Mama decides that she will wait in the yard for her daughter Dee’s arrival. Mama knows that her other daughter, Maggie, will be nervous throughout Dee’s stay, self-conscious of her scars and burn marks and jealous of Dee’s much easier life. Mama fantasizes about reunion scenes on television programs in which a successful daughter embraces the parents who have made her success possible. Sometimes Mama imagines reuniting with Dee in a similar scenario, in a television studio where an amiable host brings out a tearful Dee, who pins orchids on Mama’s dress. Whereas Mama is sheepish about the thought of looking a white man in the eye, Dee is more assertive. Mama’s musing is interrupted by Maggie’s shuffling arrival in the yard. Mama remembers the house fire that happened more than a decade ago, when she carried Maggie, badly burned, out of the house. Dee watched the flames engulf the house she despised.
Back then, Mama believed that Dee hated Maggie, until Mama and the community raised enough money to send Dee to school in Augusta. Mama resented the intimidating world of ideas and education that Dee forced on her family on her trips home. Mama never went to school beyond second grade. Maggie can read only in a limited capacity. Mama looks forward to Maggie’s marriage to John Thomas, after which Mama can peacefully relax and sing hymns at home.
When Dee arrives, Mama grips Maggie to prevent her from running back into the house. Dee emerges from the car with her boyfriend, Hakim-a-barber. Mama disapproves of the strange man’s presence and is equally disapproving of Dee’s dress and appearance. Hakim-a-barber greets and tries to hug Maggie, who recoils.
Dee gets a camera from the car and takes a few pictures of Mama and Maggie in front of their house. She then puts the camera on the backseat and kisses Mama on the forehead, as Hakim-a-barber awkwardly tries to shake Maggie’s hand. Dee tells her mother that she has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo to protest being named after the people who have oppressed her. Mama tells Dee that she was in fact named after her Aunt Dicie, who was named after Grandma Dee, who bore the name of her mother as well. Mama struggles with the pronunciation of Dee’s new African name. Dee says she doesn’t have to use the new name, but Mama learns to say it, although she is unable to master Hakim’s name. Mama says that he must be related to the Muslims who live down the road and tend beef cattle and also greet people by saying “Asalamalakim.” Hakim-a-barber says he accepts some of their doctrines but is not into farming or herding.
Mama wonders whether Hakim-a-barber and Dee are married. Sitting down to eat, Hakim-a-barber states that he does not eat collard greens or pork. Dee, however, eats heartily, delighted by the fact that the family still uses the benches her father made. Hopping up, she approaches the butter churn in the corner and asks Mama if she can have its top, which had been carved by Uncle Buddy. Dee wants the dasher too, a device with blades used to make butter. Hakim-a-barber asks if Uncle Buddy whittled the “dash” as well, to which Maggie replies that it was Aunt Dee’s first husband, Stash, who made it. Dee praises Maggie’s memory and wraps the items. Mama grips the handle of the dasher, examining the ruts and worn areas made by her relative’s hands.
Dee ransacks the trunk at the foot of Mama’s bed, reappearing with two quilts made by her mother, aunt, and grandmother. The quilts contain small pieces of garments worn by relatives all the way back to the Civil War. Dee asks her mother for the quilts. Mama hears Maggie drop something in the kitchen and then slam the door. Mama suggests that Dee take other quilts, but Dee insists, wanting the ones hand-stitched by her grandmother. Mama gets up and tries to tell Dee more about the garments used to make the quilts, but Dee steps out of reach. Mama reveals that she had promised Maggie the quilts. Dee gasps, arguing that Maggie won’t appreciate the quilts and isn’t smart enough to preserve them. But Mama hopes that Maggie does, indeed, designate the quilts for everyday use.
Dee says that the priceless quilts will be destroyed. Mama says that Maggie knows how to quilt and can make more. Maggie shuffles in and, trying to make peace, offers Dee the quilts. When Mama looks at Maggie, she is struck by a strange feeling, similar to the spirit she feels sometimes in church. Impulsively, she hugs Maggie, pulls her into the room, snatches the quilts out of Dee’s hands, and places them in Maggie’s lap. She tells Dee to take one or two of the other quilts. As Dee and Hakim-a-barber leave, Dee informs Mama that Mama does not understand her own heritage. Kissing Maggie, Dee tells her to try and improve herself and that it’s a new day for black Americans. Mama and Maggie watch the car drive off, then sit in the quiet of the yard until bedtime.
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