Summary and Analysis: Part I, pp. 66-165
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2476
Miranda and Abigail write a letter to Cocoa in New York; Ambush, Bernice’s husband, suddenly interrupts the sisters with a request for immediate medical assistance from Mama Day. Bernice has an infection caused by the misuse of fertility drugs. The episode offers further proof of Miranda’s power and wisdom. She locates the source of the infection and eases the pain with a home remedy. Yet she feels compelled to call the off-island physician, Doctor Smithfield, to diagnose the full effects of the drugs Bernice had taken. Miranda treats her patients with the help of her knowledge of the systems of the body, the processes of sickness, and the healing remedies available in the surrounding woods and fields. She therefore doesn't understand how medical drugs work. Bernice’s crisis is ultimately solved by the combined efforts of Miranda and the doctor. The evening ends with Mama Day’s promise to help Bernice conceive a child by taking her to the “other place,” the location of the first Day family home that is now the site of mysterious healing powers.
During the walk home, Mama Day reflects on the consequences of her power. Her special abilities led to a life dedicated to the care of others even from a young age. As a child, Miranda comforted her own mother after the devastating death of Peace; she became the source of strength that kept their “home together”—hence her childhood nickname, “little Mama.” As an adult, she extended her caregiving role by bringing countless babies into the world as a midwife and providing both advice and medicine to them throughout their lives as both children and adults. Although childless herself, she is clearly still a “mama,” albeit to the entire island community.
Frances, a neighbor woman, interrupts these thoughts by stopping Mama Day on the road. She wants to ask for help with her philandering boyfriend, Junior Lee, for she believes that Mama Day could provide a cure for this behavior. Miranda decides, however, to dispense only advice for this case. By the next day, news of an affair between Junior Lee and the widow Ruby has spread across the island. Miranda, however, is too busy preparing to help Bernice to be distracted by these rumors. She plans to keep Bernice preoccupied with high hopes and home remedies until the time arrives to take her to the other place.
In the meantime, Cocoa and George seem to be in the first stages of a romance in New York. Yet Cocoa is not so certain of the motivation behind George’s enthusiasm for showing her “every inch” of his beloved city, even the most far-flung neighborhoods and landmarks. Her doubts multiply when George tells her about his decision to finally break off an intermittent relationship of five years with Shawn, a white woman. Cocoa tries to set him free after this admission, but George simply won’t go away. The pair meets a week later for a discussion of King Lear that quickly becomes an opportunity to explore the sexual attraction between them.
Back in Willow Springs, it is "Candle Walk" night. This ritual, held on December 22nd of each year, is celebrated instead of Christmas. Members of the community walk by candlelight from home to home, greeting their neighbors, with gifts and leaving with a reminder to “lead on with light.” Traditionally, gifts were limited to “anything hand-made,” such as a plate of cookies or cup of ginger tea, and families in need received “a little more … quiet-like, from their neighbors.” Many members of the new generation, however, deviate from this custom by purchasing gifts and exchanging them only with those capable of doing the same. Yet these changes have not yet altered the spirit of the tradition. Bernice and Ambush offer proof of this fact; this year they present breathtaking gifts to the Day sisters—a beautiful hand-sewn dress for Abigail, and an elaborate, hand-carved chair for Miranda.
The sisters are surprised and pleased by this gesture. The chair itself, however, shocks them; it reminds them of their mother, who sat in a rocking chair and “twist[ed] … thread” for days after Peace died. Her grief only ended with suicide. After the couple departs, Miranda suggests that the chair belongs not on her porch, but rather at the other place. The evening concludes on this dark note as Miranda walks in the woods near the old homestead and feels a ghost brush past her in the darkness. She is on the verge of a premonition that is still not clear. The foreboding mood echoes the rumors circulating earlier in the evening that Ruby had used hoodoo magic to drive Frances mad and, thus, to secure Junior Lee for herself.
Meanwhile, in New York, the relationship with George brings great joy, but also great fear, to Cocoa. She is terrified of losing him, and their trysts begin to end more frequently with “panic” than contentment. Her fear leads to irrational behavior and threatens to destroy the bond between them. George, unbeknownst to Cocoa, has similar fears. He thus decides to test her with his love of football. George imagines that her level of patience with his need to follow the sport all winter will determine whether they are destined to be together. The two almost lose each other in this game. After an emotional, and seemingly final, fight, George resolves to ask Cocoa to marry him. Yet he catches her in a rare act of infidelity that threatens to part them. Angry, he finally reveals his past to her, the painful fact that his mother was a prostitute who abandoned him at birth. After listening to his story, one that Cocoa has waited to hear as proof of his love, she decides to propose.
The plot moves forward to midwinter in Willow Springs; the town is abuzz with news of an upcoming wedding for Ruby and Junior Lee as well as the January marriage of Cocoa and George. Miranda and Abigail contemplate Cocoa’s marriage and its prospects for the future while stitching a double-ring quilt as a wedding present. They argue about the likelihood that the union will last and if it does whether it will bring new children into the family. Miranda continues sewing even after Abigail goes to bed. One evening, she decides to include pieces of cloth from garments worn by both her mother and great-grandmother Sapphira into the pattern. This decision prompts the sudden fear that Cocoa will experience the same suffering in her marriage borne by her foremothers.
Another shift in time occurs directly following this ominous scene. It is spring and Mama Day completes a mysterious ceremony with Bernice at the homestead.
A letter to Cocoa in the next section attests to the success of the ritual; Bernice finally becomes pregnant. Cocoa, on the other hand, resolves not to have children with George before completing a university degree in history. The couple works toward this goal and tries to become accustomed to living together for the first time. The decision to take separate vacations becomes one of their first compromises; George will attend his football games in the winter, and Cocoa will continue her trips to Willow Springs in the summer.
The scene shifts again to Willow Springs for Cocoa’s annual visit. She partakes in the usual routines of helping in the garden and talking with Miranda and Abigail. A few important changes, however, become apparent this year. Miranda begins to call her Ophelia instead of merely Baby Girl, the name the sisters gave her in infancy, for the first time. It is revealed, moreover, that her reluctance most likely comes from the source of that name. Ophelia is named after her great-grandmother. The link between the two women portends trouble; a threat from Ruby, near the end of this section, only contributes to an already palpable sense of impending conflict. Ruby is practicing hoodoo magic in order to keep Junior Lee under control. He still has not changed his wandering ways, and Ruby imagines that any woman poses a threat to her forthcoming marriage, even wedded ones like Cocoa. She makes an appearance at the Day home one night, looking for her husband and inquiring after Cocoa, which unnerves Mama Day.
Four years pass. In New York, Cocoa graduates from college; she celebrates with George, and they decide to take the long-awaited leap into parenthood. In Willow Springs, Bernice’s son is four years old, and Cocoa and George arrive for their first visit to the island. In retrospect, Cocoa imagines that the decision to "cross over" to the island hastened the arrival of a fate that had always awaited them in Willow Springs.
In this section a strong, but unsteady, relationship between Cocoa and George as well as between the couple and Willow Springs begins to develop. It becomes increasingly apparent that the future of one of these relationships depends on the other. The couple will survive if the differences in their backgrounds and beliefs can be reconciled, but the key to this success remains locked in secrecy on the island.
The first obstacle to their future comes in the form of fear. Cocoa and George both fear the loss of the other. She imagines that he is “too good to be true” and will leave her life as suddenly as he entered it; he suspects that she cannot return the “intensity” of his love and will lose patience with his quirks and obsessions. Both characters betray a disbelief in the possibility of love that is remarkably similar and equally astounding. Cocoa and George simply cannot believe that they have fallen in love and, moreover, that it will lead to a lasting relationship. Nevertheless, the great passion they feel inspires them to persevere and, finally, to marry. The events surrounding their sudden marriage, however, suggest that passion alone will not bring the happiness that the couple so desires.
Back in Willow Springs, Miranda has her own doubts about the marriage. While she shares the couple’s concerns about the future, the cause of her fear is different. She dreads a repetition of family history, the possibility that Cocoa will experience the same suffering as a wife and mother that her foremothers bore. In fact, pain and loss seem to be the most common components of the female experience in the Day family. Sapphira betrayed her master to obtain freedom and land. Ophelia, Cocoa’s great-grandmother, and Abigail both grieved over the loss of a child. Grace, Cocoa’s mother, suffered abandonment by her husband. It seems that Cocoa, as the heiress to the Day family history, risks a similar fate. The fact that her proper name corresponds with that of her great-grandmother, a woman who finally committed suicide, further points to this possibility. Miranda is accordingly uneasy while stitching the double-ring quilt and calling Cocoa by her given name of Ophelia in this section. Both the quilt and the name mark a transition into the roles of wife and potential mother that she is reluctant to see Cocoa make. Instead, Miranda attempts to shield her great-niece by remaining silent about her fears.
Yet contemplation of the family history is not the only source of Miranda’s fear for Cocoa’s future. The Day family matriarch also displays ambivalence about motherhood itself. The second section of Part I offers the history the helps explain her discontent. Miranda has always been the bedrock of her family and community from her earliest youth. As a child, she cared for her mother after Peace’s death and assisted her father after Ophelia’s death. As an adult, she continued in this role, becoming the primary caregiver for the entire island community. In all these years, her nickname changed only slightly, from “Little Mama” to “Mama Day,” but her identity remained the same. While Mama Day takes pride in her work, especially in her responsibility for the physical and spiritual health of the community, she also regrets the sacrifices it demands. She has cared for “everybody but [her]self.” The cost of her commitment is that there is too little time to contemplate, much less fulfill, her own needs. She was not even allowed to linger in childhood for long. It is perhaps not surprising then that the pain of Ophelia’s suicide still haunts her. The daughter’s protest to her grieving, suicidal mother is as relevant now as it was years ago: “But I was your child, too.” Miranda’s pain demonstrates the consequences of attending to others at her own expense. Her story offers a critique of the values often linked with motherhood, particularly on its emphasis of self-sacrifice rather than self-development.
Willow Springs provides an appropriate setting for the problems faced by Cocoa and Miranda in this section of the book. The tradition of Candle Walk night, in particular, demonstrates the difficulty of adapting the customs of past to the needs of the present. This holiday, held instead of Christmas each year, celebrates the values of self-sufficiency and generosity. Island residents visit the homes of their neighbors, carrying candles along the way and exchange greetings, a reminder to one another to “lead on with light,” and gifts. Tradition demands that the gifts be handmade from local produce or materials and be presented in more abundance to families in need. The aim is to distribute the bounties of the fall harvest more equally and, thus, to provide for the entire community through the winter months. It is a custom intended to celebrate the ability to live both sufficiently and abundantly off the land. An increase in purchased gifts and decrease in generosity among the younger generation, however, challenges the spirit and purpose of the Candle Walk. The meaning of the tradition is in danger of being lost or forgotten. The community might participate in the holiday again this year, but it is clear that island life is changing, and perhaps not for the better.
The many portents surrounding Ruby underscore the potential for negative change in Willow Springs. Ruby, a woman known for her ill use of hoodoo power, is desperate to secure Junior Lee. Yet her future husband refuses to stay home, and Ruby becomes increasingly distraught over his philandering ways. She appears several times toward the end of Part I to make suspicious inquiries and vague threats. Ruby is clearly willing to use her power against any woman who might tempt her fiancé at any time. She thus poses a threat to the community that even Miranda cannot ignore, for even Cocoa’s presence during Cocoa's annual visit to the island seems to rouse her suspicions. A premonition of trouble that is foreseen by Miranda clouds the plot with an ominous tone as the two hoodoo women square off for a battle in Part II.