Something to Think About

Everyday Use

I teach college English and currently we are studying short fiction.  I had a nice moment the other day when my vocation interlocked with my avocation and I was able to talk about quilts in class.  The short story we were studying was “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker and it’s an interesting riff on how our quilts become valuable to others once they become a commodity, or have a price put on them.  In this scene, the returning daughter named Dee (who calls herself Wangero) is going through the house looking for decorations, and fixates on some quilts.  Ignoring her sister Maggie, who is in the kitchen doing the dishes, her actions are narrated by her mother:

            After dinner Dee (Wangero) went to the trunk at the foot of my bed and started rifling through it. Maggie hung back in the kitchen over the dishpan. Out came Wangero with two quilts. They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them. One was in the Lone Star pattern. The other was Walk Around the Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had won fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jattell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War.
“Mama,” Wangro said sweet as a bird. “Can I have these old quilts?”
I heard something fall in the kitchen, and a minute later the kitchen door slammed.
“Why don’t you take one or two of the others?” I asked. “These old things was just done by me and Big Dee from some tops your grandma pieced before she died.”
“No,” said Wangero. “I don’t want those. They are stitched around the borders by machine.”

I found pictures of Gee’s Bend (above) and made a Google Doc slideshow about the quilts that these women made.  While the quilts mentioned in Walker’s story appear to be more traditional than the Gee’s Bend quilts, I thought it would be interesting for the students to see this body of work.

            “No,” said Wangero. “I don’t want those. They are stitched around the borders by machine.”
“That’ll make them last better,” I said.
“That’s not the point,” said Wangero. “These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all this stitching by hand. Imag’ ine!” She held the quilts securely in her arms, stroking them.
“Some of the pieces, like those lavender ones, come ftom old clothes her mother handed down to her,” I said, moving up to touch the quilts. Dee (Wangero) moved back just enough so that I couldn’t reach the quilts. They already belonged to her.
“Imagine!” she breathed again, clutching them closely to her bosom.
“The truth is,” I said, “I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas.”
She gasped like a bee had stung her.
“Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she said. “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”

So the title comes from the returning daughter (Dee/Wangero) aghast that these treasures would be put to “everyday use.”  She goes about raiding the house for things that ARE put to everyday use: the top of the churn dash, various other household items.  The final straw for the mother (who is the alternate voice in those two passages above) is when Dee/Wangero is asked what she’ll do with the quilts:

“Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she said. “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”
“I reckon she would,” I said. “God knows I been saving ’em for long enough with nobody using ’em. I hope she will!” I didn’t want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told they were old~fashioned, out of style.
“But they’re priceless!” she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. “Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags. Less than that!”
“She can always make some more,” I said. “Maggie knows how to quilt.”
Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. “You just will not under.stand. The point is these quilts, these quilts!”
“Well,” I said, stumped. “What would you do with them?”
“Hang them,” she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with quilts.

I also took in a utility quilt I had made with Roberta Horton in a class I took when I went to Houston.  Roberta didn’t allow us to use our rulers (which made the quilt very “wonky” and crooked), and made us put in an “ugly” fabric so we could learn to work around it.  We also had to sew a few of the patches in backwards, but the general appeal for me of this quilt was the idea that quilts don’t always have to be perfection, an idealized thing of beauty.  I liked learning that quilts were sometimes made in a hurry and were made to be used.

So it was a lovely few minutes in class, and I resisted the urge to keep talking about the quilts and quilters and focus instead on the Englishy part of class: Walker’s story.  But the underlying thread — that many quilts are made to be used and not hung on a wall — resonates with me.

And perhaps it’s why this photo of my grandson Riley is so pleasing to me.  He and his two sisters came for a visit this past weekend, and he toted along the baby quilt that I’d made for him.  That first morning, he called me in to show me that he’d made his bed, and I couldn’t resist snapping this photo of him, standing atop his quilt.  It’s being put to good use — everyday use, even when he comes to Grandma’s house.

9 thoughts on “Everyday Use

  1. What a great way to insert a bit of culture into class. Lucky students! I’m wondering if any of them had or have grandmothers or even mothers who quilt. Did that come out?

  2. Crazy. I remember this story now that you post about it. I’m sure we talked about it in highschool, back before I cared about quilts. My grandmother is always really insistent that quilts are made to be used. She dug out some old ones made by her mother and grandmother, and was apologizing for them before they were even out of the trunk. “these weren’t made to be pretty.” But they were gorgeous. Everything I love about antique quilts. The fact that they were made from scraps of material first used to make clothing. The fact that my grandmother had helped cut the pieces and also with the hand quilting. They fact that they are stained and worn ragged in some areas after years of abuse. Those are quilts. Just fantastic.

  3. I read that story in college. I LOVE it! I had forgotten all about it, and I am so glad you mentioned it.

    I have to find a balance between every day use and treasuring things as I want to. A friend made a grandmothers fans quilt for my daughter that is just exquisite, so I used it on her blessing day, and hung it behind her crib for awhile, and now it is in the top of her closet, because I am afraid it is just too precious for everyday use. But she has worn out the one I made her, so I can accept that.

  4. I just read Alice Walker’s short story today. Family history and traditions are to be treasured. The quilts are an excellent chance to do that. I did love the story and knew that those quilts would be dearly loved by Maggie who knew and kept the traditions of her family. What a great story.

  5. I recently read Alice Walker’s story with my wife and we loved the story. I am a native Appalachian and an Appalachian writer. I grew up in a family who made quilts for everyday use. I am also an auctioneer and have sold a few. I have never made a quilt but have often wished I could. For me, this story is about the devaluation and abandonment of family culture. In “The Hawk’s Done Gone” by Mildred Haun, an Appalachian author from East TN, a very important part of the book is about the repeated sale of antiques by the narrator’s shiftless husband. I have also published a story in “Seeds 2020” at Northeastern Illinois University called “Alafair’s Funeral” which has a young female character in it who has changed her name from Rowena, the name of her great-grandmother, to Rebecca because “all my friends hated it”. Alafair’s brother, an old man, the great uncle of Rowena attends the funeral, set in Kendallville, IN, one of the northern towns occupied by people of the Great Appalachian Migration and their descendants, and calls her out for the name change, is greatly upset by his sister being buried wearing “the first makeup she ever wore” and the funeral being conducted in a modern church where the body was left alone overnight. For me, there is a great deal of connection between these three stories if we look at them from the viewpoint of cultural devaluation and abandonment of the character’s native cultures and ethnicities. I loved your post by the way and I will be following the blog.

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