Aunt Louise, she was very artistic and she did a lot of art, but I don't know if she ever got paid for it. She just did it for her own enjoyment.
LISA: I remember finding a poem that she wrote to me when I was a baby.
MILEY: Mm-hmm. Yes, she was very artistic. She would put different designs on her floor. She had a writing ability, and she had this other ability too. I don't know what you would call that, a studio artist? She would make things, objects and things, and paintings. So, in that time I think that if anybody had that gift, it was for their own enjoyment. They didn't really share it, because they didn't have the outlet or the opportunity.
LISA: Anything else you want to say, Mom?
Miley: No, but thank you for interviewing me.
LISA: Okay, I love you.
MILEY: I love you too. Have a good day, baby doll. Bye-bye.