No one would deny I know a thing or two about quilts.
Having learned to read before I started Kindergarten, I know a thing or two about literature as well. I went on to major in English in college, and earned a master’s degree when I was around thirty years old.
That I could exist in the spheres of quilting and literature as long as I have without running across or being pointed to Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” is astounding. Published in Harper’s Magazine in 1973, the story hinges on a dispute over which of two daughters should have possession of two particular family quilts.
I learned of Walker’s story serendipitously.
My daughter Rebecca and her husband traveled from Chicago to Winterset for Thanksgiving (after they, and my husband Mark and I, took tests for COVID, received Ns, and isolated for the recommended number of days beforehand). While here, Rebecca, a film programmer for movie theaters, was on a Zoom call with national-level colleagues.
The amazing antique Windmill Blades Log Cabin quilt I acquired in February hangs on the wall behind my desk, providing a great backdrop for pandemic-necessary virtual meetings. One of the people on the call with Rebecca, Clint Bowie, noticed Windmill Blades and asked about it. (Clint is artistic director for the New Orleans Film Society, and an avid quilter.) In short order, Rebecca connected Clint and me. A lively correspondence ensued.
I answered Clint’s questions on laundering vintage quilts in his collection. Clint shared a photo of his work in progress, a beautiful Lone Star. We also discussed the challenges of proper quilt display. In one email, Clint wrote:
We have so many: my husband comes from a line of quilters, as do I . . . We have one wall hanger, and an upright quilt rack but others are simply folded up and displayed in stacks . . . I’m often reminded of a short story I read years ago called “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, which details a scene between family members over heirloom quilts . . . It’s a beautiful story that I recommend if you haven’t already had the pleasure of reading it.
With a few taps on my computer keys, I soon did have the pleasure of reading Walker’s story, for free, courtesy of Harper’s archives.
The narrator of the story addresses the reader conversationally as she describes the much anticipated but ultimately brief visit her grown daughter Dee and Dee’s boyfriend make to her humble home. With magnificent economy of words, Walker exposes Dee’s snobbery as well as the crushing self-consciousness of the narrator’s other daughter Maggie. Nine short paragraphs in, we know that the narrator is a Black country woman with a heavy body, a slim budget, and zero illusions. Unflinchingly direct, she describes herself:
I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather.
Walker spools out the story in writing that made me feel as though I were a bird on a wire or a fly on the wall, observing the events of the momentous day first-hand.
“Everyday Use” would be a great read even if the disputed family heirlooms were not quilts—Grandpa’s cufflinks or the mantle clock, for example. But as a quiltmaker, the fact that the fight is over quilts as symbols of one’s heritage, made reading it (all three times!) pure joy.
Thank you, Clint Bowie!