The Rommely clan produces strong women, while the Nolans produce beautiful, weak men who grow “handsomer, weaker, and more beguiling with each generation.” After Andy Nolan dies, the boys swear that they will never leave their mother, Ruthie. Six months later, Johnny marries Katie. Johnny’s choice earns Katie her new mother-in-law’s hatred. Ruthie hoped to keep “all of her fine boys home” until either she or they died. Ruthie becomes sure that Katie tricked Johnny into marrying her.
Smith performs a gender reversal in which it is the Nolan men who are beautiful and vulnerable, while the Rommely women are strong and hearty. Though Smith mentions that the Rommely women are “pretty,” she focuses far more on the men’s beauty. The beauty of the Nolan men complements their ephemeral existences: beauty doesn’t last long and neither do they.
Georgie and Frankie like Katie, but they resent Johnny for leaving them to look after their mother. As a wedding present, they decide to give Johnny and Katie Andy’s old pillow. Ruthie sews a new ticking over it to hide the ugly stain that Andy made shortly before he died. They consider the pillow too good for ordinary use and only bring it out when someone is sick. It becomes known in the family as “the sick pillow.” Neither Katie nor Francie know that it was once “a death pillow.”
Ruthie Nolan has an unhealthy attachment to her sons, which likely results from her perpetual loneliness after the death of her husband, Mickey. The gift of Andy’s pillow foreshadows Johnny’s own death years later. Though he is found huddled in a doorway, he will die soon thereafter in a hospital bed.
About a year after Johnny got married, Frankie, “whom many thought even handsomer than Andy,” stumbles home drunk and falls on a makeshift spiked fence that someone made to protect a square foot of grass in front of their house stoop. He gets up and makes it home, where he dies overnight. Frankie, like the other Nolan boys, dies young and in a way that is brought out by recklessness. Johnny is the only one of them to make it to thirty.
Frankie, like Johnny, probably had a drinking problem. Like Frankie, Johnny, too, will die of recklessness. This pattern among the Nolan boys lends them a romantic, rebellious air. It is difficult to know if the Nolans were really as handsome as everyone says or if they merely seemed so due to their youth and self-destructive ways.