by Alice Walker
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday
afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just
a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a
floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone
can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never
come inside the house.
Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in
corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her
sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in
the palm of one hand, that "no" is a word the world never learned to say to her.
You've no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has "made it" is
confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly from
backstage. (A pleasant surprise, of course: What would they do if parent and child
came on the show only to curse out and insult each other?) On TV mother and child
embrace and smile into each other's faces. Sometimes the mother and father weep,
the child wraps them in her arms and leans across the table to tell how she would
not have made it without their help. I have seen these programs.
Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together on a
TV program of this sort. Out of a dark and soft.seated limousine I am ushered into a
bright room filled with many people. There I meet a smiling, gray, sporty man like
Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a fine girl I have. Then we
are on the stage and Dee is embracing me with tears in her eyes. She pins on my
dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she thinks orchids are
In real life I am a large, big.boned woman with rough, man.working hands. In the
winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls dur.ing the day. I can kill and
clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can
work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver
cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. One winter
I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer
and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. But of course all this does not
show on television. I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred
pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot
bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty
But that is a mistake. I know even before I wake up. Who ever knew a Johnson with
a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye?
It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my
head fumed in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee, though. She would always
look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of her nature.
"How do I look, Mama?" Maggie says, showing just enough of her thin body
enveloped in pink skirt and red blouse for me to know she's there, almost hidden by
"Come out into the yard," I say.
Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person
rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to
him? That is the way my Maggie walks. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes
on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the
Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure. She's a woman now,
though sometimes I forget. How long ago was it that the other house burned? Ten,
twelve years? Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie's arms sticking
to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her
eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them. And Dee.
I see her standing off under the sweet gum tree she used to dig gum out of; a look
of concentration on her face as she watched the last dingy gray board of the house
fall in toward the red.hot brick chimney. Why don't you do a dance around the
ashes? I'd wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much.
I used to think she hated Maggie, too. But that was before we raised money, the
church and me, to send her to Augusta to school. She used to read to us without
pity; forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped
and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make.believe,
burned us with a lot of knowl edge we didn't necessarily need to know. Pressed us to
her with the serf' ous way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like
dimwits, we seemed about to understand.
Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her grad.uation from high
school; black pumps to match a green suit she'd made from an old suit somebody
gave me. She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts. Her eyelids
would not flicker for minutes at a time. Often I fought off the temptation to shake
her. At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was.
I never had an education myself. After second grade the school was closed down.
Don't ask my why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.
Sometimes Maggie reads to me. She stumbles along good.naturedly but can't see
well. She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passes her
by. She will marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in an earnest face) and then
I'll be free to sit here and I guess just sing church songs to myself. Although I never
was a good singer. Never could carry a tune. I was always better at a man's job. I
used to love to milk till I was hooked in the side in '49. Cows are soothing and slow
and don't bother you, unless you try to milk them the wrong way.
I have deliberately turned my back on the house. It is three rooms, just like the one
that burned, except the roof is tin; they don't make shingle roofs any more. There
are no real windows, just some holes cut in the sides, like the portholes in a ship,
but not round and not square, with rawhide holding the shutters up on the outside.
This house is in a pasture, too, like the other one. No doubt when Dee sees it she will
want to tear it down. She wrote me once that no matter where we "choose" to live,
she will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends. Maggie and I
thought about this and Maggie asked me, "Mama, when did Dee ever have any
She had a few. Furtive boys in pink shirts hanging about on washday after school.
Nervous girls who never laughed. Impressed with her they worshiped the well.turned
phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in Iye. She
read to them.
When she was courting Jimmy T she didn't have much time to pay to us, but turned
all her faultfinding power on him. He flew to marry a cheap city girl from a family of
ignorant flashy people. She hardly had time to recompose herself.
When she comes I will meet—but there they are!
Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house, in her shuffling way, but I stay her
with my hand. "Come back here, " I say. And she stops and tries to dig a well in the
sand with her toe.
It is hard to see them clearly through the strong sun. But even the first glimpse of
leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat.looking, as if God
himself had shaped them with a certain style. From the other side of the car comes a
short, stocky man. Hair is all over his head a foot long and hanging from his chin like
a kinky mule tail. I hear Maggie suck in her breath. "Uhnnnh, " is what it sounds like.
Like when you see the wriggling end of a snake just in front of your foot on the road.
Dee next. A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts
my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun. I
feel my whole face warming from the heat waves it throws out. Earrings gold, too,
and hanging down to her shoul.ders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she
moves her arm up to shake the folds of the dress out of her armpits. The dress is
loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it. I hear Maggie go "Uhnnnh" again.
It is her sister's hair. It stands straight up like the wool on a sheep. It is black as
night and around the edges are two long pigtails that rope about like small lizards
disappearing behind her ears.
"Wa.su.zo.Tean.o!" she says, coming on in that gliding way the dress makes her
move. The short stocky fellow with the hair to his navel is all grinning and he follows
up with "Asalamalakim, my mother and sister!" He moves to hug Maggie but she
falls back, right up against the back of my chair. I feel her trembling there and when
I look up I see the perspiration falling off her chin.
"Don't get up," says Dee. Since I am stout it takes something of a push. You can see
me trying to move a second or two before I make it. She turns, showing white heels
through her sandals, and goes back to the car. Out she peeks next with a Polaroid.
She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front
of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without mak'
ing sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the
yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house. Then she puts the Polaroid in
the back seat of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead.
Meanwhile Asalamalakim is going through motions with Maggie's hand. Maggie's
hand is as limp as a fish, and probably as cold, despite the sweat, and she keeps
trying to pull it back. It looks like Asalamalakim wants to shake hands but wants to
do it fancy. Or maybe he don't know how people shake hands. Anyhow, he soon
gives up on Maggie.
"Well," I say. "Dee."
"No, Mama," she says. "Not 'Dee,' Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!"
"What happened to 'Dee'?" I wanted to know.
"She's dead," Wangero said. "I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the
people who oppress me."
"You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie," I said. Dicie is my
sister. She named Dee. We called her "Big Dee" after Dee was born.
"But who was she named after?" asked Wangero.
"I guess after Grandma Dee," I said.
"And who was she named after?" asked Wangero.
"Her mother," I said, and saw Wangero was getting tired. "That's about as far back
as I can trace it," I said. Though, in fact, I probably could have carried it back
beyond the Civil War through the branches.
"Well," said Asalamalakim, "there you are."
"Uhnnnh," I heard Maggie say.
"There I was not," I said, "before 'Dicie' cropped up in our family, so why should I try
to trace it that far back?"
He just stood there grinning, looking down on me like somebody inspecting a Model
A car. Every once in a while he and Wangero sent eye signals over my head.
"How do you pronounce this name?" I asked.
"You don't have to call me by it if you don't want to," said Wangero.
"Why shouldn't 1?" I asked. "If that's what you want us to call you, we'll call you."
"I know it might sound awkward at first," said Wangero.
"I'll get used to it," I said. "Ream it out again."
Well, soon we got the name out of the way. Asalamalakim had a name twice as long
and three times as hard. After I tripped over it two or three times he told me to just
call him Hakim.a.barber. I wanted to ask him was he a barber, but I didn't really
think he was, so I didn't ask.
"You must belong to those beef.cattle peoples down the road," I said. They said
"Asalamalakim" when they met you, too, but they didn't shake hands. Always too
busy: feeding the cattle, fixing the fences, putting up salt.lick shelters, throwing
down hay. When the white folks poisoned some of the herd the men stayed up all
night with rifles in their hands. I walked a mile and a half just to see the sight.
Hakim.a.barber said, "I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle
is not my style." (They didn't tell me, and I didn't ask, whether Wangero (Dee) had
really gone and married him.)
We sat down to eat and right away he said he didn't eat collards and pork was
unclean. Wangero, though, went on through the chitlins and com bread, the greens
and everything else. She talked a blue streak over the sweet potatoes. Everything
delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the
table when we couldn't effort to buy chairs.
"Oh, Mama!" she cried. Then turned to Hakim.a.barber. "I never knew how lovely
these benches are. You can feel the rump prints," she said, running her hands
underneath her and along the bench. Then she gave a sigh and her hand closed over
Grandma Dee's butter dish. "That's it!" she said. "I knew there was something I
wanted to ask you if I could have." She jumped up from the table and went over in
the corner where the churn stood, the milk in it crabber by now. She looked at the
churn and looked at it.
"This churn top is what I need," she said. "Didn't Uncle Buddy whittle it out of a tree
you all used to have?"
"Yes," I said.
"Un huh," she said happily. "And I want the dasher, too."
"Uncle Buddy whittle that, too?" asked the barber.
Dee (Wangero) looked up at me.
"Aunt Dee's first husband whittled the dash," said Maggie so low you almost couldn't
hear her. "His name was Henry, but they called him Stash."
"Maggie's brain is like an elephant's," Wangero said, laughing. "I can use the chute
top as a centerpiece for the alcove table," she said, sliding a plate over the chute,
"and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher."
When she finished wrapping the dasher the handle stuck out. I took it for a moment
in my hands. You didn't even have to look close to see where hands pushing the
dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there
were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the
wood. It was beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big
Dee and Stash had lived.
After dinner Dee (Wangero) went to the trunk at the foot of my bed and started
rifling through it. Maggie hung back in the kitchen over the dishpan. Out came
Wangero with two quilts. They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee
and me had hung them on the quilt ftames on the ftont porch and quilted them. One
was in the Lone Stat pattetn. The other was Walk Around the Mountain. In both of
them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had wotn 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 unifotm that he
wore in the Civil War.
"Mama," Wangro said sweet as a bird. "Can I have these old quilts?"
I heard something fall in the kitchen, and a minute later the kitchen door slammed.
"Why don't you take one or two of the others?" I asked. "These old things was just
done by me and Big Dee from some tops your grandma pieced before she died."
"No," said Wangero. "I don't want those. They are stitched around the borders by
"That'll make them last better," I said.
"That's not the point," said Wangero. "These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used
to wear. She did all this stitching by hand. Imag' ine!" She held the quilts securely in
her atms, stroking them.
"Some of the pieces, like those lavender ones, come ftom old clothes her mother
handed down to her," I said, moving up to touch the quilts. Dee (Wangero) moved
back just enough so that I couldn't reach the quilts. They already belonged to her.
"Imagine!" she breathed again, clutching them closely to her bosom.
"The ttuth is," I said, "I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she
matties John Thomas."
She gasped like a bee had stung her.
"Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!" she said. "She'd probably be backward
enough to put them to everyday use."
"I reckon she would," I said. "God knows I been saving 'em for long enough with
nobody using 'em. I hope she will!" I didn't want to bring up how I had offered Dee
(Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told they were
old~fashioned, out of style.
"But they're priceless!" she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. "Maggie
would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags. Less than that!"
"She can always make some more," I said. "Maggie knows how to quilt."
Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. "You just will not under.stand. The point is
these quilts, these quilts!"
"Well," I said, stumped. "What would you do with them7"
"Hang them," she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with quilts.
Maggie by now was standing in the door. I could almost hear the sound her feet
made as they scraped over each other.
"She can have them, Mama," she said, like somebody used to never winning
anything, or having anything reserved for her. "I can 'member Grandma Dee without
I looked at her hard. She had filled her bottom lip with checkerberry snuff and gave
her face a kind of dopey, hangdog look. It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who
taught her how to quilt herself. She stood there with her scarred hands hidden in the
folds of her skirt. She looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn't
mad at her. This was Maggie's portion. This was the way she knew God to work.
When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down
to the soles of my feet. Just like when I'm in church and the spirit of God touches me
and I get happy and shout. I did some.thing I never done before: hugged Maggie to
me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero's
hands and dumped them into Maggie's lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her
"Take one or two of the others," I said to Dee.
But she turned without a word and went out to Hakim~a~barber.
"You just don't understand," she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
"What don't I understand?" I wanted to know.
"Your heritage," she said, And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, "You
ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us.
But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it."
She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and chin.
Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses. But a real smile, not scared. After we
watched the car dust settle I asked Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff. And then the
two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.
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