What does the quilt symbolize to the narrator and her daughter, Maggie?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The quilts represent an intimate bond to community and family identity for Maggie and Mrs. Johnson.  To a great extent, the quilt embodies the personalized connection that both mother and daughter share to one another and their past.  They both understand the patchwork to the quilt and what each element in the quilt encompasses.  Given how Maggie has a memory "like an elephant," both quilts represent the shared memory that both women have about their own identities as African- American women:  

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 worn 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.

Both women understand the history of the quilts. They embody the pain and joy in their lives and in their family's narratives.  They understand the narratives woven within its frames and recognize its value as embodiments of their family.

Dee does not fully grasp this.  Initially, when Mrs. Johnson offered a quilt to Dee upon her leaving for college, she rejected it as "old~fashioned, out of style."  It becomes clear that Dee likes material possessions and "wanted nice things."  Dee is described as one who "had a style of her own: and knew what style was."  Dee recognizes and covets the quilts for their fashionable value, as objects that will enable her to construct her fashion narrative as "embracing" African- American identity and nationalist notions of the good.  The quilts become an accessory, something that "fits" a larger narrative as opposed to being the narrative.

It is in this regard where Maggie and her mother differ from Dee.  Maggie and Mrs. Johnson understand the symbolic connection to the quilts and their symbolic significance. Even if Maggie is going to ensure that she put the quilts to "everyday use," it does not matter because Mrs. Johnson knows that Maggie understands the intrinsic meaning to the quilt.  The ending is one in which Mrs. Johnson validates this condition in her daughter, a condition of loyalty and honoring her past as a reflection of her identity.  While Dee rebukes both in failing to understand their "heritage," Mrs. Johnson sits with Maggie, convinced that she understands the heritage and symbolic value of the quilts just fine.