In her short story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker provides significant information about the past lives of each of the three main characters (the mother, Dee, and Maggie). Such information includes the following:
- The mother is a large, industrious woman capable of performing lots of hard work. She knows how to cope with life’s hardships in a rural area.
- Nevertheless, the mother is intimidated by white people.
- The mother was unable to go to school beyond the second grade, in large part because African Americans were denied educational opportunities in the rural south when the mother was growing up.
- The mother lives, without a husband, in a modest, somewhat primitive home with her daughter Maggie.
- Church and church songs are important to the mother, although she is not a talented singer.
- Unlike her mother, Dee is not intimidated by anyone.
- Dee’s skin is lighter than Maggie’s, and she never liked the family home that burned in the fire that injured Maggie.
- Thanks to her mother and the family church, Dee was able to afford a good education, unlike Maggie and her mother. She was proud of her learning and used it, to some degree, as a way of intimidating her mother and sister.
- Even as a teenager, Dee was concerned to dress well and be stylish. She liked “nice things.”
- Dee never really had close friends, although she did have a group of admiring hangers-on.
- Dee’s romantic involvement with a male named “Jimmy T.” was unsuccessful.
- Maggie is ashamed of scars she suffered in a fire during her childhood.
- Maggie has long been reticent and shy and intimidated by Dee.
- According to the mother, Maggie has poor vision, is not especially attractive, is not especially intelligent, has little money, and seems destined to marry a local man:
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) . . .
- Maggie had been promised, by her mother, some old quilts that had been in the family for years.
In general, the past of all the characters affects their interactions in the present. Dee has moved away from her past but wants to maintain contact with it in only the most superficial and "stylish" ways. The quilts, which in a sense symbolize the family's past and the family's heritage, are important to her only as material things that she can display.
In contrast, the lives of Maggie and the mother are still largely rooted in the past. In other words, their present lives are not much different from the lives they lived years earlier. They are embodiments of the continuity between past and present, whereas Dee has her sights focused almost entirely on the here and now and on the future. She regards her mother and sister as relics of the past, although she sees how she can use the quilts to her own advantage in the present and in years to come.