At the beginning of this story, a mother and her daughter Maggie are awaiting the arrival of the mother’s other daughter, Dee, and Dee’s possible new husband, who are coming for a visit. Maggie is described as a homely black woman who has burn scars all over her arms and legs. Maggie is self-conscious of her scars and tries to hide them and herself from people. Maggie views her sister Dee with both awe and envy, believing Dee has always had life go her way. The mother and daughter wait for Dee in their yard of clay.
Maggie waits nervously, wishing that she could be hiding rather than be out in the open. The mother reminiscences while she waits. The mother has had recurrent dreams in which Dee, who has “made it” in life, is reunited with her mother on a television show. Dee embraces her mother with tears in her eyes and tells her she would never have made it this far if not for her mother’s help. In the dream, the mother’s physical appearance and personality is exactly the way she knows Dee wishes her to be: she is 100 pounds lighter, has lighter and smoother skin and beautiful hair, and is wearing a dress.
In the dream, the mother is also quick-witted and able to hold her own with the TV show host, a white man. Before she even wakes up, the mother knows it’s a dream. The reality is that the mother is a big-boned, heavyset woman with rough hands and a rough dark face. The mother does the hard work of a man. She wears overalls and can kill and gut a pig or bull calf as good as any man can. Her fat is useful in keeping her warm on winter days when she works outside. She has a second-grade education and, unlike her daughter Dee, doesn’t have a quick tongue and avoids looking white men in the eye.
Maggie, who is also in stark contrast to Dee, is a skinny black woman covered in scars. She walks with her head lowered, eyes on the ground, and shuffles her feet. Maggie’s demeanor has been this way since the fire 12 years ago. Maggie does not have a pretty face. She is slow-witted, her sight is poor, and she stumbles over words when she reads. Maggie is engaged to marry soon. The fire 12 years ago burnt their first house down, a house Dee hated because it was dingy. The mother carried Maggie, who was burnt in the fire, to safety as Dee was already outside watching the house burn down.
The mother knew that Dee was happy the house was destroyed. Dee was the opposite of Maggie. Dee had a pretty face, lighter and smoother skin, and keen fashion sense. Dee was popular, smart, and quick-witted. Dee preferred having nice things around. Her mother saved up money and, with the help of the church, was able to send Dee to a nice school. Dee would read to her and Maggie every night. The house they live in now is in a pasture, like the old house was, has three bedrooms, and has holes cut into the sides for windows. The mother knows that Dee will hate it.
Dee once informed her mother that she would manage to visit no matter where her mother chooses to live, but would never bring her friends. Dee arrives with a man who might be her husband and immediately starts taking pictures of her mother and Maggie with the house in every shot. Dee informs her mother that her name is now Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Dee explains that she could no longer bear to be named after her oppressors. Her mother reminds Dee that she has a family name which belongs to her aunt, who was named after their grandmother, who was named after her own mother.
The mother is introduced to the man whom Dee brought along, who also has a name like Dee’s, but for short is called Hakim-a-barber. The mother is still unsure if they are married or not, and Dee does not explain. They all go inside and eat. Dee starts laying claim to things that she sees in the home and takes a fancy to: Grandma Dee’s butter dish, the churn top that an uncle whittled by hand, and a dasher that was whittled by another family member from some wood from a tree in the yard where they had lived. Dee wants to use these as decorations at her place.
She shows her ignorance about who exactly made one of the items, but Maggie corrects her and tells her the correct name. After dinner, Dee starts rummaging through her mother’s trunk and pulling out quilts. Dee attempts to claim two of the quilts for herself. The quilts were made by her mother, her namesake aunt, and her grandmother. The quilts were hand-sewn using her grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s old dresses. In one, there was a piece of a uniform from the Civil War belonging to her great-grandfather.
The mother tells Dee to take some of the other quilts that were machine-sewed because they will last longer. Dee does not want the other quilts, only the two she selected. The mother informs Dee that she has already promised the quilts to Maggie for after she is married. Dee becomes angry and spiteful, claiming Maggie is too backward to appreciate the pricelessness of the quilts and would probably put them to everyday use, which would ruin them in a couple of years. Dee claims that if she owned the quilts, she would hang them and preserve their historical value.
The mother explains to Dee that if the quilts go to ruin, Maggie knows how to make new ones. The mother is glad they will be put to use since she has been saving them for so long. She remembers how she offered Dee a quilt years ago when she went to college but Dee declined because they were too old-fashioned and out of style. Maggie, who is hearing this current argument, tells her mother that Dee can have the quilts, explaining that she can remember her grandmother without them. Maggie concedes this like someone who has become accustomed to never winning anything and never having anything special.
The mother looks at Maggie’s defeated expression, which holds no anger or malice toward Dee, only fear. She sees how Maggie’s hands are hidden in her skirt to keep the scars from showing. The mother understands that to Maggie this is just how life is and that her lot in life is to be without. Looking at Maggie, the mother is overcome and for the first time hugs Maggie to her, sits her on the bed, and gives her the two quilts. The mother then instructs Dee to take some of the other quilts.
Dee leaves the house with Hakim-a-barber and gets into their car. When the mother and Maggie approach the car, Dee tells her mother that her mother doesn’t understand her heritage. Dee tells Maggie that she should try to make something of herself and then tells them both that they are living in the past despite things being different nowadays. She then puts on a ridiculous pair of sunglasses and Maggie smiles without any fear. Mother and daughter watch the car drive away and stay in the yard, enjoying a bit of snuff, until it is time to go to bed.