“Everyday Use” focuses on the bonds between women of different generations and their enduring legacy, as symbolized in the quilts they fashion together. This connection between generations is strong, yet Dee’s arrival and lack of understanding of her history shows that those bonds are vulnerable as well. The relationship between Aunt Dicie and Mama, the experienced seamstresses who made the quilts, is very different from the relationship between Maggie and Dee, sisters who share barely a word and have almost nothing in common. Just as Dee cannot understand the legacy of her name, passed along through four generations, she does not understand the significance of the quilts, which contain swatches of clothes once worn or owned by at least a century’s worth of ancestors.
The quilts are pieces of living history, documents in fabric that chronicle the lives of the various generations and the trials, such as war and poverty, that they faced. The quilts serve as a testament to a family’s history of pride and struggle. With the limitations that poverty and lack of education placed on her life, Mama considers her personal history one of her few treasures. Her house contains the handicrafts of her extended family. Instead of receiving a financial inheritance from her ancestors, Mama has been given the quilts. For her, these objects have a value that Dee, despite professing her desire to care for and preserve the quilts, is unable to fathom.
Mama’s yard represents a private space free of the regrets and shortcomings that have infiltrated Mama’s life. The yard appears in the first and last sentences of the story, connecting the events and bookending the action. The yard has been meticulously prepared for Dee’s arrival. Mama is sensitive to every detail of the yard’s appearance, referring to the wavy designs she and Maggie have made in the dirt as they tidied it. Mama extols the comforts of the yard, comparing it to an extended living room. In many ways, Mama prefers the yard to the confining house, where the muggy air fails to circulate freely. The outdoors is a place of freedom, whereas the interior of the house offers restraint and discomfort. The tense discussion about who gets the quilts takes place inside, where the various objects provoke Dee’s desire to reconnect with her past. In contrast, the yard is a blissful escape, a place where Mama’s regrets can be sidestepped. For her and Maggie, the yard evokes safety, a place where they can exert what little control they have over their environment.