Describe as fully as possible the lives of the mother, Dee, and Maggie prior to the events of the story, "Everyday Use." How are the following incidents from the past also reflected in...

Describe as fully as possible the lives of the mother, Dee, and Maggie prior to the events of the story, "Everyday Use."

How are the following incidents from the past also reflected in the present actions: ( a) Dee’s hatred of the old house; (b) Dee’s ability “to stare down any disaster”; ( c) Maggie’s burns from the fire; (d) the mother’s having been “hooked in the side” while milking a cow; (e) Dee’s refusal to accept a quilt when she went away to college?

Expert Answers
favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dee did hate the old house, so much so that Mama implies that Dee might have burned it down.  Perhaps it's a suspicion that Mama doesn't even realize she has.  Symbolically, Dee wears bright colors that are associated with fire: oranges and yellows.  Maggie wears colors associated with being burnt: red and pink.  During the fire, while little Maggie was holding on tightly, her burned skin was "sticking to [her mother]," and Dee was standing outside with "a look of concentration [...].  Why don't you do a dance around the ashes? [Mama had] wanted to ask her."  Poor Maggie was burned and scarred for life, but Dee hardly reacted to the destruction of her home and most of her family's belongings.  As Dee grew, Mama says that "She washed [them] in a river of make believe, burned [them] with a lot of knowledge [they] didn't necessarily need."  Here, Mama uses a figurative burning to describe Dee's treatment of the family.  She even says that Dee's eyes "would not flicker for minutes at a time," using language typically used to describe flame to describe Dee's resolve.  Now, despite Dee's previous desire to burn up all evidence of her past, she comes home to claim it, claim it all, even the items her family still uses regularly.  

Mama says that she "used to love to milk [cows]" until one "hooked [her] in the side" years ago.  "Cows are soothing and slow and don't bother you, unless you try to milk them the wrong way."  This is sort of like Mama—she moves slowly and doesn't bother anyone, that is, until someone pushes her.  When Dee returns and tries to take the quilts promised to Maggie, she pushes Mama.  Mama says that Dee didn't want a quilt when she offered them to her years ago, when Dee was about to move away for college, but now she holds them out of reach as though they already belong to her.  She insults Maggie, calling her "backward," and Maggie is about to let Dee have her way again, until Mama stops it.  She takes the quilts away from Dee and plops them into Maggie's lap, shocking everyone.  Dee "tried to milk her the wrong way," so to speak, and so Mama "hooked her."

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From the very beginning, Maggie and Momma are people who take what life gives them and makes the best of it.  They live simply and happily--they may not have everything they want, but they have everything they need.

Dee, however, is miserable with her life.  She loathes the house, her momma, her sister, her life.  As a result, it is implied that the house burns and Dee may have had something to do with it.  She gets what she wants regardless of the cost to others, and she never truly shows any remorse about the burns Maggie suffers while trying to save items from the house.  What is important to her is that the house she hated is now gone...and she smiles as she watches it burn.

Dee has always been full of herself, loud, spoiled, and self-important.  Her mother and sister are quieter, more reserved, and appreciative. They are not defeated, but they have taken their knocks. Maggie becomes even more reclusive after she is burned, and she seems resentful of Dee whom she describes as someone "the world never says 'No' to". 

Dee leaves as soon as she is able...not looking back, and not taking anything with her...even the quilts and "heritage" that she decides to come back and claim in the story.

Momma finally finds her gusto when she stops giving in to Dee and speaks up for Maggie who never speaks up for herself in more than a slamming door.

LeeAnn Kuhn | Student

Maggie and the narrator are simple, down-to-earth people who are content with the life they are living, despite their poverty. This does not mean they lack intelligence, however. Mama is a keen observer of the world, noticing every detail and drawing astute conclusions from them. And although the narrator says that Maggie "knows she is not bright," Dee comments that her sister's brain "is like an elephant's." Maggie may be a slow reader and not educated, but she remembers things that matter to her. And the things that matter to her, and to the narrator, are home, family, and community.

In contrast, Dee has moved away from home and tried to create a life as different from her childhood experience as possible. She has changed her name to "Wangero" to reflect her African heritage, believing the name she was given at birth represented people who oppressed her. She looks at her mother and sister as if they are "dimwits," people who couldn't possibly understand the world the way she and her educated, cultured peers can.

The past and the present are braided together in this story, symbolized by Maggie's burn scars from the fire and the narrator's inability to milk cows due to being kicked by one years ago. So it's interesting to see changes taking place that reflect both the past and the present when Dee returns for a visit. The house that Dee so hated is now an important backdrop in the Polaroid photos she takes of her mother, and the quilts she declined when she went away to college for being "old-fashioned, out of style" are now "priceless" items to be displayed on a wall for what they symbolize. For Dee, the past she tried to eradicate in so many ways has changed. No longer are her house and family shameful embarrassments; now they represent the history of African American people and culture in America.

However, the biggest change in the story is the dynamic between Dee and the narrator. In the past, Dee was the blessed child, the one "that 'no' [was] a word the world never learned to say to her." Her mother never said "no" to her either. Dee got whatever she wanted and her mother helped her however she could. Dee was hard and determined, able to "stare down any disaster." But at the end of the story, Dee is not able to stare down her mother. Dee's selfishness finally causes the narrator to stand up to her daughter. She does not give Dee the quilts. She gives them to Maggie and tells Dee to take some other quilts. Dee turns away silently and goes out to the car. As the narrator and Maggie follow her to say goodbye, Dee admonishes them to "make something" of themselves. She tells them "It's a new day for us," meaning African Americans. It is a new day, indeed. The relationships within the family have changed. Dee has taken "no" for an answer, and Maggie and the narrator experience a new level of contentment as their relationship has grown stronger.

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Everyday Use

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