Every Day Use
Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy
yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people
know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the
hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined
with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the
elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.
Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand
hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms
and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her
sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that "no" is a word the
world never learned to say to her.
You've no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has "made it" is
confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly
from backstage. (A pleasant surprise, of course: What would they do if
parent and child came on the show only to curse out and insult each other?)
On TV mother and child embrace and smile into each other's faces. Sometimes
the mother and father weep, the child wraps them in her arms and leans
across the table to tell how she would not have made it without their help.
I have seen these programs.
Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together
on a TV program of this sort. Out of a dark and soft seated limousine I am
ushered into a bright room filled with many people. There I meet a smiling,
gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a
fine girl I have. Then we are on the stage and Dee is embracing me with
tears in her eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has
told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers.
In real life I am a large, big boned woman with rough, man working hands. In
the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls dur ing the day. I
can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in
zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for
washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it
comes steaming from the hog. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in
the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to
chill before nightfall. But of course all this does not show on television.
I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my
skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright
lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty
But that is a mistake. I know even before I wake up. Who ever knew a Johnson
with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in
the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in
flight, with my head fumed in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee,
though. She would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of
"How do I look, Mama?" Maggie says, showing just enough of her thin body
enveloped in pink skirt and red blouse for me to know she's there, almost
hidden by the door.
"Come out into the yard," I say.
Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless
person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough
to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks. She has been like this,
chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that
burned the other house to the ground.
Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure. She's a
woman now, though sometimes I forget. How long ago was it that the other
house burned? Ten, twelve years? Sometimes I can still hear the flames and
feel Maggie's arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling
off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open,
blazed open by the flames reflected in them. And Dee. I see her standing off
under the sweet gum tree she used to dig gum out of; a look of concentration
on her face as she watched the last dingy gray board of the house fall in
toward the red hot brick chimney. Why don't you do a dance around the ashes?
I'd wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much.
I used to think she hated Maggie, too. But that was before we raised money,
the church and me, to send her to Augusta to school. She used to read to us
without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us
two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a
river of make believe, burned us with a lot of knowl edge we didn't
necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serf' ous way she read,
to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to
Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her grad uation
from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she'd made from an old
suit somebody gave me. She was determined to stare down any disaster in her
efforts. Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time. Often I fought
off the temptation to shake her. At sixteen she had a style of her own: and
knew what style was.
I never had an education myself. After second grade the school was closed
down. Don't ask my why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do
now. Sometimes Maggie reads to me. She stumbles along good naturedly but
can't see well. She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money,
quickness passes her by. She will marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in
an earnest face) and then I'll be free to sit here and I guess just sing
church songs to myself. Although I never was a good singer. Never could
carry a tune. I was always better at a man's job. I used to love to milk
till I was hooked in the side in '49. Cows are soothing and slow and don't
bother you, unless you try to milk them the wrong way.
I have deliberately turned my back on the house. It is three rooms, just
like the one that burned, except the roof is tin; they don't make shingle
roofs any more. There are no real windows, just some holes cut in the sides,
like the portholes in a ship, but not round and not square, with rawhide
holding the shutters up on the outside. This house is in a pasture, too,
like the other one. No doubt when Dee sees it she will want to tear it down.
She wrote me once that no matter where we "choose" to live, she will manage
to come see us. But she will never bring her friends. Maggie and I thought
about this and Maggie asked me, "Mama, when did Dee ever have any friends?"
She had a few. Furtive boys in pink shirts hanging about on washday after
school. Nervous girls who never laughed. Impressed with her they worshiped
the well turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like
bubbles in Iye. She read to them.
When she was courting Jimmy T she didn't have much time to pay to us, but
turned all her faultfinding power on him. He flew to marry a cheap city girl
from a family of ignorant flashy people. She hardly had time to recompose
When she comes I will meetÑbut there they are!
Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house, in her shuffling way, but I
stay her with my hand. "Come back here, " I say. And she stops and tries to
dig a well in the sand with her toe.
It is hard to see them clearly through the strong sun. But even the first
glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat
looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style. From the
other side of the car comes a short, stocky man. Hair is all over his head a
foot long and hanging from his chin like a kinky mule tail. I hear Maggie
suck in her breath. "Uhnnnh, " is what it sounds like. Like when you see the
wriggling end of a snake just in front of your foot on the road. "Uhnnnh."
Dee next. A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud
it hurts my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the
light of the sun. I feel my whole face warming from the heat waves it throws
out. Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoul ders. Bracelets
dangling and making noises when she moves her arm up to shake the folds of
the dress out of her armpits. The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks
closer, I like it. I hear Maggie go "Uhnnnh" again. It is her sister's hair.
It stands straight up like the wool on a sheep. It is black as night and
around the edges are two long pigtails that rope about like small lizards
disappearing behind her ears.
"Wa su zo Tean o!" she says, coming on in that gliding way the dress makes
her move. The short stocky fellow with the hair to his navel is all grinning
and he follows up with "Asalamalakim, my mother and sister!" He moves to hug
Maggie but she falls back, right up against the back of my chair. I feel her
trembling there and when I look up I see the perspiration falling off her
"Don't get up," says Dee. Since I am stout it takes something of a push. You
can see me trying to move a second or two before I make it. She turns,
showing white heels through her sandals, and goes back to the car. Out she
peeks next with a Polaroid. She stoops down quickly and lines up picture
after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering
behind me. She never takes a shot without mak' ing sure the house is
included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it
and me and Maggie and the house. Then she puts the Polaroid in the back seat
of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead.
Meanwhile Asalamalakim is going through motions with Maggie's hand. Maggie's
hand is as limp as a fish, and probably as cold, despite the sweat, and she
keeps trying to pull it back. It looks like Asalamalakim wants to shake
hands but wants to do it fancy. Or maybe he don't know how people shake
hands. Anyhow, he soon gives up on Maggie.
"Well," I say. "Dee."
"No, Mama," she says. "Not 'Dee,' Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!"
"What happened to 'Dee'?" I wanted to know.
"She's dead," Wangero said. "I couldn't bear it any longer, being named
after the people who oppress me."
"You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie," I said. Dicie
is my sister. She named Dee. We called her "Big Dee" after Dee was born.
"But who was she named after?" asked Wangero.
"I guess after Grandma Dee," I said.
"And who was she named after?" asked Wangero.
"Her mother," I said, and saw Wangero was getting tired. "That's about as
far back as I can trace it," I said. Though, in fact, I probably could have
carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches.
"Well," said Asalamalakim, "there you are."
"Uhnnnh," I heard Maggie say.
"There I was not," I said, "before 'Dicie' cropped up in our family, so why
should I try to trace it that far back?"
He just stood there grinning, looking down on me like somebody inspecting a
Model A car. Every once in a while he and Wangero sent eye signals over my
"How do you pronounce this name?" I asked.
"You don't have to call me by it if you don't want to," said Wangero.
"Why shouldn't 1?" I asked. "If that's what you want us to call you, we'll
"I know it might sound awkward at first," said Wangero.
"I'll get used to it," I said. "Ream it out again."
Well, soon we got the name out of the way. Asalamalakim had a name twice as
long and three times as hard. After I tripped over it two or three times he
told me to just call him Hakim a barber. I wanted to ask him was he a
barber, but I didn't really think he was, so I didn't ask.
"You must belong to those beef cattle peoples down the road," I said. They
said "Asalamalakim" when they met you, too, but they didn't shake hands.
Always too busy: feeding the cattle, fixing the fences, putting up salt lick
shelters, throwing down hay. When the white folks poisoned some of the herd
the men stayed up all night with rifles in their hands. I walked a mile and
a half just to see the sight.
Hakim a barber said, "I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and
raising cattle is not my style." (They didn't tell me, and I didn't ask,
whether Wangero (Dee) had really gone and married him.)
We sat down to eat and right away he said he didn't eat collards and pork
was unclean. Wangero, though, went on through the chitlins and com bread,
the greens and everything else. She talked a blue streak over the sweet
potatoes. Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the
benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn't effort to buy chairs.
"Oh, Mama!" she cried. Then turned to Hakim a barber. "I never knew how
lovely these benches are. You can feel the rump prints," she said, running
her hands underneath her and along the bench. Then she gave a sigh and her
hand closed over Grandma Dee's butter dish. "That's it!" she said. "I knew
there was something I wanted to ask you if I could have." She jumped up from
the table and went over in the corner where the churn stood, the milk in it
crabber by now. She looked at the churn and looked at it.
"This churn top is what I need," she said. "Didn't Uncle Buddy whittle it
out of a tree you all used to have?"
"Yes," I said.
"Un huh," she said happily. "And I want the dasher, too."
"Uncle Buddy whittle that, too?" asked the barber.
Dee (Wangero) looked up at me.
"Aunt Dee's first husband whittled the dash," said Maggie so low you almost
couldn't hear her. "His name was Henry, but they called him Stash."
"Maggie's brain is like an elephant's," Wangero said, laughing. "I can use
the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table," she said, sliding a
plate over the chute, "and I'll think of something artistic to do with the
When she finished wrapping the dasher the handle stuck out. I took it for a
moment in my hands. You didn't even have to look close to see where hands
pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the
wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs
and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was beautiful light yellow wood, from
a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived.
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 ftames on the ftont
porch and quilted them. One was in the Lone Stat pattetn. The other was Walk
Around the Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had
wotn 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 unifotm 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
"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
"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 atms, 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 ttuth is," I said, "I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when
she matties 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."
"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 them7"
"Hang them," she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with
Maggie by now was standing in the door. I could almost hear the sound her
feet made as they scraped over each other.
"She can have them, Mama," she said, like somebody used to never winning
anything, or having anything reserved for her. "I can 'member Grandma Dee
without the quilts."
I looked at her hard. She had filled her bottom lip with checkerberry snuff
and gave her face a kind of dopey, hangdog look. It was Grandma Dee and Big
Dee who taught her how to quilt herself. She stood there with her scarred
hands hidden in the folds of her skirt. She looked at her sister with
something like fear but she wasn't mad at her. This was Maggie's portion.
This was the way she knew God to work.
When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and
ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I'm in church and the
spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did some thing I never
done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room,
snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero's hands and dumped them into
Maggie's lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open.
"Take one or two of the others," I said to Dee.
But she turned without a word and went out to Hakim~a~barber.
"You just don't understand," she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
"What don't I understand?" I wanted to know.
"Your heritage," she said, And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and
said, "You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's
really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd
never know it."
She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and
Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses. But a real smile, not scared. After
we watched the car dust settle I asked Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff.
And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in
the house and go to bed.